Of all the hundreds of underground power metal acts that you will never, ever hear of, Manticora is one of only a handful deserving of widespread recognition. For twenty years and over the course of seven records, these good Danish boys have gradually shed their former obsession with Blind Guardian and Iced Earth, growing proggier and thrashier with each passing release to become one of the genre’s most stylistically distinct acts. Even with their evolutionary tendencies in mind, though, I could not have predicted the forward leap that To Kill to Live to Kill represents; though perhaps, given the eight years since the release of Manticora’s previous LP, this explosion of pent-up ambitions shouldn’t come as a surprise. Pervasively dark and wildly unpredictable, To Kill to Live to Kill is not only the most ambitious power metal record I’ve heard in years, but also the only hybrid of progressive power and death/thrash metal I’ve ever encountered.
I was a bit nervous for the tone of this album when longtime vocalist Lars Larsen teased its “dark” and “violent” concept, and while it’s true that frequent curveballs hurl the album through sounds ranging from swamp-soaked death metal tremolo runs (“Echoes of a Silent Scream”) to crushing doom-death melancholy (“Nothing Lasts Forever”), TKtLtK’s remarkable execution shatters any expectations of tonal imbalance. Manticora glides between oppressive riff-scapes and soaring power metal harmonies unexpectedly and with surprising grace, conjuring a schizophrenic atmosphere that permeates the record’s entirety. Deliberate songwriting techniques, such as the unexpected shortening of riffs during subsequent verses, make for compositions that feel as deliciously unhinged as they are carefully constructed. Tonally speaking, TKtLtK is unexampled, and I’m astonished that it even works, let alone on such a compelling level.
For all their extreme metal excursions, Manticora’s trademark brew of power and thrash is still very much TKtLtK’s anchor point. This is especially true for the record’s first two and final three tracks; these pieces, seething with thrash energy while retaining the smart grooves introduced with 2010’s Safe, smartly bookend the record with immediately gratifying compositions. TKtLtK’s middle act, then, acts as an experimental isolation chamber where the band’s creative spirit shines uninhibited. “The Farmer’s Tale Pt. 1” sees Manticora venturing into modern Pyramaze territory through a fat, catchy central riff and an excellent, explosive chorus. Elsewhere, “Growth” serves as a deliciously creepy epic, exuding theatricality through an ominous, marching riff. This track is sandwiched between two of the best power metal instrumentals I’ve encountered in ages; “The Devil in Lisbon” operates like Angra on a mean streak, while “Humiliation Supreme” is as swift a shot of power metal adrenaline as one is likely to find. Front to back, TKtLtK is without weak links, and excellently paced.
The strong sense of pacing is a huge boon to TKtLtK, as mishandling sixty-nine minutes of material that constantly redlines in intensity could have been disastrous. I do start to feel the weight of the record’s mammoth structure towards its conclusion, but after countless spins I’ve determined this is the fault of Jacob Hansen’s engineering. While not a bad sounding record, Hansen’s bottom-heavy production leaves little room for dynamics, though the rich, heavy guitar and drum tones are a great match for the weighty atmosphere. This allows the brilliant performances of guest drummer Lawrence Dinamarca (Loch Vostok, Nightrage1) to shine; his kitwork, sparking with intriguing high hat texturing and space-filling prog flourishes, make even Manticora’s slowest movements rhythmically engaging. As always, vocalist Lars Larsen’s distinct pipes will prove divisive to many listeners; I personally adore the runaway train-like sense of abandon he instills in every note, but he certainly isn’t the prettiest voice that power metal has to offer.
Through its excellent performances and unpredictable selection of visceral, riff-based power metal numbers, To Kill to Live to Kill has become more or less the only record I’ve wanted to listen to for the past week, and the best power metal album I’ve heard this year without question. As I continue to digest the sheer amount of quality metal this record provides, it strikes me that Manticora hasn’t missed a beat in the eight years since their last LP, and that this is a strangely complete package for what is apparently part one of a two part concept. Time will tell whether both parts can effectively complement each other, but as it stands at present, TKtLtK is a monumental standalone achievement.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 280 kbps mp3
Label: ViciSolum Productions Official | Bandcamp
Websites: manticora.dk | manticora.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/manticoraband
Releases Worldwide: August 3rd, 2018