Manilla Road may have never risen from the underground to join the big league, but such measures of success have been eclipsed a thousandfold by the dedication and adoration of their fans. The band's early to mid ‘80s trifecta of Crystal Logic, Open the Gates and The Deluge are essential albums every metal devotee should own.
And although Manilla Road have tinkered with their sound over the years—flirting with prog, thrash and harder-edged sounds—in the main, they’ve remained fixed in their pursuit of power metal traditionalism.
However, for all Manilla Road's creative achievements, they haven't always been the easiest band to love. They write consistently great tunes and make stirring albums, but many of their releases have been blighted with roughshod, hollow production that's done no favors for the strength of the material within. Anyone familiar with 2011's Playground of the Damned knows full well the frustration of hearing great songs sabotaged by wafer-thin production.
Thankfully, Shelton has listened to such concerns, and Mysterium sounds far more sonically muscular than many of the band's previous releases, while retaining that gravel and grease coarseness the band is famed for. Shelton dishes out endless adrenalized vintage riffs on the new album, interweaving his voice with that of vocalist Bryan 'Hellroadie' Patrick (who howls with chest-beating glorification), and Mysterium sounds resolute and focused.
Mysterium is stacked with Manilla Road's patented bristly spiritedness. Proto-speed metal meets melodic NWOBHM on "Only the Brave" and "The Grey God Passes." "Do What Thou Will" is built around a fitting doom-laden crawl; a fuzzy, distorting border frames "Hermitage;" and "Stand your Ground" is pure, pile-driving magnificence.
But it's not all bruising romps. Revealing Manilla Road's subtler side are melancholic ballads "The Fountain" and "The Battle of Bonchester Bridge," both underscoring the ‘80s vibe with their rich retro tenor. It wouldn't be Manilla Road without an epic treatise to seal the album's disposition, and the three-part, 11-minute-plus finale, "Mysterium" features some fantastic and intricate riffing à la "Acheronomicon" (the epic coda to Shelton and co's Hellwell side-project on 2012's Beyond the Boundaries of Sin).
Of course, it also wouldn’t be Manilla Road without a clunker and a few wayward passages that could have been trimmed, and "Hallowed Be Thy Grave" seems very domesticated compared with the rest of Mysterium's weather-beaten majesty. Still, with the abundance of heavy hitters that strike the mark here, one song heading off target is wholly forgivable—and any band that's struggled through the wars as much as Manilla Road and still manages to sound this inspired so late in their career deserve plenty of respect.
Touted as Manilla Road's most 'classic' sounding album since the ‘80s, Mysterium delivers on that promise. It features the hallmarks of Manilla Road's work from the era, with the lyrical and musical exoticism of ‘70s proto-metal melding with heroic melodies, solos, and vocal harmonies of mid-tempo, ‘80s power-metal.
Ultimately, Mysterium is simply Manilla Road doing what they do best—skillfully constructing stirring traditional metal. It's all delivered in a calloused, scratchy and rowdy fashion, and there's something to be said for time-honored craftsmanship evoking reminiscences of metal's dogged youthful years.
Manilla Road have certainly shown expertise and impressive technique in bringing to mind the simple joy of unadulterated heavy metal. Long may they continue to practice their arts.
(released February 19, 2013 on Shadow Kingdom Records)