Ah, the perils of cult legend status. Manilla Road fairly well epitomize cult legend status in the metal underground and with very good reason. Crystal Logic is one of the best metal albums ever and The Deluge and Open The Gates were damn near as good squashing 99% of everything else out there with the slightest pretension of being true metal. So many years and many releases later we have Voyager and it’s got a tough road to hoe. How does Mark Shelton possibly ever get out of the tremendously long and deep shadow his previous work has cast? Well in my estimation, he doesn’t have to. In the same way that many sports stars, past their peak, are still absolutely some of the best players in the game, Manilla Road are still leaders in the field of true metal. The trademark Shelton guitar and vocals are still there. The riffs even rawer and heavier, the vocals a bit lower and growly, but there is no mistaking who this is.
Opener Tomb of the Serpent King/Butchers of the Sea begins with a great ominous sound scape overlain with a Viking War Prayer, before launching into the main song body. How can anyone possibly argue with that riff (almost a step toward Hellhammer but still rooted in old school Manilla Road) and melody? The chorus heads towards death metal territory but fits the tale. The solo is incredible, well placed, well fitted to the music and executed expertly. Frost and Fire then continues the album long (yes it’s a concept album) theme of Holgar and his men’s epic voyage to pursue Viking faith in the face of their country men’s submission to Christianity. Once more this could be no one but Manilla Road. The riffing may be a bit simpler and rawer than past glories, but still of a caliber that many bands would give their eye teeth to be able to produce. Once more the solo is astounding, Shelton has that ability that players like Schenker and Roth showed the world back in the 70’s of mixing technical talent with top tier compositional skills. Many are already saying this is a “grower” type of album and they couldn’t be more on target Especially in the area of song writing skill, this one takes some commitment to reveal the full extent of it’s treasures.
Tree of Life starts off acoustically based and far more progressive in nature than the lead off tracks. Some may argue that there’s more of a 70’s progressive base to much of this song than there is a metal one. They’d be right, but they may be forgetting this is no hitchhiking the trend of more popular metal bands giving a look back to the 70’s, Manilla road dates back to the 70’s and their pre-Crystal Logic material was very hard rockin progressive in nature even more so than metal. To me one of the charms of this album is the way it blends a progressive, epic feel with a raw in your face feel.
There is not a bad track on this entire album. The title track is a stunning epic journey and Conquest is a pummeling metal smasher where the chaotic and high in the mix drumming, present throughout the album, really shines. Some (count me in that crowd) are going to love the percussion on this album and some are going to struggle with it. The solos are worth the price of admission alone. Stick with it, it is a serious grower. Do I prefer it to the classic stuff? No I don’t, but I sure am playing it to death compared to anything else right now. Personal opinions will definitely be all over the map on how this stacks up with the other latter period Manilla Road stuff, but when you get right down to the bare bones truth….This Is A Great Album! If this were the work of a newcomer, I have no doubt they’d be hailed as saviors of true metal, right at the head of the class. Well it’s not a newcomer, but the old sage wizard showing the youngsters how it should be done. Legendary for a reason and doing no dishonor whatsoever to their legacy. Mandatory purchase…