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Mark Shelton returns with Mysterium after recording the excellent Beyond the Boundaries of Sin with Hellwell, which featured a lot of harsh vocals from his part and a really heavy keyboard presence, both of which are absent from his latest opus as this album is a different beast, pretty good and diverse, but different nonetheless.
Starting from the production aspects so often criticized of this band, this record possesses a decent recording sometimes bordering on being really good as tracks like “Only the Brave” or “The Hermitage” showcase having a strong bass up front and heavy-sounding guitars while still being able to notice details in the drum department, although sometimes there are moments where it’s still a little hard to make sense of what is going on, as in the last sung part of “The Battle of Bonchester Bridge”, but overall this album has a nice raw sound to it.
As for the songwriting department, you can expect some great heavy metal songs delivered in a mid-range voice with some interesting bass and a tremendous guitar work. Starting things with the right foot with “The Grey God Passes”, Manilla Road puts its strong elements up front, which are some pretty solid and dark sounding verses along with interesting melodies for choruses and great use of the guitar that keeps you enthralled and often captivated. These elements are all present in what I like to call the “heavy” songs on this album, such as “The Hermitage”, “Only The Brave”, and “Stand Your Ground”, along with the opener.
A different subject within this album are the ballads present here, being “The Battle of Bonchester Bridge” the easiest to digest of them both, featuring a great sounding verse sung over beautiful arpeggios for the first part and ending with heavy guitar wankery and one of the greatest vocal melodies of the album . “The Fountain” is an all acoustic number in which all I can say is that Mark’s songwriting skills are enough to make this song feel at place with the album and his vocals give this warm feeling that helps the song feel authentic. To bind this acoustic piece with the album's longest track, there is a weird, yet not boring instrumental called “The Calling”, which makes a good prelude for the last track.
The start of the epic closer, “Mysterium”, is a mixture of the soft guitar sounds and verses featured in the ballads with an eerie touch, making it interesting enough to keep with until the middle part rocks it out with the influences of the “heavy” songs cauterized by dark sounding vocals and riffs along with guitar solos that bind together the last part of the song, sounding like the last part of “The Battle of Bonchester Bridge” in the way that is slow, heavy, and melodic, thereby creating a consistent piece that’s coherent with the other material featured on the record.
Sadly, this album does indeed feature songs that don't seem to stack up to the level of the great compositions present. “Do What Thou Will” and “Hallowed Be Thy Grave” feel as if these guys played it safe with these tunes, the result being somewhat catchy numbers with some good moments, but not as remarkable as the rest of the material.
To conclude this, Mysterium at its peak is an album where great guitar dynamics, good drum work, and clever bass lines mix along tasteful vocals and cool lyrics, and at its low (which is really hard to find since there are only two lackluster pieces here, IMO) it’s kind of flat and safe sounding with some good, yet forgettable melodies.
The venerable Manilla Road return from a journey into the bowels of Lovecraftian excess in last year’s Beyond the Boundaries of Sin and into more familiar territory with Mysterium. Sporting perhaps the best cover art this band has ever had, Mysterium aims to take us to lands far away where red-eyed wisemen ride devilish looking horses through Egyptian deserts…
Really what Manilla Road has always been great at is writing complete, well put together albums. Every song has its place and everything fits together nicely, and there is a feeling of completion when it’s over. The double-edge to that with Mysterium is that unfortunately a lot of these songs hit ‘solid’ rather than really inspired or kick ass. “Hallowed Be Thy Grave” and “Do What Thou Will” especially are a bit too ‘safe’ for this band, and while neither jumps out as bad, they are pretty dull overall. “Only the Brave” and “Stand Your Ground” are a bit better, but I can’t help but think they’d shine more with Shelton on vocals, rather than Hellroadie on the former and his brother Neudi on the latter. As is they’re just lacking a certain ja ne sais quoi; and come off a bit on the bland side.
But when they are on, they’re on. “The Grey God Passes” is a rock-solid slab of epic metal with a heavy as hell riff and some arcane, unwinding vocal lines that grow on you like a fungus. “The Battle of Bonchester Bridge” is a great half-ballad with Shelton’s mournful, deep voice fueling its acoustically-inspired dirge like a drug, and how can anyone say no to the demented, dust-caked crawl of the epic “Hermitage”? Perhaps the best though is “The Fountain,” an acoustic folk ballad that doesn’t sound much like a Manilla Road song and yet is the most inspired, beautiful song on the album – and my favorite song Shelton has written since Voyager at least. This is just a lovely tune that bleeds nostalgia and longing.
Really the last two songs are where that cover art is best represented, with the four-minute keyboard interlude “The Call” setting things up with its somber tone and wind and rain sound effects, and then seguing right into the monster title track. This is just a killer tune, with its slow, mournful pace and the droll sludge of its riffs, with Shelton’s moaning vocals laid overtop – a great epic, though perhaps more ponderous than the band’s storied 80s attempts at these kinds of songs. But overall it shows the band has aged really damn well. Any band that can put out songs this good after like 35 years deserves a ton of props.
Mysterium is also the closest we’ve had to their 80s albums since…well, the actual 80s. Aside from the overall slower tempo of these songs, they have the same kind of riffs, the same kind of soloing and the same kinds of vocal lines and melodies as a lot of their 80s works like Crystal Logic or Courts of Chaos - and with an added dose of their newer sound, too, in the form of more acoustic guitars and a heavier focus on sing-along vocal parts than before, too, so you get the best of both worlds. The downside to this blend of styles is, like I mentioned before, it just comes off as a little safe and unadventurous for this band. Manilla Road’s earlier albums in the 2000s were huge, monstrously epic slabs of metal that just engulfed the listener in tides of riffs and long, melancholic leads and the mesmeric voice of Mark Shelton, and as such, the smaller scope of Mysterium is a bit disappointing.
However, seeing as I can’t stop listening to this album, I’d say it’s still very much worth your time overall, faults and all. This is a 100% pure and branded Manilla Road album, for fans of the band and those just looking for some stirring, mysterious epic metal from the masters. And these guys are the masters of their craft – still standing strong after almost 40 years. Throw up the horns, grab a pitcher of ale and rock out to Mysterium as soon as you can get it.
My gripes with Manilla Road aren't nearly as well known as my issues with the beast-tardedly vocal fanbase. I don't doubt the band had fans back in the 80s or that they were massively influential to epic metal as a whole, but when nearly every source that claims them to be legends or their albums to be well regarded amongst the metal fandom can be traced back to the Metal Archives, I can't help but feel like they were a minor precursor to what happened with Timeghoul. Without a few vocal, high profile (for their specific corners of the internet) fans, the metal fandom as a whole would give approximately only 10% of the shits they currently give about Manilla Road. Let's be real here. I can't launch into a full rant about this for a few reasons. One is that (while the fanboyism that accompanies such a thing irritates me) I have absolutely no problem with a band growing in popularity. If a lot of people can find something to like, more power to them. The whole "they can do nothing wrong" mentality and "you just don't get it" defense when challenged really gets under my skin, but if a lot of people like it, congratulations. Secondly, I'm also a fan of a band that's on the whole widely unknown except for a vocal minority on MA, a band with a giant, consistently good discography, who also revels in unconventional songs, and sports a terrible vocalist that fans can't help but adore. The difference is that the band I like is Gargoyle.
So in a way, I understand why The 'Road Crew is a thing from a slightly more eccentric standpoint, but I don't understand why the fanbase is so willing to handwave away boring, tired, dull albums like Mysterium. I need to make one thing clear before I really work into this, and that's that I'm only marginally familiar with previous works of the band. I've heard Crystal Logic and think it's pretty good if not for Shelton's transcendentally wonky vocals and clippy production. Nothing to go gaga over, but "Necropolis" is a really catchy tune. It's been a long time but I also remember liking The Deluge, maybe because it was heavier and had a thrash influence that was absent on Crystal Logic. Again, nothing I thought was too special, but not bad, I wouldn't turn down an opportunity to listen to it or anything. I remember listening to post-reunion stuff like Spiral Castle and Gates of Fire as well, but I don't remember liking them all that much since I must not have listened to them more than once apiece. I bring this up because one of the things I hear in defense of this record is that "Well they've always been like this", as if that suddenly invalidates any negative comments that could be made about it because they haven't changed. And no, I'm sorry, they haven't always sounded bored or wrote plodding two-riff songs that go nowhere.
What this really means is that I went in to Mysterium with a fresh perspective and a clean mindset, and I won't have the ability to compare this to earlier works. I had only listened to those previous albums briefly a few years ago before losing them in a hard drive crash and never really having the desire to re-get them. Imagine my surprise when these memories of "good, nothing great but not at all bad" were rewarded with the teaser track, "The Grey God Passes". The buzz around this song, coupled with the actual contents of said song, really illustrates my bewilderment with everything surrounding the band. Declarations of it sounding huge and powerful were being thrown around, there was a real Omen vibe, the vocals sounded empowered, a big, stomping, headbanging frenzy. Man that pumped me up. I wasn't expecting it to sound exactly like Omen in their heyday or anything, but I also wasn't expecting four minutes of two dull, mid paced riffs with a guitar tone that sounded like the stock distortion setting on a 20W Fender starter amp accompanied by one of the most sedated vocal performances of all time. I swear, Hellroadie sounds like he's reading a book and tapping his foot impatiently, just wanting to hurry up and get out of the studio. Nothing at all interesting happens throughout the duration of that song, and it blew me away when I realized that it was also the album opener. Why would you choose to open an album on such a bum, uninteresting note? Man, build up anticipation or storm the gates or set the mood or do anything other than what you did with "The Grey God Passes". I wish I could go into more detail with why that song is so atrocious, but it's hard to when the most accurate summation is "boring and tired", because that's what it is. It sounds like the band wrote it in about a half hour and recorded it in one take. There is absolutely no energy, no passion, nothing at all behind the performance and for the life of me I will never understand how people can say the song is a good galloper with a strong moody atmosphere.
After starting on a note so low that it makes the fabled brown note shit its own hypothetical pants, Mysterium spends the rest of it's running time flip flopping between "powerfully great" and "awfully boring". This is like, Fear of the Dark level inconsistency in the songwriting department, with the only constants throughout the album being the two cruddy vocalists, the crummy guitar tone, and great, blistering leads and solos. Seriously, any time the lead guitar gets an opportunity to shine, my ears perk up in attention. The leadwork is by far the best part of the album, as no lead goes by quietly. They all soar, they're all over the top and rocking and just exude this rock n' roll passion that many of the riffs and most definitely the vocals sorely lack. Even on otherwise uninteresting, painful-to-sit-through tracks like "Hermitage" and "Do What Thou Will" are partially salvaged by the searing guitar theatrics.
As for the rest of the songs, they're at their best when they're reaching for either end of the extreme. What I mean is that tracks like "The Grey God Passes", "Hermitage", "Hallowed Be Thy Grave", and "Do What Thou Will" are mid-paced tracks usually aiming for a gallop but landing on a trot. They all just kind of dilly dally their way through their runtimes and fuck off without anything interesting happening. Most of them (namely "The Grey God Passes" and "Hermitage") share nearly the exact same main riff, which is a shame because it's not a very good riff. It's a very basic rhythm and a simple walk up the fretboard with no fire or passion. And even if it wasn't aiming for fiery passion it still managed to miss nearly every other possible emotion. None of these tracks feel moody or foreboding or heartfelt or anything at all. They sound like stock riffs that were crapped out with very little forethought. Even worse, most of them feel about a minute or two longer than they actually are, thanks to how bloody uninteresting they are. "Hermitage" is a goddamn test of endurance with being over six minutes long.
But like I said, when Manilla Road reaches for the more extreme ends of the spectrum, they manage to strike gold. There is an exception with "The Battle of Bonchester Bridge", in the sense that only the quiet, ballady first half is any good (when the distortion kicks in, it's just this weird, sloppy guitar/drum combo with Shelton's weak, wispy vocals only conveying half of the emotion he's going for), but otherwise "The Fountain" is an incredibly good ballad. It's a very soothing song, with smooth lyrics and melody and even Shelton's bizarre vocal style works extraordinarily well with it. The chorus is heartbreakingly beautiful and I would honestly not at all be opposed to an entire album full of soulful acoustic songs like this from the band, considering this could well be my favorite song on the album. And with that said, Mysterium is also at it's best when kicking things into high gear and letting loose with an uptempo rocker. "Stand Your Ground" and "Only the Brave" are big, uptempo rockers and really stand out amongst the bogs of plodding midpaced slime. "Stand Your Ground" was actually a great choice for the second track on the album when you take into account the astoundingly boring opener. If something like "Hermitage" or "Do What Thou Will" would have followed up "The Grey God Passes", I may not have had the patience to continue through the album at all. Putting a scorcher in the second slot shows impatient goons like me that there actually is a good amount of energy behind the band at times, it's just unfortunate that it's only fully throughout these two songs and any given soloing section.
Throughout all this, I've yet to address the fulcrum of the album, the eleven minute title track (fifteen if you count the instrumental lead-in track). Frankly, "The Calling" is basically a four minute throwaway track that doesn't really do anything interesting within itself, but to it's credit it builds atmosphere for the first time all album and really sets the mood for the epic closer, so I can't fault it for doing what it sets out to do extremely well. Honestly, it really makes me imagine the album art. It really sets the scene for a decrepit, possibly undead demon man atop his decaying horse with glowing red eyes, traversing an old stone bridge by light of the moon. It's unsettling and kind of creepy, and builds a dreadful atmosphere pretty spectacularly. As for "Mysterium" itself? Eh, it's pretty much the entire album in a nutshell. The haunting, atmospheric opening is good, the mid paced riff that just piddles it's way along doesn't go anywhere, the solos alternate between soulful and face melting, it takes almost three minutes for anything interesting to really happen, and the vocals are still nasally and shitty. Basically every issue I have and every compliment I can give regarding the album as a whole is coagulated into one eleven minute exercise to cap off an overall okay but hideously flawed record from a well beloved band.
Honestly, while I was pretty vocal with how awful this album was going to be after hearing "The Grey God Passes", I do admit I've had to rescind my vitriol a bit. I fully believe this album is overall not that good, but the flashes of brilliance displayed on "The Fountain", "Stand Your Ground", and every solo section has shown me that there is greatness hidden underneath here. Perhaps the fans can peel away the layers that I can't, and that's why they can find so much more enjoyment in a record that seems so thoroughly mediocre to me. The vocals are still a huge point of contention to me, as I've heard them described as "an old wizard from a Uriah Heep song" or "an old warrior who's seen many battles an is passing the stories down to a younger generation", which works beautifully in the context of a song like "The Fountain", but when on top of a loud metal song just sounds lazy and uninterested. But with that said, I get the feeling that Shelton and Hellroadie are the kind of vocalists you "get used to" more than "enjoy", kind of like Dave Mustaine, Bobby Blitz, and Kiba. I maintain my stance that, even though I understand that Mark Shelton really is Manilla Road, they could be greatly improved with a different vocalist. His eccentricities are tightly intertwined with the band, and I get that, but his nasally warbling and Hellroadie's uninterested drolling really drag the energy down, and on songs where they're paired up with dull riffing (like half of the album), it's just an unbearably dull listen.
From the perspective of an established fan, Mysterium is a worthy addition to the 'Road's catalog, if not as impressive as some of the more seminal works. From the perspective of somebody who finds the band's incredibly vocal and diehard fanbase to be perplexing and considers them to be okay but not something he fantasizes about during sex, Mysterium has good things (fast songs, ballads, solos) that override the bad things, and bad things (mid paced plodders, weak tone, tired and worn out vocals) that override the good things. It's a weird yin and yang type of album and I just can't get fully behind it. I think it's pretty safe to say that while I have a bit more understanding of The 'Road Crew after really dissecting what it is I do and don't like about this album, I'm still not a member.
PS - When reviewing something, I always listen to the album I'm writing about throughout the entire review. With this, I've looped "The Fountain" like seven times in a row. This song is really, really good, guys.
Originally written for http://lairofthebastard.blogspot.com/
Mark Shelton, frontman of Manilla Road and Hellwell, has certainly been busy these days. After taking 3 years each for Gates of Fire, Voyager, and Playground of the Damned, he's subsequently released each of the last two albums only a year after the previous album was released; in the case of Mysterium, it came out a mere 6 months after the Hellwell release. However, there are clearly problems with releasing albums so quickly. While he released several classics in the 80s within a year or two of each other (Mark of the Beast, Crystal Logic, The Deluge, and Mystification), he doesn't seem to be able to do it so well anymore. Both the Hellwell release and this newest Manilla Road effort, while solid, definitely don't stand up to most of his other albums. However, this could be overlooked a little more easily if it wasn't for other issues; a major problem is that Shelton seems to be losing his voice due to age and long years of chain smoking, and while Hellroadie is fairly decent, he's no match for the Shark in his prime. I'd much rather hear Shelton than Patrick in any circumstance, regardless of how much his voice has deteriorated, and he just doesn't make many appearances on this album. The production here is decent enough, though I think I'd prefer that of pretty much any other post-reunion MR release, barring possibly Atlantis Rising. The guitar tone sounds a bit too modern, and the new drummer doesn't really have the unique flair of Christner or Foxe, not to mention the drum tone is a bit hollow. While it doesn't detract too much from the album, it's just another thing to add on my list of grievances here.
The songs here can more or less be divided into three categories: shorter metal songs, ballads, and the album epic. Although there is also an instrumental, it's more or less an interlude and doesn't do much for the album one way or another, so I'm going to ignore it here.The ballads more or less represent two sides of a coin; "Battle of Bonchester Bridge" is a half-ballad with quiet, mystical majesty appropriate for an MR ballad; it reminds me at times of "Seven Trumpets" from Spiral Castle. Featuring Shelton on vocals, it's one of the better songs on the album. Unfortunately, "The Fountain" is pretty much the opposite - while still featuring the Shark on vocals, it's very a positive in a cheesy, trite way I'd expect from a pop band, not the mighty Manilla Road. While the song itself isn't pop, the core aesthetic of it feels very similar to me. Thankfully, the rest of the songs are at least decent, if not always great.
The only shorter metal song on which Shelton sings is "Hermitage", it's quite good - probably the best song on the album. An engaging opening riff that sounds strikingly similar to a couple of Hellwell songs, it proves itself to be better than anything from the Hellwell album, a dark monster along the lines of some of the better songs from Playground - "Abattoir de la Mort" and "Grindhouse" in particular. The others range from decent to good; "The Grey God Passes" is definitely quality stuff, with its catchy vocal lines and ominous atmosphere, while the remaining four are merely decent, not even up to par with the Hellwell material. They're catchy and accessible, probably more so than anything else Shelton's done, but the songwriting is pretty sloppy.
The title track here is good, but unfortunately not great; it seems Shelton may have lost his knack for writing epics. Both the one on the Hellwell album and the one here seem to suffer from being a bit overlong; Shelton has written great epics like "Voyager", "Epitaph to the King", and "Dreams of Eschaton", but lately he seems to be in a bit of a slump. Don't get me wrong, the song is still good, with a quiet, mystical introduction and a fairly rocking midsection, but toward the end the song seems to lag, and there's nothing in it that I'd really call exceptional. This album is a sign of a steady decline for Shelton, since 2008's Voyager, anyway; PotD wasn't as good as that one, Hellwell wasn't as good as PotD, and this isn't even as good as Hellwell...hopefully this is only a slump, and I'll definitely still keep an eye on everything Shelton's doing, but things don't look particularly good right now.
Mysterium, Manilla Road's latest output is a mesh of early Manilla Road ala Crystal Logic, The Deluge, Open the Gates and newer Manilla Road ala Playground Of The Damned and The Voyager.
The album structure is similar that that of the band's classic Crystal Logic that thrusted this band into immortality, with all tracks being mid to longish length while the last track being by far the longest of em all. Upon hearing the album one thing is very clear, the band has definitely shrugged off its more melodic approach since they got back together, a sound very prominent on their last few albums and have adopted a rawer sound reminiscent of the legendary MR which released a string of classic albums. Mark Shelton hasn't sounded this good in while and The Shark may have well found the machine to reverse time because he lashes out the signature galloping choppy riffs throughout the album right from the start. The song writing is good and you can feel the band has been greatly insipred by its own thrashy releases like The Deluge and Mystification, and heavy metal releases like Open The Gates. The band has the epic feeling which is more reminiscent of The Voyager than the classic albums and the production is great and suits the band well. It isn't super layered and all like most heavy and power metal bands today which gave them a fake, cheesy, extremely pristine one dimensional sound.
However all is not well. The last quarter of the album isn't as good as the rest which is highly unlike MR as they are one of the most consistent bands in the business. The album has 2 ballads like last album, called 'The Battle Of Bonchester Bridge' and 'the Fountain' and like I felt when I heard their last releases, The Playground Of The Damned and The Voyager, it's just one ballad too many. 'The Calling' is well, nothing to be honest. It is just sound, and comes across as a bad pothole on what has been a rather smooth ride. It could have been used as an intro the final 11 minute title track of the album but the band chose not to. That brings us to the final track, the supposed to be lengthy epic title track. After the previous track the band could have chosen just to jump right to the good art, but they chose to have an intro to this as well. Though it isn't annoying it could have been skipped. Also for the first time in their life the band became a bit predictable here. One would never know what to expect on MR's long epic tracks but you almost know when the tempo change and when the guitar solos are coming. Nonetheless it's a good track, having soaring guitar solos that bring out the epic feeling which is so trademark of Manilla Road.
The band has turned down the epic quotient a bit on this release though I don't know why because it is the band's strongpoint and the band can still do it as they showed on their album , The Voyager released just a few years back. The band has opted for a more straightforwards sound in some parts, but has also showed that early Manilla Road is still alive and kicking. Even after the extra ballad and the title track where 2 minutes could easily have been shaved off from either end this album is a good release which is worth hearing for any fan of the band. It is not album of the decade stuff but still a great release with the first 3 quarters of the album being solid and which many may dub as the band's greatest release since they got back depending on what aspect of the band they like most.
Favorite tracks - The Grey God Passes, Hermitage, Hallowed Be Thy Grave.
[Originally written and posted on RateYourMusic.com]