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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/