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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.