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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, that isn't to say that the albums seem rushed or uninspired; the last two Shelton releases have both been on par with or better than Playground, although not quite on the same level as Voyager. With Playground and Mysterium, Shelton seems to have been attempting a sort of throwback to the classic MR days in the 80s; and, to a decent extent, he's succeeded. The main problem, of course, is that Shelton no longer has the voice he once did, and while Hellroadie is fairly competent, he's no match for the Shark in his prime. Be that as it may, the albums have definitely captured some, if not all, of the 80s MR spirit - Mysterium in particular.
The production here, thankfully, is excellent; a thick, heavy guitar tone on most of the songs, and a soft, clean tone on the two ballads. The drums are nice and deep, and newcomer Neudi seems more than capable of handling his duties. 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 best 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 good, if not always great.
The only shorter metal song on which Shelton sings is "Hermitage", but damn is it an excellent song - probably the best here along with "Battle of Bonchester Bridge". 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 good to great; "The Grey God Passes" and "Stand Your Ground" are definitely quality stuff, the former with its epic vocal lines, the latter with its aggressive riffs, while the remaining three are merely good, certainly on par with most of Playground, but not spectacular.
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. Still, overall the album is very strong, and is definitely a good addition to the MR discography - while I can't say Shelton has been pumping out masterpieces lately, at least he hasn't pumped out any shit, either. The last three albums have a smattering of great songs among some good songs and a few stinkers, which I have to say is a better track record than most bands in this style nowadays. With Mysterium, Shelton shows that he's certainly far from dead, and the MR legacy continues to live on strongly and proudly.