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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, 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.