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Three stories - 79%

Jophelerx, August 8th, 2012

Following 2002's Spiral Castle, 2005's Gates of Fire was the first album in the band's history that took more than two years to release (other than Atlantis Rising, which was released after their reunion). As such, one would expect it to be remarkably ambitious, even by Manilla Road's standards, right? Well, as I understand it, that's not entirely true, as apparently some of the band members were having personal issues to work through, and some of them dropped (bassist Mark Anderson and drummer Scott Peters), while others were added (Harvey Patrick on bass and Cory Christner on drums). This was a tumultuous time in Manilla Road's history, so one should listen to Gates of Fire not with the expectation of unparalleled grandeur, but merely another solid Manilla Road album. Unfortunately, even that expectation is a bit high for this album.

While released as a single full-length, the album is really, as is portrayed on the cover artwork, a collection of three cohesive concept mini-albums, or concept EPs, if you like. Such being the case, I'm going to describe each of them separately, although there are some similarities among them. The first and most consistent trio of songs take influence from Robert E. Howard's short story "The Frost Giant's Daughter". This tale is taken from his saga of Conan the Barbarian, which was his most popular franchise; however, other than that, I don't know much about it, as I haven't read the story personally. However, based on the lyrics, the songs seem to be pretty in line with it, and the atmosphere, particularly on "Behind the Veil" assumedly is as well, as the song evokes a feeling of cold and dreariness. Despite their lyrical cohesion, the songs in this trio are musically fairly different from each other, with opener "Riddle of Steel" being more aggressive power/thrash, "When Giants Fall" being more traditional heavy/power metal along the lines of Open the Gates, and "Behind the Veil" a ballad in a style I haven't really heard previously from the 'Road. The atmosphere of the song is bleak, dreary, and hopeless, something I'm not usually looking for in epic heavy metal, but quite adept at convey those emotions nonetheless, with a moving performance from Shelton on vocals. Another interesting note is that the ending section of "When Giants Fall" is the same melody used toward the end of "Flaming Metal Systems", which appeared on the 2000 reissue of Crystal Logic. Overall, the songs here are solid although not spectacular, but definitely worth a listen.

The second trio of songs, based on the founding of Rome, is significantly more ambitious, and, clocking in at over 32 minutes, could almost function as an entire full-length in and of itself. The songs almost play like one continuous piece of music (albeit with small breaks throughout), with repeated riffs and vocal lines in two or sometimes even all three of the songs. The monstrous 15-minute opener "The Fall of Iliam" is definitely the best song of the three, although not entirely consistent; it's got quite a few ideas within its lengthy duration, and while most of them are good, a few of them aren't. The first chorus, though (yes, there are two choruses) is excellent, creating a feeling of ethereal mystique, like looking on an event from outside of time and space. While somewhat repetitive, the song manages to stay interesting for most of its length. "Imperious Rise" starts out promisingly, but quickly declines, proving itself to be even more repetitive than "The Fall of Iliam". There's only two major riffs here, and both of them are overused to the point that I'm completely sick of them by the end of the song. It's not a complete waste of time, but it should be, at most, about three and a half minutes, not six. Finally, there's the aptly titled "Rome", which is the worst of the three. Basically an amalgamation of the first two songs, "Rome" brings few new ideas to the table, and repeats more riffs - this time not even good riffs - ad nauseam. The only bright side to the song is the solo in the middle, which admittedly is quite good - just not enough to save the tune from awful, repetitive, and recycled ideas. I have to say I'm not quite sure what Mark Shelton was thinking with this song, as the solo could easily have been put into the middle of a shortened "Imperious Rise", and "Rome" scrapped altogether. Overall, a decent trio, but really all you need to listen to is "The Fall of Iliam" and about half of "Imperious Rise".

The final trio of songs is about ancient Greece, which is pretty interesting, as the entire album sort of shows a portal backwards through time, first to the early 20th century, then to the beginning of the Roman empire, then the beginning of Western civilization. However, that's about the best thing I can say about this trio, as two of the three songs are absolutely abysmal. "Stand of the Spartans" is repeats mediocre riffs for five and a half minutes, while "Betrayal" is in the same vein but even worse, and even longer. I think it's safe to say that "Betrayal" is one of the worst Manilla Road songs I've ever suffered through, although admittedly I haven't subjected myself to the notorious "Throne of Lies". Thankfully, the trio graces us with one song that's not a complete waste of time, in fact it's easily the best song on the album, and I wouldn't hesitate to say "Epitaph to the King" is, in contrast to "Betrayal", one of the best songs to come from the 'Road. Mostly acoustic, the instrumental intro transcends thought and just plunges you straight into a ponderous, enchanting spectacle of euphoria. It starts off a bit somber, but still extremely enjoyable, building slowly into a monument of glory and hope for the future. Despite having few lyrics, I believe this is one of Manilla Road's most quintessential anthems, wordlessly explaining Shelton's and the ancient Greeks' values of bravery, honor, and the strength of the human spirit and self-mastery. I will proudly say I have nearly been brought to tears by this song before, and it is one of the best things I've ever heard. Where other parts of this album lack, this song more than makes up for. The trio is mediocre overall, but if you listen to any song on this album, make sure it's "Epitaph to the King".

While not their most consistent release, Gates of Fire at least manages to be an eclectic album that's quite lyrically engaging and interesting to imagine in context of the stories presented. Although this doesn't match up to Virgin Steele's portrayal of the ancient Greeks and Romans (for the most part, anyway), it generally provides an adequate, if sometimes monotonous, picture, and will be in my rotation (minus "Stand of the Spartans" and "Betrayal", anyway) for the years to come.

Western pagan culture in 3 parts. - 86%

hells_unicorn, November 21st, 2008

Manilla Road has always been something of an enigma to me, particularly when it comes to their last 4 studio albums. Although very different in character, they share this commonality of breaking just about every rule on how to write songs for mass consumption, though somehow giving those who dig deeper a very clear system to follow. Likewise, lyrically they’ve exhibited this sense of pagan historicism that is both passionate and intellectual, from stories of Atlantis to glorious endeavors by Vikings, Greeks and Romans alike. You could almost say that the band specializes in educating the underground epic metal faithful on the cultural masterworks of all of the major pre-Christendom societies of Western Civilization.

Of these 4 towering albums, “Gates Of Fire” is the weakest in terms of overall makeup. Part of this lay in the structuring of the album, which functions almost like a box set of 3 EPs rather than a full length album. It’s a little bit similar in structure to the multiple song series collection format of “Atlantis Rising”, but unfortunately elects to avoid varying stylistically as much. Furthermore, most of the best musical ideas have been disproportionately allocated to a select set of songs, while others carry most good ideas that get stretched out a little too much. In many ways this album brings out the epic doom elements of their style, particularly insofar as the riffs go, but too often chooses the road of droning repetition rather than the gradual variation you’d get from a Candlemass album.

The droning nature of the riffs is particularly noticeable on the “Out Of The Ashes” part of this concept trilogy. Although the song has a really catchy and somber sounding set of acoustic sections that come in and out, “The Fall Of Iliam” basically rides one riff whenever the electric guitars are in for the first 9 minutes. It’s a solid riff, and they do compensate by giving the drums a lot of well structured fills and having a very long and active guitar solo that wanders enough to sound completely improvised, but it just hangs on just a tad too long before bringing in any dramatic changes. For most of the rest of the song it morphs into a speed metal song which has a faster variant of the principle riff filtering in and out. The same story basically applies to the final song on this part “Rome”, although the feel is a lot slower and large sounding, Shelton throws in some fancy falsetto work to complement the lower end nasally tones, there are multiple guitar solos that still sound improvised but are shorter, and the development of the song is a little bit faster. The middle song “Imperious Rise” actually avoids the droning format and moves much more quickly, changes feel often, and basically lends itself easier to repetitive listens.

For the most part, the “Gates Of Fire” part of the trilogy is a slightly less repetitive but still largely droning cousin of the aforementioned collection of songs that preceded it. Things move a little faster, but the songs still tend to ride a small number of riffs and aim more towards being heavy bottom end crushers with some atmospheric interplay and a lot of traveling guitar solos that morph into what sounds like a live jam session. When you combine the rough production with the wandering wah pedal driven solo on “Betrayal”, it’s all really fun while it’s going on, but doesn’t quite stick with you later. “Stand Of The Spartans” is a little easier to follow and has a solid principle riff at the beginning that almost sounds like something heard on Slayer’s “South Of Heaven”. “Epitaph To The King” is a little overlong for a ballad, but the nostalgic atmosphere and poignant lyrics make it work well, the lead passages are a lot more melodic and idiomatic, and Shelton seems to excel at producing acoustic songs without a lot of drum work and have it sound really towering.

But all things considered, the first trilogy “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is nothing but sheer genius from start to finish. Most of it is due to the songs being shorter and working in just the right amount of contrasting ideas to make everything flow smoothly. “Riddle Of Steel” is the only thing on here that doesn’t fall into the doom category and exhibits the band’s longstanding tendency to dabble in thrash on the side. The riffs are fairly simple, as is the melodic structure of Shelton’s vocals, but its definitely catchy and will listen well a few times in a row. “When Giants Fall” has a slightly more power metal fell to it, especially during the melodic chorus, but the principle riff is lethally heavy and leans heavily towards a mid-tempo thrash style. “Behind The Veil” is a fairly short, all acoustic ballad, but is one of the better examples of this band’s ability to paint a musical picture. The guitar lines have this melancholy yet mystical character to them that basically simulate the atmosphere of a snow covered wasteland with a lone blonde siren-like temptress leading on an unknowing warrior to his potential doom. Basically this is the only one of the 3 trilogies on here where the songs can stand individually, yet work equally well as part of the whole of the story they portray.

While by no means a disappointing release, this is something that falls more into the category of solid rather than spellbinding. There’s just something in this otherwise very ambitious undertaking that is missing, something which the other 3 post-reformation albums all had in differing respects. It’s a worthy pick up for any fan of long, drawn out epic metal and doom metal, Manilla Road fans who are only aware of their older material and newcomers to the band would be better served by looking into picking up either “Voyager” or “Spiral Castle” before getting this one. But if you have those albums, the first 3 songs on here alone make this something worth parting with those rapidly declining in value green backs that you have stored in your checking account for.

Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on November 21, 2008.

Epic metal at its best - 95%

fluffy_ferret, September 17th, 2007

It took me a long time to conclude that ‘Gates of Fire’ was an album worthy of an impressive 95%, something that perhaps doesn’t come as a surprise considering the new ground the band is so obviously breaking. I think this could be Manilla Road’s most sonically distinct and “extreme” album, even when comparing it to their strange and chaotic The Courts of Chaos. It’s fairly extreme even when comparing it to today’s standard for extreme music. On top of that, the songwriting is so rich and multilayered that it takes a couple of keen ears and multiple listens before the qualities of the album completely unfold.

The opening track, ‘Riddle of Steal’, makes it abundantly clear just how much Manilla Road have pushed their sound to the edge and one of the main contributors to this new sound is vocalist Bryan Patrick, who could well be singing for a death metal band. Serving as the second vocalist, his gruff vocals sound very odd, even off-putting in the beginning, especially when comparing them to Sheldon’s own nasal voice, but this arrangement does work, and provides an intriguing contrast. The largest contributor is the rhythm guitar though: the album rests on a foundation of a harsh riffing style that you’d expect to hear in a black metal album, or maybe on an album by The Chasm. The poor production further cements that impression. Fans need not worry though, as the sounds of classic Manilla Road are in no way missing, for upon this foundation of cold, hard, rage, the album is laden with heart-wrenching melodies and solos of the highest order, and the usual epic sound and songwriting we know and appreciate the band for.

I’d go as far saying that Gates of Fire is (arguably) Manilla Road’s most epic album. For starters, the songs are longer than perhaps ever and very patiently paced, creating a genuinely epic atmosphere. You can find some of Sheldon’s longest solos here as well. Somewhat surprisingly, these are some of the best solos I’ve ever heard as well. Sheldon was never a slouch on the guitar, but he outdoes himself hugely this time. The moving, technically flawless and three (!) minute long solos in ‘The Fall of Illiam’ and ‘Betrayal’ are prime examples of long solos done right as they push the songs to new heights; never getting boring, never touching on redundancy.

The biggest strength of this album is that it never gets boring. No matter how long the songs or solos are, Gates of Fire pulls you in mercilessly from the start, completely engulfs you and takes you through episodes of winding melodies, head banging frenzies, mesmerizing passages, and much more. The other big strength, and the main reason this effort surpasses Atlantis Rising and Spiral Castle, is the superior songwriting and the emotional qualities. Though it often features bludgeoning riffs on a carpet of mid-paced rhythms, Gates of Fire remains profoundly moving from start to finish. Walking away from this experience untouched is simply not going to happen.

Being a concept album, all songs flow together quite well, creating a seamless story (granted, in three parts), and thus the album is best seen as a whole. But, some songs do stand out as more instantly likable than the rest. The catchy opening track, ‘Riddle of Steel’, is the first obvious choice. ‘The Fall of Illiam’ for its melodies is the second choice. The crushing and brutal ‘The Fall of Rome’ a clear third. Pretty much all songs belong in the exceptional category though; I’m just sorting out some of the most accessible ones. Fitting for a concept album that starts in a pretty heavy, brutal manner, the solemn, quiet and almost completely acoustic ‘Epitaph to the King’ evens out this multitude of impressions in a tasteful way. The one and only weakness of the album– as always with Manilla Road – is the production. On the other hand, bad production has become so synonymous and “one” with the band’s sound that I’m not sure I’d have it any other way

This fabulous band has kept on making quality metal for almost 30 years now, receiving little praise and attention. Gates of Fire probably won’t change that, but it’s none the less one of the best albums of the 21st century thus far. It’s a relentless grower and a true highlight of Manilla Road’s long and impressive career – simply a must listen.

Road to recovery - 91%

haikuholocaust, September 13th, 2005

It amazes me that a band like this goes so long without getting noticed much by the metal community. Manilla have been around since the '80s, yet they're just in recent years being masturbating upon by every metalhead this side of Valhalla. I'm not really sure why it took so long for them to get the recognition they deserved, but it's about freakin' time.

The only problem is, the Manilla efforts -- recorded after their reunion / whatever you want to call it -- since their "discovery" haven't been that great. Atlantis Rising was mediocre at best, and Spiral Castle had a few good moments but overall left me dissatisfied. Of course, I've been content listening to every album before those, so when I heard that Gates of Fire was coming out, I was optimistic but not overjoyed. Afterall, there's plenty of good Manilla material already.

I expected Gates of Fire to be like Spiral Castle: decent but uninspired with nothing mindblowing.

My expectations were not met.

Gates of Fire is a fucking killer album. It opens on perhaps its highest note with "Riddle of Steel" but doesn't manage to lose much interest afterward, as many albums do with killer opening tracks and crap to follow. Manilla do a great job on this album mixing their thrash side with their epic / traditional metal side. It's a great blend of all of Manilla's pre-breakup material.

The vocals are as strong as I've heard from The Road. Mark Shelton trades off occasionally with a dude who does some nice gutteral stuff and even some falsetto, which works surprisingly well. A lot of people are turned off by Shelton, which makes sense to me, since he sounds like an old woman who's been smoking cigarettes for 70 years. But something about his voice is really pleasing to me.

The songwriting is the main reason this album is so good compared to its recent predecessors. The riffs are killer and catchy, and the choruses are hypnotic in a way. The layers of melody and technicality keep the mind interested and the ear entertained. My only complaint about the songwriting is sometimes it gets a bit competitive; I can only listen to the same chorus so many times in a row in a song. If there's any knock against Manilla throughout their career, it's that they carry songs on too long, and that's certainly present here. You'll hear the same chorus for three minutes straight at the end of a song, when it could've ended without those three minutes and had a much greater impact.

I fucking love the production of this album. The drums are thick and punchy with the cymbals providing a really nice, sharp clang. The double bass is thundering. The guitars are clear and crisp and complement the vocals and drums perfectly. The things I hear most are the vocals and drums, which actually is nicer than it sounds. The layered vocals provide a really awesome melody kind of similar to a twin-guitar attack. My only gripe is the bass isn't really very distinguishable. But that's partially because the bassist does nothing special.

I can't say Manilla will put out another album this good; in fact, I'm not optimistic. But I'll tell you what: I'm a hell of a lot more optimistic now that they've actually put out something outstanding. I was ready to write them off as has-beens after hearing Atlantis Rising and Spiral Castle. Buy this album or I will slice you open from crotch to throat and lay my eggs inside you.