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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.