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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.