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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.