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We don’t need no stinking raven… - 95%

Acrobat, August 28th, 2013

I’ll start with what is quite a bold statement: your average metal band is really not suited to writing songs inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s works, simply because they’re not well-equipped enough to do his works justice. A deft touch is required alongside your iron-hammered riffing, I think, and a certain strangeness, too. Certainly, Manilla Road have these qualities in spades and I think we’ve all established, love ‘em or hate ‘em, that they’re not your standard metal band. Your average metal band is not really capable of doing lyrical or musical justice to Poe’s work; they’re much more likely to produce something that comes across like a cheese dream rather than a genuine vision of terror. See, Poe always sought to make horror ‘not of the charnel house, but of the mind’ – of course, you need those charnel aspects but you have to use them wisely – and regular metal band might just go a bit overboard and end up with something that’s strictly abattoir material what with all its blood, blood, blood and bits of sick.

Surely it takes a special band to capture the aura of the work of gothic horror’s sickly king and a dry re-telling simply won’t do. With this one needs a special voice; not overly dramatic, not too showy but with enough grit and darkness to take the listener through those tales of gore and terror in the night. Mark Shelton was, without doubt, the man for this job. Shark’s voice has always had a slightly decrepit quality to it; not harsh, per se, but harsh enough to carry a certain moribund atmosphere to it. See, I think a death metal vocalist or – on the other hand – a squeaky clean power metal vocalist would be too much. Of the other vocalists I’ve heard ‘do Poe’ Crimson Glory’s Midnight definitely works well and that’s because he too was a very a unique vocalist. Indeed, one might easily feel that Midnight had a lot in common with Poe’s protagonists; strange, probably mad and definitely known to indulge heavily in a cask or two of Amontillado. But still, Shark works brilliantly here because he’s ‘gothic’ but not in a cartoonish or overly animated manner (I mean he’s not exactly Messiah Marcolin, is he?). He’s macabre in a way that’s not-the-usual and as such his voice works perfectly with for this album’s subject matter. Similarly, the choice of material Manilla Road cover here is superb – as no one really wants to hear another regurgitated retelling of ‘The Raven’ nor do we really want to hear a ‘Feeling Free Again’-styled number about Lady Ligeia (“Hey baby! You’re blacker than the raven wings of midnight!”). So instead we get non-clichéd choices presented in a unique and masterful manner. Even when Shark and the boys delve into non-Poe related stuff it’s tastefully done. For instance, we get a nods to Robert E. Howard and, Poe’s legitimate heir, H.P. Lovecraft, in ‘Children of the Night’ and his most famous creation, Cthulhu (who’d rear his ugly head again on Out of the Abyss).

Special praise must be given to Shark’s guitar work on this album as it is a piece of pure expressionism. It strikes me as quite Hendrix-y in a non-obvious way, as when Hendrix was singing about a machine gun he’d make his guitar sound like one. Likewise, when Shark’s howling about corpses that kill and other gothic madness he’ll make his guitar sound positively ghastly. Listen to how he uses his whammy bar here, it’s truly incredible… those low dive-bombed notes sound like hollow groans from the family vault! See, most guitarists use their whammy bars purely for showboating and tricks; whereas Shark really integrates it in the song. Take ‘Masque of the Red Death’, for instance, wherein the solo acts as part of the plot – it’s placed at such a pivotal point of the song that it acts as the grand reveal of horror. Likewise the clean passages on this album are strangely psychedelic in nature. Take the guitar sound on the title-track for example and the eerie phased-out sound sounds like something from a 1960s psychedelic record (albeit with a bit more distortion). On a more corporeal note, it’s pretty incredible that Shark managed to surpass his work on Open the Gates and The Deluge, too. I mean, those are fantastic albums, guitar-wise, but this might just be even better. Of course, the supporting cast contribute to the success of this album (hell, Mr Foxe is certainly capable of stealing the show, just check that opening fill on ‘Up from the Crypt’). Scott Parks puts in the performance of his career, too; understated and tasteful his basslines act as the tell-tale heart of these songs. I definitely think that they’re noteworthy, although, I can understand why he doesn’t get as much praise what with Foxe’s wild drumming and Shark’s equally crazed soloing. Nonetheless, his performance is sterling and it really ties the trio together.

As the 1980s went on more and more thrash crept into Manilla Road’s sound, which really reached its peak on the Out of the Abyss album. Whereas OotA spent a fair bit of time peddling some Metallica-esque riffs the material on Mystification was quite unlike any other thrash on the market. Still, Mystification is part of Manilla Road’s thrash-inspired period and that’s to say that at its heart it’s still an epic metal album, which no amount of thrashing rage can hide. Take the opener, ‘Up from the Crypt’, which is supposedly a Slayer inspired number; it’s thrashy, sure, but it’s not really like any thrash I’ve heard. I think at this point, Manilla Road were definitely inspired by thrash’s tempos and energy but they were too set in their ways to write typical thrash riffs. I think the fact that the band existed geographically outside of any major metal scene helped them develop this unique sound. After all, this is Wichita, not LA! A comparison that springs to mind would be to Helstar’s Nosferatu; which, again, is a sort of ‘outsider’ thrash album. Still, outside of the off-kilter vocals, horror themes and technically demanding performances these two albums aren’t really all that alike. If you want a quick reference point, though, I’d call this “gloomy, gothic quasi-thrash heavy metal”, which doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Ha!

It can be seen that Poe and 1980s Manilla Road have a lot in common, really. I mean both were woefully underappreciated in their own time and first ‘rediscovered’ outside of their native America (Poe in France and MR in Greece and Germany). Neither won particular favour with the critics, either, as Poe’s work was much maligned in his own lifetime and MR were called “the world’s ugliest band” by Kerrang magazine. Indeed, Manilla Road’s output was, until fairly recently, something of a ‘forgotten lore’ in heavy metal.... and yes, I am taking the piss here, but it’s no surprise that this band in particular have made the most successful musical adaptation of Poe’s work. The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination is certainly another excellent adaptation that I strongly recommend and I suspect that that particular album was an inspiration on Mystification. Still, Alan Parsons ain’t got owt on Shark and the boys.