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Tales of the macabre from a true metal original. - 100%

Empyreal, October 31st, 2018
Written based on this version: 2000, CD, Sentinel Steel Records (Remastered)

Mark Shelton passed away on July 27 this year, leaving behind a legacy of weird, underground and utterly original music. Mystification was never my choice album from these guys when I first got into them, but true to the nature of the Road, I found a new appreciation for it as I went through a lot of their old albums in the wake of Shelton's passing. This, it turns out, is one of their all-time high points as a band, a classic of manic guitars, diabolical choruses and horror-movie energy perfect for the Halloween season – a lot of these songs, after all, are based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

The first song “Up from the Crypt” is a pretty good representation of what you'll get here, with its gravelly, dirty guitar tone, the shredding riffs that sound like Shelton was just wrecking his fucking guitar and the intoned, badass lyrics about a grisly creature rising out of a dank crypt. It's just pure ugly steel. Warts and all, no frills or polish, it's metal as fuck.

Further tracks just keep it going, with the classic kind of direct and pugilistic writing one expected from the 80s metal style, no bullshit about any of them. “Children of the Night” is an expansive, galloping mini-epic, “Valley of Unrest” is a hammering thrasher and songs like the title track and “Spirits of the Dead” show off the melodic, mystical epic side of the band, albeit in more condensed form than some of their earlier works' long noodling epics. “Masque of the Red Death” is perhaps the one where everything the album's going for comes together in one tour-de-force, a pounding, arcane epic. It's this kind of consistency and conciseness that makes this album such a choice work. It's the band sounding wholly possessed of their confidence and assuredness, at the peak of their sound. I didn't used to “get” this album because it lacked the kind of long, weird epics I enjoyed from the band. But instead it has that quality spread out through all its songs in some way, in a more condensed form, and it's goddamn beautiful.

That execution also means a sonic craftsmanship to make things sound like the aural representation of a horror film. The gritty, dirt-covered guitar sound is like rock from a tomb lifted from the Earth, and Shelton's vocals are a powerful but warbling narration fitting of a pulpy early horror movie. Even the rhythm section, with Scott Park's groovy, almost surf rock-ish bass crawl and Randy Foxe's complex drumming forming an idiosyncratic groove, adds to the frenetic feel like the climax of one of the ghastly tales the Road is weaving. It all syncs up with the lyrics, so the sound feels complete and thought-out. Funny enough, the production here was badly botched by a shitty studio, sounding more lo-fi and muddy than I believe the band intended, so at least part of this is accidental. Sometimes great art happens that way.

It's hard to write about the somewhat esoteric qualities of Manilla Road that make them such a cult hit, but I suppose it's the same as for anything so cult. The musical quality and consistency, the sound of a band that never compromises to the “mainstream,” is part of it. But there's also the feeling of belonging, of “getting it” and knowing you cracked the code and understand the music.

That's not a reason why this is a great album, but there's just such an obtuseness to Manilla Road at first, with Shelton's chaotic guitars, his weird vocals and obscure lyricism. There was never any studio magic or attempts to clean them up for the mainstream. No pandering or attempts to change a thing about themselves. Maybe that was just a factor of the times, of these dudes just living in rural America with no market for themselves, but the unique sonic qualities ended up enduring the test of time due to Shelton's exceptional writing skills. And people who enjoy heavy metal riffcraft and the barbaric, nerdy glee of the style often find that Manilla Road's sound opens up for them eventually. Here's hoping people keep enjoying Manilla Road for a long time to come and that their fanbase keeps growing and growing from here. Happy Halloween.