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"His life-long dream... was to mystify." - 97%

Ghoulhound, June 28th, 2014

(To avoid any possible confusion) I will be reviewing the 2000 re-issue of the album done by Sentinel Steel featuring the track listing that begins with "Up From the Crypt" and ends with the instrumental "The Asylum". Manilla Road really hit home with a lot of metalheads with the releases Crystal Logic, Open the Gates and The Deluge; released in 1983, 1985 and 1986 respectively. By 1986, their vibrant, epic sound that was crafted through these albums was in stark contrast to the strained, speed-over-everything attitude held by many mid-80's heavy metal bands.

Now Manilla Road isn't a band that refuses to take cues from their contemporaries. Crystal Logic saw Manilla Road infuse a lot of elements from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement into the album's sound. Even some tinges of proto-doom metal (that the likes of Black Sabbath and Pentagram were playing) saw its way through on tracks like "The Veils of Negative Existence". All those influences collided with Manilla Road's own psychedelic, trudging voice in a beautiful way that really deviated them from the crowd. Open the Gates and The Deluge saw the Crystal Logic sound evolve into what Manilla Road truly wanted it to be: epic.

The NWOBHM and proto-doom influences were certainly present on these releases, but Manilla Road's own sound fought its way through and stayed dominant on these two releases. People like the trio of Crystal Logic/Open the Gates/The Deluge because you can hear the sound progress from album to album to album. Manilla Road's sound wasn't static, it was a moving and breathing thing. It was full of life and people liked that. So, after venturing out on the albums Open the Gates and The Deluge and finding a sound that fit them... Manilla Road took a step back and looked at the heavy metal scene. Thrash and speed metal were obviously dominant. Of course, there was still a market for Manilla Road's music, but the public's interest was definitely vested in thrash and speed metal at that time. Maybe Manilla Road felt they could reach a larger audience if they too incorporated these "thrash" influences into their colossal croon... Well, for what every reason, 1987 saw the thrash/speed influenced Mystification.

I know many Manilla Road fans that will say they lost interest in the band after The Deluge, citing the move to a more riff-centered, thrashy sound alienated them. I also know many fans that worship Manilla Road's late 80's output as some of the best slabs of thrash influenced epic heavy metal they have ever heard. To an extent, I agree with the latter bunch of fans. Manilla Road really outdoes themselves here. For one, the production is spot-on. The bass is so vibrant and shares so much chemistry with the guitar leads and the drums. The album starts off by firing on all-cylinders with one of those "triple threat" openings you would see on an album like The Years of Decay or Kill 'Em All. One thing Manilla Road more often than not has trouble with is pacing an album. Luckily, pacing is one of the many things Mystification manages to get perfect. Now if there is one thing you can always count on Manilla Road to deliver, it is some really spectacular soloing courtesy of Mark Shelton. So, how awesome are the solos here? Answer: the best they've practically ever been. Mark Shelton holds back NOTHING when it comes to these solos. Every one of his solos here are bubbling with life and ferocity.

As I stated in my review of the 2008 Manilla Road album Voyager, on the outside it seems that there isn't anything too special about Mark Shelton's soloing. Yet, his "Honest Joe", no gimmicks approach to soloing appears so clever against the epic, swirling backdrop of songs like "Up From the Crypt" or "Spirits of the Dead". Also, the production here really helps to sell the band's fresh, thrash-influenced sound. When Mark begins to solo, it's like his guitar is elevated to a whole other level. This leaves the bass and drums to re-iterate any neat riffs, melodies or ideas (that the guitar was forging before-hand) in a crystal-clear soundscape. It's a really great effect that the production handles flawlessly. Mystification is, at its core, a guitar driven album.

Some songs like "Spirits of the Dead" and "Dragon Star" open with a wonderful quieter section that usually features an awesome bass counter melody against a dynamic lead guitar that builds up to a climax. These quieter sections work well in contrast to the barrage of thrash and speed going on. While other songs here simply exist to kick your ass. "Valley of the Unrest" is a good example of the shorter, punchier Manilla Road present on the album. It's simple and effective Manilla Road that I really can't really complain about. While almost all the songs here deserve some sort praise in the lyrical department, I have to give props to the title track "Mystification" for featuring some of the most memorable and haunting lyrics.

"Morbid tales unfold,
that leave thee terrified.
Poetry of old...
to keep thee mystified"

Awesome, awesome stuff. I even derived the title of this review from the song's lyrics. Also, there is also this one guitar riff in the middle section of "Mystification" that just elevates the song to Manilla Road-epic status. I mean, it's honestly one of the best guitar riffs I've ever heard Manilla Road put out. If you're thinking about buying this album but you're still kinda on edge... Check this song out, it'll win you over. Two other songs here also deserve the title of Manilla Road-epics: "Masque of the Red Death" and "Death By the Hammer". They are total Manilla Road-epics, featuring grandiose choruses and more fantastic riff-work. There's a reason why these three songs are still staples of Manilla Road's live set.

While I did thoroughly enjoy this album and its thrash tendencies, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the album's closing moments. You would think an album like this would make sure to go out with a bang... right? Well, to close the album we have "Dragon Star". With "Dragon Star", it seems as though Manilla Road felt they were obliged to create an epic to off-set the thrashing they just gave us. "Dragon Star" just doesn't really go anywhere. It's definitely one of my least favorite tracks on the album because it feels forced (as opposed to most of the tracks flowing flawlessly) and it just doesn't uphold the same level of quality laced through some of the other songs. Now let's talk about the bonus track. "The Asylum" is an instrumental piece. It doesn't have that much substance to it and seems kinda out of place on the album. Yet, because it is a bonus track, I don't really hold it against the album and it is fairly neat to hear something that previously went unreleased. So, if you feel that Manilla Road lost you after The Deluge, please try to pick up Mystification again. It's just as mystifying and epic as the trio of Crystal Logic/Open the Gates/The Deluge were.