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A worthy tribute to the Spirits of the Dead - 93%

Jophelerx, April 26th, 2012

Mystification is sort of the other side of the coin to which 1985's Open the Gates belongs; while Open the Gates was more or less power metal with some slight thrash metal influence, Mystification is more or less thrash metal with a small amount of power metal influence, the logical progression from 1986's The Deluge, which was equal parts power and thrash. Of course, this is no ordinary thrash album; this is thrash Maniila Road style, and as such is nothing short of spectacular. Shelton shows such an incredible ability to adapt to any metal genre, I wouldn't be surprised if he were able to pull off a mind-blowing grindcore album, or something of equal unlikelihood. Personally, I don't listen to thrash terribly often; I might spin an album here and there, but very rarely unless it has significant power or speed influence. However, in the case of Mystification, I find myself returning again and again, playing it at least as often as other MR classics such as Crystal Logic, The Deluge, and Voyager. The difference between this and other thrash albums is that Manilla Road dumps a few shakers of epic on their thrash, as they do with every style they play. I'm not sure if epic thrash has been done before or since, but if it has, I definitely want to hear it if it's anything like this - which is nothing short of incredible.

In addition to its other perks, Mystification has an absolutely terrific production; crisp, heavy, up-front and smooth. While Crystal Logic's production worked well with the material, and those on Open the Gates and The Deluge were far from lacking, this was definitely the best MR production in 1987, and would remain so for 15 years, until 2002's Spiral Castle. The guitar tone is sharp yet full and smooth, one of the things that perhaps sets this apart from many other thrash albums, and Shelton's vocals are in top form. Clean and warm most of the time, yet crisp and aggressive when needed; he actually sounds more melodic here than he did on The Deluge. I have to say this is quite possibly his best vocal performance, aside from Crystal Logic. The riffs here are definitely thrash, with the occasional touch of power, but in many cases the melodic vocal lines are what make the songwriting so refreshingly unique; in some cases the incredibly epic, atmospheric melodies should by all reason be at odds with the aggression of the riffs; and yet somehow they provide a perfect counter to that aggression; and that is a testament to Shelton's incredible songwriting ability; he structures the riffs and melodies in such a way that everything fits and flows perfectly, organizing them perfectly like pieces of a puzzle. A particularly good example of this is "Masque of the Red Death" which launches from an in-your-face, aggressive verse to a warm, imaginative chorus seamlessly, despite the riffs still being thrash. It's impossible to truly do its magic justice with words; just listen for yourself.

Of course, there are softer, clean sections here, which include the opening of "Spirits of the Dead", the majority of the title track, and the song "Dragon Star". These are easily as good as the heavier sections, though, especially "Mystification", which may well be the best song MR have ever done - a title I don't bestow lightly by any means. Overall, the songs largely fall under two categories; those that focus more on aggression, and those that focus more on epic atmosphere; both (save "Dragon Star") have strong elements of both, but at the same time, they each lean towards a certain direction. "Up from the Crypt", "Haunted Palace", "Valley of Unrest", "Death by the Hammer", and "The Asylum" fall into the former category, the best of which is definitely "Death by the Hammer", which retains the most atmosphere while still focusing on speed and force. It is very fast and thrashy throughout, and yet aesthetically it almost feels like power metal; somehow Shelton manages to combine the best elements of both. The others feel the most like traditional thrash, although they're still significantly different, especially in the chorus of "Haunted Palace", where, much like in "Masque of the Red Death", there is seamless transition from aggressive verse to epic chorus, when Shelton chimes in with the charming, strangely enunciated "Haunteeeeeeed....Palaaaaaceeeee!!!!!"

The rest of the songs - "Children of the Night", "Spirits of the Dead", "Mystification", "Masque of the Red Death", and "Dragon Star" - focus more on atmosphere. All of these are absolutely killer, with the exception of "Dragon Star", which is merely good. "Children of the Night" is perhaps the only song with strong musical elements of power metal, rather than merely the aesthetic, although it's still squarely in the thrash camp. That and "Mystification" are certainly the best songs on the album, with "Masque of the Red Death" mere centimeters behind, all three managing to transport me effortlessly to another world of wild fantasy and dreams; something MR have always had a penchant for. Overall, there's not a bad song here - although "The Asylum" is merely decent, as it lacks Shelton's epic vocals - and for the most part, it remains consistently excellent, probably the band's most consistent album barring "The Deluge". If you like thrash, power, epic metal, or are a fan of Manilla Road, I highly recommend this top-notch 1987 offering from the epic metal giants.