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Less consistent, more immersive - 87%

Jophelerx, June 21st, 2011

For those who have yet to hear Manilla Road, their sound is difficult to describe. For example, Open the Gates could be called thrashy, epic, mystical, or arcane; all of those accurately describe aspects of the sound, but none of them really defines it. This album is all those things, but it's also extremely dense and strange; although more accessible than some of their albums, it probably won't click in its entirety on the first listen; although I immediately loved "Road of Kings", most of the album took several more listens for me to truly enjoy and understand it. That's how it is with all Manilla Road, and usually even more so; Open the Gates, at least for me, was one of their most accessible albums, alongside Crystal Logic.

Open the Gates is the first album in Manilla Road's "middle period" - it marked a change away from the fairly laid back sound of Crystal Logic and its predecessors, and instead a movement towards a progressively more aggressive sound. This may be largely due to former drummer Rick Fisher leaving the band after Crystal Logic and being replaced by the more aggressive drummer Randy "The Thrasher" Foxe, whose style is evident on Open the Gates, although the rest of the music has gotten heavier and faster, too. There is also notable thrash influence in the guitar, although the music is still far from all-out thrash; rather, it is more of an amalgamation of power, speed, thrash, and traditional. The vocals here are raspier than on Crystal Logic for the most part, and Shelton covers a greater range. In fact the entire aesthetic of the album feels different than on the previous; CL was a doomy, laid back album in which Shelton felt more like he was giving ponderous musings on the subject matter; here, he is an active part of the stories he tells; he sounds like a bloodthirsty warrior looking for adventure. That's not to say that it's a complete departure from CL, as there are definite similarities, but the differences are definitely significant.

The main problem with Open the Gates is the songs' tendency to overuse a single idea, or not to develop one enough; the latter can be seen in the title track, which starts off sounding like an awesome thrash song, but quickly switches from idea to idea before they are fully realized, and ultimately ends up not doing much of anything. Another example is "Road of Kings" which, although it's an excellent song, has very few musical ideas, and overuses the ones it does have a bit. In other words, the album lacks consistency. The good songs are REALLY good, but there are a few clunkers. The aforementioned underdeveloped "Open the Gates", the commercial-sounding, bland, upbeat "Heavy Metal to the World", and to a lesser extent, "Weavers of the Web" and "Hour of the Dragon", which are both very good songs that just go a little too long; if they were a bit more compact, they would be excellent. For example, "Hour of the Dragon" is one of my favorite songs except for the fact that the same riff repeats for close to a minute during the solo, and then again at the end, leaving me bored after awhile.

That being said, most of the songs here are top-notch. The album starts off with "Metalstrom", a fast, catchy thrasher, with Mark's vocals more or less roaring throughout; the song flows well and culminates in the catchy, soaring chorus. "Astronomica" is an arcane, mystical song, opening with an enchanting, atmospheric intro that includes a haunting clean performance from Mark, but quickly transforming into a fast, heavy number, once again featuring Mark's raspy roars in the chorus. "The Ninth Wave" is one of the best songs here - it's slow, vast, and murky, and opens with a slow, marching drum beat, drawing the listener into another world almost immediately. If I had to use one word to describe this song, I think it would have to be "huge" - it flawlessly evokes feelings of vast grandeur, as if you're on the verge of another world and getting small glimpses of it through this song. I've had the same feeling with other songs of theirs, such as "Epitaph to the King" and "The Books of Skelos", and each time I listen to them I'm rewarded with insight into some other dimension; Manilla Road is the only band I've ever heard who has the ability to do this so flawlessly. This is certainly one of the best examples of it; at times it feels like perhaps you're on a ship in the middle of the ocean and the drum beats represent the movement of the oars; at other times, as though you're marching to war, and the drums mark the pace of the soldiers. Regardless, this is a majestic, monumental masterpiece, definitely the highlight of the album.

"The Fires of Mars" is a dark, ominous piece that is simple but effective, conveying the depths of hell beautifully, Mark's vocals excellent as usual. The riffs here are phenomenal, as is the solo - possibly the best solo on the album. The entire song flows seamlessly, without any gratuitous or bland musical ideas - this is definitely one of the better songs here. "Road of Kings" is an upbeat speed metal tune that is simple and catchy. The guitar wankery at the beginning is a bit excessive, but the verses are excellent, building up but then seeming to fall back down to the very calm chorus. This is a strange technique, but it's oddly charming; again Shelton's vocals save the day, making the soft, calm chorus enchanting. The chorus here might be the best part of the song; it works perfectly in conjunction with the rest of the ideas, and is executed wonderfully. Overall, definitely a good song.

Finally, we have the mystical "Witches Brew" - probably the best thing here aside from "The Ninth Wave". The opening is fantastic, Mark's croons perfectly complementing the guitar harmony, before the song becomes heavy and pounding, not to mention catchy as hell. This, too, does not have a second of wasted music; every section works with the song in some way, and none repeats for too long. It's heavy, mystical, catchy, and concise - everything you could want in a metal song. The foreboding riffs that repeat during the solo are absolutely spectacular, and help create a feeling of impending doom of some kind. They eventually fade out, and the song is over - again, one of the greatest here. The only thing that disappoints me on this album is that the riffs are sometimes too quiet; the drums or the solos or the vocals often overpower them, which makes listening difficult, as the riffs are more or less the backbone of the music; however, it's not noticeable all that often, and the album is certainly still quite enjoyable; I'm just saying it would be quite a bit better with riffs more in the forefront. Overall, this is a very strong album; while it might not have the level of consistency of The Deluge or Mystification, the best songs do something that those albums seldom do - immerse you completely in a magical world of Mark Shelton's creation. Be it "Astronomica", "The Ninth Wave", or "Road of Kings", you'll find yourself completely immersed in and captivated by this musical masterpiece. If you're a fan of epic metal, power metal, thrash metal, mythology, or escapism - hell, if you're into metal at all, get this album. You won't find yourself disappointed.