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A slight dip in quality, but a classic nonetheless - 92%

failsafeman, February 14th, 2008

The reviews I read prior to purchasing my first Manilla Road album did very little to prepare me for the real thing; the first time I put on Crystal Logic, I was blown away, and only after quite a few subsequent listens did I recover. Really, the only things I got out of what I read that actually did help prepare me were a warning, and an encouragement. The warning was that Manilla Road’s albums were weird, and not just your garden-variety weird, either, but really weird. The encouragement was, that if you could swallow the weirdness, that Manilla Road’s albums were good, and not just your garden-variety good, either, but really good. The band has thirteen albums under their belt, and those two things have applied to every one of them. In a couple weeks, there will be a fourteenth, and I don’t doubt they will apply to it as well. If you’ve never heard Manilla Road, and are trying to get an idea of what they’re like and if you’ll like them, no words can possibly convey what they are if you haven’t heard for yourself. Take the warning, and the encouragement, and go buy Crystal Logic, which is the best place to start in their discography. Those who are just new to this particular album, or those who aren’t but are looking for another perspective, read on.

Manilla Road’s response to the challenge of writing Crystal Logic Part Two was, wisely, to not even try. Fortunately for us, they have proven themselves to be one of the only bands that can change significantly while remaining essentially the same; like a man changing clothes, Manilla Road’s appearance may be altered, but it’s always the same band underneath. So, on Open the Gates, we see a bit of thrash creeping in (but just a bit, so far). Maybe a big pair of sneakers or some ripped jeans appear on our metaphorical “Manilla Road Man”. This was clearly a transition album, and they didn’t really get the thrash thing down until their next one. But even though a thrash riff could be picked out here and there on this album, and more often as time went on, Manilla Road never really sounded to me like they were actually playing thrash songs; rather, it’s always been Manilla Road playing Manilla Road. Even though one could accuse them of jumping on the thrash bandwagon (or perhaps the USPM one, if that subgenre had ever been popular or lucrative enough to afford such a wagon), I feel that such an accusation would be unfair. Their three previous albums were already getting progressively heavier, more metal, and more aggressive, so their gradual absorbing of some thrash trappings is just a logical continuation of that pattern. After all, it’s not like any metal fans of the mid-80s, even ones in Kansas, could possibly be oblivious to thrash without living under a rock of colossal proportions. Rather, it’s a testament to Manilla Road’s integrity and strength of vision that they were able to absorb any influence at all from a movement as big as thrash without drowning in it.

An important factor that contributed to and may well have influenced Manilla Road’s heavier sound on this album was Rick Fisher's replacement with the appropriate nickname, Randy “Thrasher” Foxe, who drums in a manner completely different from his relatively understated predecessor. To me, Foxe seems to play the drums the same way Mark Shelton plays his solos; messy, all over the place, and completely awesome. With his muscular style Foxe pounds his way tirelessly through the whole album, and is definitely a highlight. Even on slower, quieter songs, like “The Ninth Wave”, he never relents for long. The energy he conveys behind the kit is just amazing; again, the same way Shelton is with his solos. The production is also noticeably heavier, with the guitar tone being much fuller than on Crystal Logic. Finally, Mark Shelton’s aggressive growl, only appearing occasionally on the previous album, is far more prevalent here, and really contrasts well with his clean singing; “Astronomica” is a prefect example of this, with the clean intro, roaring verses, and soaring chorus. A minor anecdote: apparently, during the recording of Open the Gates, Mark Shelton was sick as a dog, and when he finally got up to recording the vocals, he wasn’t even better yet and had only one day left to do it in. Now, there are a couple of places here and there where I can almost believe it, but throughout most of the album, he’s as strong as ever. If I hadn’t heard the story, I’d have never known. One possible casualty of this time crunch, however, is the multi-tracked vocals, which were used to such great effect on the previous album; they are sadly wholly absent from this one.

Yes, all is not well with Open the Gates. Manilla Road were clearly not yet quite comfortable with their new, more aggressive sound, and some songs simply do not work they way they should. The opener, “Metalstorm”, is in my opinion a perfect analogy for the album as a whole. After an unspectacular intro, which doesn’t hold a candle to the atmosphere of the one for Crystal Logic, the guitar kicks in; at first the song is decent, and rides a good-but-not-great main riff, and the verses are mediocre with a melody that just doesn’t really go anywhere. But then the chorus comes in right about smack-dab in the middle, and everything clicks; all of a sudden the song is simply fantastic (“In the wake of Metalstorm!”), and it just gets better as it goes on. In the same way, the album is a bit shaky at first, with its new, more aggressive style resulting in some parts that lack atmosphere and are not up to the band’s standard. However, just as the song does, as the album continues, things tighten up, and the final half is uninterrupted greatness. That final four-song sequence I’d rank right up there with the best parts of any Manilla Road album.

The title track is, unfortunately, a failure. Many like it, but I simply don’t. It’s another plodding Manilla Road song that doesn’t particularly go anywhere, like “The Ram”, but unfortunately it’s nowhere near as good as that song. It’s not totally horrible; even a mediocre Manilla Road number like this one is still not without a redeeming merit or two, but it’s just clearly not up to their standard. Lucky for us then that it’s also very short, and followed by one of the best songs on the album. “Astronomica” starts with a soft intro, before the pounding riff and roaring verse come and bludgeon us into a happy pulp; then the chorus soars up into the stratosphere in classic Manilla Road fashion. Discounting the drumming and aggressive vocal style on the verses, this sounds closest to Crystal Logic’s style of the whole album. It’s got a similar kind of spacey atmosphere found on “The Veils of Negative Existence”, and with a bit of tweaking, would fit quite well between it and “Dreams of Eschaton”.

“Weavers of the Web” is the total opposite of “Metalstorm”, with a fantastic main riff that gets right to the point, a fine verse, but an uncharacteristically weak and uninspired chorus. That main riff, however, is notable not only for being excellent, but also for being Manilla Road’s most thrash-influenced up until this point. It’s a decent song, and certainly worth listening to, but not one of their best. Next comes the requisite lengthy epic of the album, and though I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better placed at the end, like Crystal Logic’s was, it’s unquestionably fucking awesome. It’s got a very open sound, with slow, drawn-out riffs and hypnotic tom-pounding, almost like heavy rain falling on a rooftop. Shelton’s delivery is very laid-back as well, contrasting with most of the other songs on the album, and the whole thing is very atmospheric, possessing a dark majesty fitting for Arthur rising again to lead Britain to glory. And he’s joined by the Einherjar. Yes, Shelton mixes mythology all over the place on this album to great effect; there’s Arthurian, Norse, Greek, and Christian myth, and possibly even some more I’ve missed. This is a new thing for Manilla Road, but something they would continue to do on this album (“The Fires of Mars”, for example) and carry over into subsequent ones. Yes, Manilla Road are too epic to be contained by one mythology at a time, and must fuse the best elements of many.

And then, well, there is “Heavy Metal to the World”. It’s the worst song on the album, by a large margin, and I’ll give it to you straight: it has no redeeming characteristics. As far as the context of the album, it seems to me it was trying to be another “Feeling Free Again”, i.e. an intermission right in the middle, to provide a bit of relaxation and casual fun between the two halves of the album. However, where “Feeling Free Again” was relaxing, fun, and catchy (though still a rather silly single attempt), “Heavy Metal to the World” is none of the above. It’s just the same kind of stupid “metasong about rock/metal” that countless other bands in the ‘80s put out, and like the most part of them, this one is terrible.

But then, glorious day, we have “The Fires of Mars”! This track does everything right that the title track messes up; the riffs are great, the verses are great, and the chorus is the best of the whole album. “WARRIORS AT THE END OF TIME, MASTERS OF LIGHT!” Again here mythology is mixed to great effect; as with all the best Manilla Road songs, understanding the lyrics just increases the enjoyment that much more. Does the “Mars” of the title refer to the planet, or the Greek god? It’s not quite clear, but personally I prefer to see it as both; the image of these heroes fighting on the red soil of Mars, while lighting the god of war’s sacred fires…the song does mention “golden wisdom from the stars,” so being on another planet doesn’t seem too far-fetched. The lyrics are certainly open-ended enough, so maybe it was even intentional? Going from strength to strength, the next song is the energetic “Road of Kings”. It’s a faster, more straightforward number, which focuses on a riff “theme” and its variations. The verses slowly build tension to the choruses, with the drumming getting slowly more intense as the riff below it repeats, until it’s released into the rocking chorus. It’s certainly a less complex and serious song than the previous, but it serves as a nice relief from it (though not at all in the same way “Feeling Free Again” was, or “Heavy Metal to the World” should have been). Without relenting in quality, we’re hit with “Hour of the Dragon”, which displays unquestionably the strongest thrash sound yet evidenced. It’s very good, and for a band only displaying minor thrash influences here and there in the rest of the album, it’s surprisingly well-formed; this one could easily appear on The Deluge or even Mystification.

And finally, there is “Witches Brew”, a Manilla Road classic, and an album-closer that can even compete with the mighty “Dreams of Eschaton”, though it’s definitely of a different sort. From the soft, eerie intro, to the howl that heralds the crushing main riff, Open the Gates ends with a bang. The lyrics continue the mythology-mixing of previous songs, and describe the Einherjar rising from the dead to drink the brew of life. The atmosphere is just perfect, and a definite highlight is the outro; it mimics the previous album’s, with the two guitar solos tracked over each other slowly fading out, and the final words spoken by the pitch-shifted voice…perhaps not quite as perfect as the chilling sound of a nuclear explosion ending Crystal Logic, but it’s certainly a strong end to a strong album.

In the end, after all its ups and downs, a Manilla Road album is just like a great fantasy novel. Sure, there are epic parts, there are gloomy parts, there are majestic parts, there are head-banging, fist-pumping parts, and they’re excellent; but what sets a truly great fantasy novel –and Manilla Road– apart from the rest of its kind is the sense of sheer wonder it instills in the listener. When the music plays, it’s as if there’s a whole new world just beyond the horizon, but yet within reach; Shelton is standing up ahead where he can see it, and he beckons you onward. Maybe, during the most transcendent parts, you even catch a glimpse; the chorus in “The Fires of Mars”, that intro to “Astronomica”…inevitably, you descend back into yourself, but that glimpse is burned into your memory like a shining star. Of course it’s pure escapism, but what’s so bad about that? As Tolkien replied when accused of it: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” An important part of this sort of escapism is to exhort the ideals these epic heroes embody: bravery, honor, integrity, loyalty, etc., and the beauty their ancient cultures (both fiction and non) exemplified. Who the hell wouldn’t want to see Atlantis, or Necropolis, or any of the other locations Manilla Road describe to us? But on a higher level, it’s about escaping to a world of meaning; no, good and evil are not suddenly black and white: the cuckolded King Arthur sentences Queen Guinevere to death, for though he doesn’t want to, he must nonetheless show that even kings should not be above the law. Rather than naive simplicity, this fantasy is an escape from triviality and blandness; all actions are great, and have great consequences, both deserved and undeserved. It’s not the maudlin mantra “everything happens for a reason,” that religious types are so fond of saying. No, just as Loki’s trickery and deceit are often helpful to the Aesir, so does Hector’s bravery and honor meet with death and shame as his corpse is desecrated before his father’s eyes. The moral behind these myths is that anything truly worth doing is worth doing for its own sake, rather than for hope of reward or fear of punishment, whether financial, judicial, or karmic; and the point of describing this ideal world of beauty and significance, of course, is so that we can then try to make our own ugly, petty world more like it. Hell, Shelton all but comes right out and says so directly, in the intro to “Astronomica”; it’s a bit metaphorical (he’s not actually talking about that stuff magicians do or the kind of soul the bible talks about, folks), but it’s pretty damn clear what he means:

The future's not so cold, just trust the ways of old
Magik can save the soul, and set the spirit free
It's not just fantasy