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manilla bro'd - 78%

caspian, October 19th, 2017

Spiral's pretty cool but it basically strikes me as a proto Voyager. Bear in mind: I've only heard this and Voyager post-reforming, so perhaps it's an opinion to take with a rather large grain of salt! The kinda death metal riffing is there, but it's not quite as full, as huge and as potent as in Voyager. Honestly all up this seems like Manilla Road weren't entirely sure what to be doing on this album, as it's a bit all over the shop, a bit inconsistent- a decent album taken as a whole, but the sort of thing that would've made a killer EP if the dudes had ruthlessly culled some weaker tracks.

A few strong tracks but it's only really Shadows and particularly Born upon the Soil that've really left a big impression. Essentially, they're everything that's good about newer Manilla Road- I mean when you get down to it, they're basically everything that you could want in a metal tune. Ridiculously heavy, rather dark, full of massive riffs and thick with foreboding, ancient Malazan-ish kinda atmospheres, I can't praise the tunes enough. That death metal influence (is it death metal? It doesn't seem entirely correct calling it that, but I'm not sure how else you'd put it) lurks somewhere in the background, and it's great. Yeah, no other heavy metal band I've heard has made stuff that's quite as dissonant, quite as mean and nasty and crunchy as the chorus riff in Shadow, with Born Upon the Soil doing that kinda triumphant middle eastern thing a million death metal bands have tried at some point, and owning it better than any of them.

The rest, however- a bit more over the shop. Merchants of Death has some good, some really good riffs- again, using that very effective Manilla Road + death metal template, with a touch of particularly heavy doom in the verses, but that's somewhat nullifed by the fairly awkward "angry at the Iraq war" lyrics, and has a long- very long- and shitty bridge where little happens beyond some bad mellow noodling and some really average vocals. You can only wonder what would've happened if they'd taken the bridge out and instead set about to making the heaviest song in the world. Oh well. There's stuff like this throughout- a good but way overlong title track, a good but somewhat aimless instrumental that continues on from Born upon the Soil but with far less of the purpose and atmosphere (although the violin part is certainly cool).

I'm not hating too much mind. Parts of this are undeniably flawed but only Merchants of Death with it's godawful bridge has me reaching for the skip button; as for the most part the strengths of Manilla Road shine through the uneven songwriting- the excellently noodly bass playing, the busy, organic dumming, the top tier quality riffs, cheerfully all over the shop solos and if this and Voyager are anything to go on then Shelton is one of the few vocalists who was better in the 2000s than the 80s. It's not a classic, but definitely worth a look.

From Taliesin to Poe to Shelton - 94%

Psychotic Fates, April 9th, 2013

Kansas weird metallers Manilla Road really cooked up a heavy platter of esoteric metal goodness with this album, and I do mean heavy. Not heavy in the frenetic thrash style of Out of the Abyss mind you, but more from the weight of the power chords and the guitar tone itself. If the ever-changing Cirith Ungol were still recording music in 2002, this is what they might sound like. This whole album just fucking crushes. It's very much in the doom metal category, but it's doom with a distinctly Manilla Road flavor. Despite the length of many of these songs as well as the rambling, lengthy solos and the jam-oriented instrumental sections, the songwriting is sublime.

The atmospheric Gateway to the Sphere sets the mood with strange buzzing riffs and equally strange leads that are weird as fuck, but total Manilla Road. This instrumental broods and builds into the title track wherein riffs fall on you like monolithic slabs of rock falling from the sky. The initial chord progression is mean, presaging an even meaner sig riff where some double-picking is thrown in to create a moderate, but violent pace. When the vocals come in, the listener is struck by just how adenoidal they are. This band always had extremely nasal vocals, but this takes it to the nth degree. Bryan "Hellroadie" Patrick shared vocal duties on here with Mark "The Shark" Shelton and they alternate clean singing with quasi-death grunts while harmonizing often. In the past, this band would pronounce certain words a little off and so it stands out on this album that everything is pronounced in a normal fashion.

That's where the normalcy ends for this band, although it doesn't matter when they write music this wicked. Shadow stomps through more doomy riffs and has a smooth, ominous chorus that will increasingly haunt you with repeated listens. Seven Trumpets starts with pure chaos, but after about 30 seconds it mellows out for a bit with one of those classic, eerie arpeggios The Shark is known for. See, this band understands dynamics and therefore do not bludgeon you incessantly with heaviness, for they know when to give their audience a break. Another example of this is that middle section of Merchants of Death. This song just devastates for most of its 11 minutes, but has a moody, lyrically-reflective middle part. The apocalyptic lyrics throughout this album come across like a wise old shaman offering sage advice. Shelton again proves he's a poet worthy of being mentioned alongside the great bards of yore.

Speaking of yore, there's something so horribly ancient about the pleasantly dry Born Upon the Soul that perfectly suits its lyrical content. Bassist Mark Anderson, who adds additional layers of heaviness to this whole album, stands out on this song and adds to its Eastern mystic aura. He rips out a noodly bass riff under the 3-minute guitar solo, shining along with The Shark, all this with compounding drum beats and an eldritch chord progression going on at the same time. The King Crimson-ish Sands of Time continues the theme from Born Upon the Soul, but without the use of electric guitars; rather, it's shimmering acoustics with a violin. It builds up to a subdued crescendo with the kind of waiting-for-the-apocalypse-to-come desperation of watching an hourglass run out that measures the lifespan of your world.

This album doesn't wallow in despair as one would expect from such a slab of epic doom metal, but instead one is left on a sparse note with a kind of whimsical emptiness. There's a loose concept to this album, perhaps one of pondering the overwhelming vastness of endless desert sands under equally endless and clear desert skies. It's worth climbing this Spiral Castle.

Of barbarians and ancient sands - 91%

Jophelerx, August 15th, 2012

2001's Atlantis Rising wasn't a particularly promising comeback, with relatively uninspired riffs, bland melodies, and just a general mediocrity in songwriting. For a comeback album, it wasn't much of a comeback, although given that the last two albums before MR broke up were Out of the Abyss and The Courts of Chaos, it's not as if it was a huge step down in quality. However, with 2002's Spiral Castle, Mark Shelton proved that he still knew how to write classics like Crystal Logic and Mystification. However, as is usual for MR, the band took a new musical direction with this album. While 1988's Out of the Abyss was pretty much pure thrash, the band had been dialing back the thrash influence on subsequent albums; The Courts of Chaos was more of an amalgamation of heavy/power/thrash, and Atlantis Rising had only minor thrash influences. In Spiral Castle, we see all traces of thrash gone in favor of a heavy/doom hybrid akin to a heavier Crystal Logic, and, interestingly enough, we begin to see some traces of death metal at times, unexpected for an epic heavy metal band but worked in well enough that they're in no way awkward or even particularly noticeable, unless you're looking for them.

Introduced here on his only album is drummer Scott Peters, who does a good job but isn't particularly unique; the drums don't detract from the album but don't exactly stand out either, although when you notice it the drumming is quite nice. Bassist Mark Anderson is more noticeable here than he was on Atlantis Rising, as there are some pretty interesting bass lines that are often completely different from what's going on with the guitar. As usual, Shelton is in top form on both axe and vocals, with some harsh vocals introduced here for the first time; I would assume they're courtesy of Bryan "Hellroadie" Patrick, but given that Shelton himself did some harshes on Voyager, I can't say for sure. Either way, they're quite good, and, as usual, worked in quite seamlessly.

The thing about this album is that, more than any other MR album, including Voyager, it flows perfectly from beginning to end, almost like one continuous piece of music; Atlantis Rising was meant as a concept album, but didn't have nearly the amount of continuity you hear on this one. Ironically, I don't even think Spiral Castle was intended as a concept album, as the lyrics, like those in the '80's 'Road albums, tend to draw from several different mythology, ranging from Lovecraftian to Norse to Arthurian. However, it flows better than most other albums I've yet to hear, concept or otherwise, with a few notable exceptions such as Tiamat's Gaia and possibly Virgin Steele's The House of Atreus: Act I. The songs themselves are almost exclusively fantastic, with the exceptions being Merchants of Death and the instrumental Sands of Time, which are merely good. The songs pretty much fall in three categories; the majority are heavy/doom, with crushing, occasional death metal riffs; two are instrumental; and one (Seven Trumpets) is a more subtle, melodic number, not quite a ballad, but more along the lines of a song like Mystification or Into the Courts of Chaos, with a significant amount of clean guitar.

The title track is certainly the best of the metal tracks, with a huge, devastating opening riff, ancient, arcane verses, and spot-on soloing; really, almost all the songs have an ancient, mysterious, almost forbidden feel, although there are subtle differences; some of them, such as the title track, have a more barbaric leaning, while others are more arcane and magic-oriented. "Shadow" is also slightly more on the barbaric side, and although the atmosphere is slightly less pronounced, the riffs are so thick and catchy that you're not going to care. "Merchants of Death" starts out as heavily barbaric, with some excellent harsh vocals, but gets softer in the middle of the song, a section that has sort of a blues-rock feel, which I'm just not a fan of and I feel detracts from the song. However, if you skip that section, the song is quite good, easily on par with "Shadow" and nearly as good as "Spiral Castle". Finally, "Born Upon the Soul" definitely has more of an arcane atmosphere, possibly the most ancient and forbidden slab of metal here, with excellent lyrics and an almost desperate feeling with the riffs.

"Sands of Time" is pretty much a continuation of "Born Upon the Soul", with a similar melody and atmosphere, albeit this time with a clean guitar and synths. It's good, but definitely overlong, and, at over 7 minutes with little variation, generally fails to hold my attention for its entire duration. Listen to the first two or three minutes, and then turn it off. "Seven Trumpets" on the other hand, is quite good, with a quality that's on par with the better songs of the album. Overall, the album is one of Manilla Road's finest, and a personal favorite of mine; it took me longer than any other Manilla Road album to get into all of it - over a year and a half - but the wait was well worth it. If you're a fan of traditional doom or epic heavy metal, this is a must.

Splendid - 100%

Sargon_The_Terrible, February 26th, 2008

After being pleasantly surprised by how good "Atlantis Rising" was, I had hopes for this one. The advance reviews were very mixed, and I held off on getting this one for a while. I should know better. I won't claim that this is the best MR album ever – but I will say this is an absolutely amazing album.

This is going to give me fits trying to describe. "Spiral Castle" is at once a more accessible album than is usual for this band, and at the same time it's one of the most obtuse, idiosyncratic and just downright strange albums they've ever put out. On "Atlantis Rising" the band seemed to be playing it a little safe, trying for a more modern sound while still staying more or less true to the 'Road of old. This album is like a distillation of all the things this band has ever been about, both the things that make them great, and the things that make them a very acquired taste. Long, looong songs with that characteristic MR riff style, but far, far doomier than they have played for a long time. Throw in those loopy guitar leads and Mark the Shark's nasal tenor, and you have the sound of Manilla Road from the old days, only moreso. The lead breaks on this CD are just insane, with "Seven Trumpets" having a three or four minute break, and "Born Upon The Soul" is literally half guitar solo. Most times when a band has a three-minute guitar solo I roll my eyes and get rapidly bored to death, but somehow that doesn't happen with this band. I love Mark Shelton's leads: the tone, the phrasing, everything, and he can solo on forever and I'll just go with it. He's an amazing player, and the most soulful guitarist Metal has ever seen. He obviously knows you can get more feeling out of one properly bent note than out of 150 of them, and he is the master at this.

Vocals. Well, well – this is a serious case of love or hate vocals. If you like Mark Shelton's voice, you will love this, as he sounds better than he has in years. For fans of the band, this album is a return to the singing style of the old albums like "Mystification", and it's like mana from heaven. For those who can't handle Mark's vocals, this album isn't going to change you mind, so just move along. I took a while to get used to his voice, but now I love it, and I wouldn't trade the vocals on this CD for anything.

"Spiral Castle" features the best songwriting this band has shown in a decade. After the opening lead track every song is a pounding, doomy crunchfest in high 'Road style. (Except for the closer "Sands Of Time" which is an instrumental played entirely on acoustic guitar and violin – see? I said this was a weird album.) The monster epic of the title track, the creepy "Shadow", the hypnotic "Seven Trumpets", the colossal ten-minute "Merchants Of Death" and the mystical "Born Upon The Soul" – there just are not any bad songs on this album, or even any average ones.

Manilla Road albums have had crappy cover art for so long it's become traditional. "Spiral Castle" has better art than is usual for this band, but still amateurish. The logo is the same I-drew-it-in-study-hall logo as in years past. The interior layout is decent, and all the excellent lyrics are included. The production job on this album is much better than on any previous MR release, while still keeping that underground feel. The CD itself is such a cool shade of blue you can spend a long time just staring at it.

I was already a 'Road fan, and so this album was like a religious experience, but I can see this being an album for people who have never gotten this band before, as the production is much clearer than past recordings. Fans of prepackaged power metal or death metal will not find much to appeal to them here, but fans of anything underground and weird may find themselves transported, as I was, by the strange magic of this album. Awe-inspiring.

Originally written for

A well hidden diamond in the rough - 98%

Empyreal, April 3rd, 2007

Manilla Road is obviously one of the most influential bands in metal. They've existed for a long 25 years or so, putting out obscure and weirdly cool heavy metal in the underground ever since, and even spawned a new subgenre of metal populated by bands like Ironsword, Battleroar, Assedium and Cauldron Born. Manilla Road is characterized by the nasal tenor of Mark 'the Shark' Shelton, their long-winded solos, and the fact that their cover art is usually pretty crappy, in a charming, old school kind of way. Their music is practically the opposite of accessibility and catchiness, and you probably won't fall in love with it at first listen, what with the vocals of Mark Shelton, the loopy, weird guitar solos that really go nowhere, and the big, chunky doom-ish riffs that never stop rolling out. It took me a while to really love Manilla Road, too, but now that I realize what the hype is about, the above description of their sound seems at home to me, not odd or inaccessible in the least. Once you get into Manilla Road, there's really no turning back, as you will love this infectious style of metal like no other.

Now, onto the subject of this review, 'Spiral Castle.' It's the band's umpteenth album, and it seems to be their most misunderstood yet, with people calling it 'too odd' and 'not very good.' Well I don't agree, as this is one of the best heavy metal albums I've ever heard. From the doomy chords of the short intro "Gateway to the Sphere" leading into the monstrous 8 minute title track, this is a unique album. The title track is a good one, and the first song I had ever heard by the band. It's got huge, hard-hitting riffs with one of Mark Shelton's best vocal preformances, plus a very interesting growling chorus done by Hellroadie, the band's second vocalist at the time. This song is just epic all the way through, never becoming tiresome or dull in the least. It's impossible to go into depth about every song here, because they're all equally cool, from the sludgy, meandering solos in "Shadow", featuring an impressive vocal preformance from Shelton and more excellent soloing.

The same can be said for every song here, really, especially the monolithic epic "Merchants of Death" and the middle eastern tinged "Born Upon the Soul." The guitar solos here are spectacular, and Mark Shelton's prowess as a musician is clearly not limited to the vocal realm. They're all winding, epic guitar mastery that never even touches the 'masturbation' or 'pointlessness' realm, and all of them are equally spectacular. There are also these cool acoustic passages stuck into ''Seven Trumpets" and "Merchants of Death", accenting their epic overtones greatly.

There is one clinker, and it's...a bonus track. "Throne of Lies" is a rather inconsistant and choppy song, with monotonous riffs and a seemingly uninspired vocal preformance. It's good that this wasn't on the album, as it is miles behind the quality of the material presented here. I wonder why they recorded it, it's odd to see a Manilla Road song of such mediocre quality. Just experimentation that failed, I suppose.

I can't find much wrong with this stuff, as this album is just an extremely masterful and cohesive outing from one of metal's best kept secrets. Mark Shelton and his crew are incredible musicians, and I hope Manilla Road lasts for a damn long time. It's a shame, because this band will stay unnoticed and neglected by the majority of music-listeners everywhere while the latest shit-trend gets worshipped left and right. Manilla Road will never gain the respect they deserve, and...maybe that's not so bad? The best gems are well hidden, and it's especially true in Manilla Road's case. Highly, highly recommended.