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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.