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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.