Released: 2005, Battlecry Records
We’re getting hauntingly close to Manilla Road’s 30th anniversary (it's been 25 years since the debut, INVASION, was released), and that’s an almost disturbing thought. It’s disturbing to me that Manilla Road and Mark Shelton have been toiling in the underground for so long with such little recognition. This is a band that continues not to make a quick buck, not to be on a huge tour, but to create and keep the metal spirit alive. It’s hard to think of another band that’s had such a long and storied career, yet seen such little recognition. For a band like Manilla Road, you know it’s about the music…
Manilla Road play traditional heavy metal that has a tendency to go beyond the standard metal songs. The band tends to be epic while not becoming overproduced and slick. There’s no fluff in Manilla Road. Starting in the late 70’s the band immediately began burning through classic album after classic album only to see the band disband in the early 90’s. It wasn’t until 2001 that Mark Shelton reformed Manilla Road with a new line-up and shot back with ATLANTIS RISING. With this new line-up fans saw guitarist, and main songwriter, Mark Shelton, step back from the microphone a bit to let new bandmate Bryan Patrick take up and split the vocal duties with him. This line-up has produced four albums since forming and now with this year’s GATES OF FIRE was unknowingly Bryan Patrick’s last hurrah with the band.
Unfortunately my experience with Manilla Road’s new line-up is limited at best (I’ve only heard a few songs here and there), but I can say that GATES OF FIRE lives up to the “classic” string of albums the band was able to produce throughout the 80’s. GATES OF FIRE even has much of that fuzzy, warm yet dirty production I’ve come to associate with the band, and it works so well. The album is split into three sections, each section comprised of 3 songs and dealing with a different story/event.
The first trilogy, titled The Frost Giant’s Daughter, is based upon a story by Robert E. Howard about Conan the Cimmerian. The first song, “Riddle of Steel”, opens the album up strongly. This opening track is probably the most instantly accessible song on the album with pounding double bass and quite a few vocal changes (going from a very rough low voice to falsetto screams, while incorporating much of that distinct nasal approach of Mark Shelton). The multi-vocal choice works especially well during the change from verse to chorus, jumping and exploding from rough vocals to falsetto where in the chorus we see both vocalists playing off each other. “Behind the Veil” sees the band head acoustic with very understated guitar work and haunting vocals which sets things up for the conclusion of the initial trilogy. The first thing I noticed about “When Giants Fall” was actually the drum work. I mean, it’s not overly technical or original but the thumping double bass fills and interesting changes are much appreciated. Multi-part verse is also a nice touch to the song, seeing the guitars change noticeably while the vocal stays the same. This is something that many bands attempt but fail to do it as seamlessly as a band like Manilla Road accomplishes it here (and in many other areas of their catalogue). And those solos, they’re just so perfect for the song.
The second trilogy, Out of the Ashes, is based upon the story The Aeneid written by Virgil in the 1st century BC. The story is considered an epic and Manilla Road don’t disappoint in that aspect. The trilogy starts off innocently enough in “The Fall of Iliam” but throughout this epic, near 15 minute, track the song dips and weaves through many feels and emotions. “Imperious Rise” is a slow, menacing builder. From the beginning section one can instantly see that the riff is being held back, you can feel it boiling just beneath the surface before the “real” riff rears its ugly head and man does it. The riffs here are just deceptive in their heaviness, Manilla Road could level a city with riffs like these. “Rome” continues that more brooding atmosphere from “Imperious Rise”. The song even verges on doom with its long drawn out feel.
The third and final trilogy, Gates of Fire, is based upon King Leonidas of the Spartans and the battle he lead at Thermopylae against Persian troops. The tom riding in “Stand of the Spartans” is befitting of such a trilogy, with marching war like defiance it plods along. The trilogy continues on with the slow “Betrayal”; the lead guitar used to great effect to create an almost dreamy sound overtop of the heavy riffing. The album, and trilogy, closes with “Epitaph to the King”. The song is just what you would expect, a soft, sombre song for King Leonidas’ death.
Manilla Road are continuing to write and record some of the finest metal there is. If you’ve never listened to Manilla Road, GATES OF FIRE is as good a place as any to start and if you were like me, and were kind of iffy on the idea of a reunited Manilla Road and still haven’t checked out any post-reunion albums, get a hold of GATES OF FIRE and prepare to be wowed.