|Review: Manilla Road - Spiral Castle|
Label: Iron Glory
Year released: 2002
Genre: Heavy Metal
Review online: November 22, 2003
Reviewed by: Sargon the Terrible
This would be either the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, or maybe thirteenth album by the almighty Manilla Road (depending on how you count things – it's confusing). 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 – I haven't even heard them all, so I can't say that – 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.
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