Surviving for over 35 years and producing one of the more plentiful and consistent discographies in metal puts Wichita’s Manilla Road in an interesting position. It’s clear that principal architect (and sole founding member) Mark Shelton continues to enjoy the creative process, and he’s often made note of the fact that he still loves being a part of an active touring band, but similar to the Motörheads and Maidens and Priests of our day, and more specifically, with regard to the more casual fans out there, at what point does word of a new release offer something more than: 1) another prospective piece for the diehard’s ever-expanding puzzle, and/or 2) a portent for another opportunity to catch the band in a live setting.
Long-time fans of Manilla Road still get excited about the prospect of a new release, but most of us walk into the encounter with a pretty clear understanding of what we’re going to get. Album number 18, To Kill a King, does little to shake that trend, which is a positive, but as the records continue to drop, the following adherence continues to hold true: if someone were to ask me for an ideal Manilla Road launching point, I would quickly direct them to the bullet-proof four-bagger that is Crystal Logic, Open the Gates, The Deluge and Mystification, and that’s not likely to change at any point in the future. Again, ask me to recommend first dips into any long-standing band and the result would be a very similar “look back in order to move forward” direction.
If my words are beginning to convey a sense of negativity toward Manilla Road’s modern output, that’s really not the intention. I’m simply trying to make the point that beyond the sense of satisfaction that occurs as a result of creating art, Manilla Road appear most concerned with making music for their fans, regardless of whether or not new releases succeed at adding significantly to those numbers. They are immune to trends, have little use for mainstream press, and they don’t rely on album sales to ensure the rent gets paid on some hidden chalet in the Swiss mountains. They wouldn’t shy away from those things, I’m sure, but not at the expense of what has been their impermeable mission for 35+ years now: to deliver epic, melodic, older-than-the-oldest-school heavy metal that’s swarming with tales of true history and fantasy alike.
To Kill a King heeds the band’s time-worn call in a manner that’s complementary to their most recent output, but where the more casual listener might hear status quo, the devotee will quickly pick up on distinctions. Where 2015’s towering The Blessed Curse represented some of the most resilient, swift work the band has done in years, To Kill a King boasts a darker vibe – one that’s certainly fitting of Paolo Girardi’s shadowy depiction of the death of King Hamlet that illustrates the album’s namesake and the moody 10-minute opener.
“To Kill a King” launches the album with a doomy impression that binds the classic tragedy in slow, murky riffs and somber acoustic guitar passages, and it does a perfect job of setting the blanketing grimness that dominates the bulk of the record. Along with the opener, “Never Again,” “In the Wake,” and “The Other Side” all feature gloomy mellow stretches and a skulking clip that detail forewarning motifs such as nuclear threat, the aftermath of colliding governments and religions, and cabalistic creatures coming to life from the blackest corners of the mind. Subsequently, a larger portion of To Kill a King puts Mark Shelton’s voice under the spotlight, as his gravelly, easy delivery fully matches a more funereal tone.
That isn’t to say co-vocalist Bryan Patrick falls short of delivering the glum – he does so in the aforementioned “The Other Side” – he simply shines when the atmosphere is more combative and heavy. Skirmishing gladiators in the aggressive “The Arena,” for example, and throughout the skankable “Ghost Warriors,” which relates Rome’s greatest defeat at the hands of Arminius.
Newcomer Phil Ross has an immediate impact, as his bass is featured prominently throughout all ten tunes, but a particular highlight hits with the excellent “The Talisman,” the record’s brightest and most contagious ripper, when his four-stringing rumbles nimbly alongside Shelton’s fiery lead at the song’s midpoint. Neudi also happens to really wallop on this song, and it’s worth mentioning that his comprehensive drumming on To Kill a King is exceptional. I know Andreas has always been a boon behind the kit, but his ability to vigorously embellish the corners, particularly during the album’s more creeping moments, adds a significant amount of potency this time around.
It’s only taken me, what, 800 words to get to one of the principal reasons a number of folks are here?
Leads, leads, leads, leads, leads. This record features more lead guitar work than an Uli Jon Roth-fronted band called Uli And The Ulis that features four clones of Uli Jon Roth. Mark Shelton plays lead guitar like most people watch Netfilx: intensely, and for hours on end. If you don’t like your metal overflowing with fiery fretwork, you took the wrongest motherfucking turn at Albuquerque that’s ever been taken. Every song on To Kill a King features multiple solos, and oftentimes, like during the Alexander the Great-centered “Conqueror,” they not only deliver the hook, they actually feel more like lead vocals than lead guitar, which is something fairly unique to Manilla Road. Suffice to say, The Shark probably came out of the womb playing a Robin Trower solo, and he remains at the top of his game in 2017.
Is To Kill a King essential? Of course it is. I am a Manilla Road junkie, however, so I’m always ready to hear something new from the band, even if it doesn’t necessarily sound “new.” Plus, I never seem to grow tired of hearing Shelton hustle those frets with the urgency of a piranha on a fallen water buffalo. I’m certain there are more casual fans out there who are happy with a fraction of the band’s discography, and that’s obviously fine, but during an age where more and more heavy metal bands bust the boundaries or dilute the hallowed prototype, it’s comforting to always have a few kings up your sleeve that always deliver the goods with zero compromise.
Released on June 30th, 2017 through Golden Core Records.