Originally written by Chris Chellis.
The bouts are relatively few and far between for Manilla Road but when they walk toward the ring in those spiffy black shorts with the gold trimming you know that they mean business, and unlike the vast majority of the boxing world’s heroes these guys aren’t strutting with overt arrogance. Mark Shelton and Co. walk calmly and confidently with the pride that often comes in maintaining an increasingly respectable and diverse career. They’re not interested in sucker punches or quick KOs but in epic battles, the kind that move with a subtle beauty. Clocking in at over an hour in length, Manilla Road’s fourteenth full-length (14!), most certainly reflects that aesthetic, and if there were ever one album that required multiple listens to fully appreciate, then this one would be it.
“This is good,” I thought, as I sat down to my newly bought copy of Voyager. Good, but not great. “It’s a little….weird. What’s with that airy acoustic song “Tree of Life?” Why did the guys choose to kill the opening with a long and boring intro segment with lame voice-over crap? And what in god’s name is an organ doing on “Blood Eagle?” The riffs slew, as expected, but there was something a little off when I gave this a once-over. I don’t know if it was the drums on crack or the schizophrenic pace or a combination of the two but there was something casting an unwelcome shadow on what should have been a celebratory experience. I shrugged it off, played “Frost and Fire” and “Conquest” again, tossed the CD onto the opposite side of the couch and let the whole thing simmer in my mind as I fell asleep.
I awoke determined to give this a few more chances. It felt awkward uploading a Manilla Road album onto an iPod for obvious reasons but I did that before hopping into my car and taking off for work. Hitting a particularly nasty morning for LA traffic, I pressed play and let Shelton’s viking saga unfold before me as I fought my own battle with soccer moms, gangbangers, dirty cops and other degenerates determined to save a few seconds by cutting through my lane.
While it wasn’t the most appropriate context for a second and more dissecting listen, the car proved to be a friendly host despite the snail’s pace and the nuances of each song were slowly creeping through my taurine-soaked skull. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around that pretty sudden switch that takes place between the scorching “Frost and Fire” and the silky smooth acoustic opening of “Tree of Life,” but the suffocating, overwhelmingly oblique atmosphere of the first track seemed effective as opposed to unnecessary, the organ in “Blood Eagle” was refreshing and served as an appropriate contrast to the cutting riffs of the rest of the song, and album closer “Totentanz (The Dance of Death)” proved to be an even greater Manilla Road landmark than before. I mean, when Shelton kicked in with the guitar at the minute and a half mark I seriously got shivers and it wasn’t from the half-empty can of Red Bull sitting in the cup-holder.
As I made my freeway exit and drove through the dilapidated streets of south LA, Voyager had suddenly become worthy of its creator. I reminded myself that, indeed, I was listening to classic metal in its most earnest and honest form, as molded by the hands that helped create the form. This was something unique, valuable even, and as I write this now I can honestly say that this is an even greater recording than its predecessor, the stellar but somehow less complete Gates of Fire. Every song seems to be meticulously positioned, each one strong in its own right but made all the more interesting by its relationship with the others. There’s a traceable story here, the evidence found in Shelton’s lyrics and the differing moods of the music itself. If Voyager‘s charm doesn’t seduce you then you’ve got no soul.