There was a time when we the people of Last Rites, in order to form a more reasonable union, occasionally cheated with our Devil’s Dozen feature. We’d look at a body of work from legendary acts such as Judas Priest or Iron Maiden and say to ourselves, “Selves, there is no way we can pick just thirteen of the greatest songs from this remarkable band, so let’s expand the picks to 26 and split the feature into two.” COWARDS! Cowards, I tell you.
But then… Maybe we were onto something? And maybe we should consider doing similarly again, because Manilla Road is at long last getting the Devil’s Dozen treatment, and they have 18 studio albums spanning a 40-year career for us to consider.
Hello, have you met Last Rites? We’re the humans who have made vacation plans together based around Manilla Road shows in the past, and we’re also the individuals who were so shaken by the sudden passing of Mark “The Shark” Shelton—the patron saint of epic heavy metal—back in July of 2018 that we wrote three memorial pieces and continue to openly weep when we hear certain glorious Shelton solos.
O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou such a Manilla Road fan, Romeo? And why hast yon band stoked thine collective fires so profoundly over these many years, Romeo? Hell, even the Road’s later material that for some fans began treading the ol’ familiar “maybe a little too old and familiar” terrain still managed to get cranked under our roof loud enough that the State Farm office next door to our HQ occasionally attempted counterstrikes by turning speakers and Kenny Chesney albums against a shared wall. You will never win that battle, State Farm. YOU WILL NEVER FUCKING WIN THAT BATTLE, STATE FARM.
To the world tonight!
It’s a clichéd statement, but Manilla Road is the marrow of heavy metal. Cut through the skin, hack through tendons, and crack open the very bones of this genre and thar she glows: Manilla Road in all its magnificent glory. Sure, some might reserve such acclaim only for bands that set the foundation in a more widespread manner, and who in their right mind would not consider the Sabbaths and Priests and Maidens responsible for pumping the lifeblood of heavy metal from day one as fundamental parts of the full metal anatomy, marrow included. Not us dinosaurs, that’s for sure. But you’d have to search high and low to find a band with as long a rap sheet as Manilla Road that managed to deliver so much unassailable epic heavy metal while remaining buried miles below the underground with infinite hardships standing in the way. That, friends, is heartfelt love and determination for spreading the loud ’n’ proud gospel, no matter how craggy and impenetrable the terrain. That’s devotion. That’s armor-plated integrity. That’s the sort of commitment that makes records such as Crystal Logic, Open the Gates, Mystification, and other Road classics some of the first things we reach for when times are tough and we need a lift, when times are great and we’re looking for a proper complement, or simply when someone asks for “some of that real underground shit that’ll rattle the walls and make the neighbors wonder.”
Without further delay, we humbly present thirteen of our favorite Manilla Road songs. If some of your headliners are missing, take solace in the fact that they are missing for us as well. Really, how could they not with 18 Road records on the shelf to consider? [CAPTAIN]
Up the hammers & down the nails! May the Lords of Light be with you!
DEATH BY THE HAMMER [Mystification, 1987]
One of the most endearing aspects to me about Manilla Road’s run from 1980-1990 is how that sound has never quite been duplicated. While plenty of bands have taken inspiration from the sound, no one quite has the guitar chops, the voice, the ear for songwriting, or the ability to tell a story across a track quite the way Manilla Road did it. Regardless of what they were doing or when, the boys from Kansas always found a way to make it their own. So when they began taking some of the faster, heavier elements of the metal scene around them and incorporating them into their sound, it always, always seemed like a natural progression for a band that retained their core spirit and clung to it like the precious bounty of treasure it was.
By 1987 and their sixth studio full-length, the light bearers in Manilla Road were incorporating a little more speed into their sound on Mystification. While it wasn’t quite as thrash-oriented as the follow-up of Out Of The Abyss, tracks like “Up From The Crypt,” “Children Of The Night,” and, of course, “Death By The Hammer” all added a bit more crushing weight to the band’s lofty, dream-world fantasy metal. “Death By The Hammer,” originally pressed as the album’s closer, is a straight-up power anthem — it pulls every bit of strength from the Viking mythos so often tapped by the band and swings it straight to the skull with the same force as a 70-pound warhammer. The ominous opening is unmistakable, drawing back tension for a full swing before releasing under the snap of Randy Foxe’s crackling drums. The driving chug of Shark’s guitar thrusts the song into battle before the chorus; his wizened voice gains a little more snarl as it calls out the battle cry of, “Death! By! The Hammmah!” The little guitar licks between each word are so subtle, yet absolutely crucial in making that short chorus simply leap out of the song.
Speaking of guitar work, it would be totally remiss not to mention the solo — not only are Shelton’s licks as powerful as ever as his fingers dance across the frets, peppering and flavoring the dish with pinch harmonics and hammer-on’s aplenty — but the setup before the first flurry absolutely builds that tension again before it lets loose. The way the full band sets up for the release in the bridge is really something, with Foxe’s tom work dominating the field of battle, alongside the occasional pop of the snare to foreshadow what’s to come. And it’s not just one: A second solo emerges following a final verse/chorus to add an exclamation point to the conclusion of the song. It’s a powerful end to one of Road’s finest hours. [RYAN TYSINGER]
THE RIDDLE MASTER [Crystal Logic, 1983]
On what is surely Manilla Road’s most beloved album, Crystal Logic, amongst a host of now-classic songs, “The Riddle Master” manages to stand out as one of the best and most unique songs, not just on Crystal Logic, but of the band’s entire career. In contrast to the mostly up-tempo, melodic heavy metal that makes up the rest of the record “The Riddle Master” is a brutish, primarily plodding, riff-centric tune, owing more to doom metal than power metal. Yet, for all that it goes against the album’s grain, “The Riddle Master” is nonetheless thoroughly epic heavy metal.
Much like the Charlie Daniels Band hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “The Riddle Master” is about a duel with the Devil, but with a riddle in place of a fiddle. Unlike Johnny, who made pretty short work of Old Scratch, the unnamed hero of “The Riddle Master” has a pretty rough go of it, as the riddle has him thoroughly stumped for most of the song. With time running short, our hero’s desperation is echoed by the track’s frantic coda, wherein the doomy slow-grind is dismissed in favor of something more akin to speed metal. On the brink of defeat, but resolved to battle with “blazing steel” if he must, at last, the answer comes to our hero, and the Riddle Master is vanquished to the fires of Hell where he belongs. It doesn’t get much more epic than that. [JEREMY MORSE]
NECROPOLIS[Crystal Logic, 1983]
I mean, c’mon, right? You knew it, I knew it, we all flippin’ knew “Necropolis” would find its way onto this list. While far from being the only song in the Manilla Road assemblage to launch fans into unrelenting earworm status, no other cut does so as swiftly as “Necropolis.” Just seeing that word on its lonesome anywhere / anytime is all it really takes. In fact, the spell is powerful enough to trickle into word associations. Take a couple wrong turns in Annapolis, Maryland? You better believe anyone lucky enough (ahem) to be in the car with you is about to get an earful. Goth night at Metropolis? Totally appropriate. Find yourself at a party where some poor bastard mistakenly asks, “What line of work is your wife in?” Goodnight, Irene, someone please stop that man from screaming “MY WIFE’S A BAAAHHTANAAAHHST.” “Necropolis” is Manilla Road’s answer to “We Will Rock You,” “The Final Countdown,” or “Beat it,” and any band worth their salt should hope to have at least one of these songs in the quiver for every live show.
The truth that “Necropolis” isn’t even the “best” song on Crystal Logic speaks to the strength of its hook, but it also deserves list recognition because it represents the proper introduction to Manilla Road’s newfound epic metal trajectory after two releases of stoned hard rockin’. Following a short and sinister intro, Shelton’s opening riff leaps into your face like a puma from a tree, and then things speed off into a full sprint until the first chorus slams home after only 30 seconds. The midpoint breakdown is muscular and establishes a new connection to lyrics that go beyond arcade games and going out of control with rock ’n’ roll in favor of more fantastical, poetic motifs that underscore righteousness and gallantry.
“I have seen your cities burning
I have felt your daughters’ yearning
For the peace you had before the tides of war
I have witnessed funeral pyres
Burning bright with man’s desires
I will fight the demon horde forever more”
And oh blessed blade of felled titan, that lead that tears across the sky thereafter—it’s surprisingly short, but it shoots the perfect amount of vigor into the bloodstream before the chorus carries the rest of the song to its heroic close. What an incredible way to launch the next chapter of the Manilla Road adventure. [CAPTAIN]
THE NINTH WAVE [Open The Gates, 1984]
The centerpiece of the majestic Open The Gates album, both figuratively and (on the CD version) almost literally, “The Ninth Wave” is an absolutely stunning masterwork of epic heavy metal songwriting from the band whose name should forever be synonymous with such. From over a minute of squalling feedback comes a perfect metal riff, part doom and part trad and all killer, an instant musical hook buoyed by Randy Foxe’s rolling fills and lifted to Valhalla by the ascending chords that punctuate it. His vocal melody following that beastly riff, Mark “The Shark” Shelton croons a tale of mixed mythology, part Arthurian and part Norse — and maybe parts of others, as well; I’m no student of various ancient legends, I fear, no matter how many Grave Digger albums I own.
Somewhere in the midst of all those myths there’s a vague storyline, one of an ascendent king and of dragonships and the Lady Of The Lake and whatever else, but here as with so much of Manilla Road’s canon, what the whole of it boils down to are these: that epic metal majesty and mastery that transports the listener from some suburban bedroom straight onto the battlefields and beerhalls of Ye Olde Tymes, and Shelton’s seemingly endless supply of great goddamned guitar solos. And on that front, fear not, Ol’ Shark lets loose with some winners here, fleet-fingered runs atop Foxe’s insistent tom-pounding and Scott Park’s persistent quarter-note pulse. For a song possessing such undeniable power, “The Ninth Wave” stomps along at a deceptively lazy pace, and yet because of that power, it’s far from boring, far from lackadaisical — it’s methodical in its trudge, moving ever onward as those guitar leads swirl around you, like those dragonships sailing forth to Camelot. Or wherever dragonships would like to sail to. Who are we to dictate the destination of a dragonship? We are but mere mortals, and these are the ships of gods, written about in songs that were also performed by gods. Absolutely epic, absolutely perfect. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH[Mystification, 1987]
The clock strikes midnight. The plague rages outside as party guests gather in Prince Prospero’s abbey, convinced by their noble arrogance and feelings of superiority that they’re safe from the disease ravaging the land. Nope. In bursts the titular Red Death. In bursts Shark’s utterly hot-as-hell opening riff and Manilla Road’s intense attack during an extra thrashy verse and infinitely singable chorus. Out snuff the lives of those 1,000 rich chumps, because no amount of money or aristocratic isolation can stop the inevitability of death.
Inequality, overpopulation, rampant disease… damned if Poe’s story and Manilla Road’s song don’t currently feel way too timely. Not that Poe was necessarily writing a People’s Anthem or Road went anarcho punk with their song, but if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that creepy orgy masques and all they represent won’t protect you from illness as well as a good N95.
But lyrical meanings aside, “Masque of the Red Death” is unforgettable. We already addressed that verse and chorus, but just as key is the bridge, which arrives with a seamless and absolutely golden transition out of the chorus, easing up on the thrash as Shark sings of the “uninvited guest” mocking the nobles’ idiotic soiree. The solo follows with just a touch of nuttery and chaos, as if it carries a bit of the sickness itself. It all adds up to one of the most immediate and purely addictive songs on Mystification, which itself makes a very strong claim as being the most immediate and purely addictive Manilla Road album. Absolutely white hot. [ZACH DUVALL]
RETURN OF THE OLD ONES [Out Of The Abyss, 1988]
The fourth song on Out of the Abyss is a bit of anomaly in the midst of so much relentlessly thrashing metal. Though less dense, more diverse, and darker in both tone and theme than the rest of the album, it’s not unique simply by virtue of its contrast with surrounding songs. Plenty of metal bands drop melodious low-key diversions into their albums of heavy fucking metal, usually as an interlude, sometimes as an extended intro to essentially provide the listener some respite. (Heck, Manilla Road does that later on this album.) Rather than offering reprieve, though, “The Return of the Old Ones” blots even the faint slivers of light let through by songs around it. Mark Shelton’s writing is genius in this sense. Where most of the other tracks reflect camp horror in the glint of steel and blood, “The Return of the Old Ones” conjures H.P. Lovecraft’s trademark absence of light.
The combination of a persistent martial snare roll, echoing rounded bass notes, and coiling electric guitar lines come together to paint the landscape black. Shelton’s ritualistic narration builds the tension through a couple verses and choruses until the swell bursts with the incantation’s fulmination of light, Chtulhu’s spectre rising among shadows cast horizon wide. Black fire and electricity that must course through such terrible mystic conflagration is captured beautifully in The Shark’s magical, silvery guitar solo.
Other tracks further the weird tale this song begins, but “The Return of the Old Ones” gets the nod here for remembering and maximizing Manilla Road’s singular, epic strength, all while flexing newfound muscle. [LONE WATIE]
THE DELUGE [The Deluge, 1986]
So much of the power of Manilla Road is in their ability to write epics that not only unfold an enchanting tale across them, capturing the imagination and transporting their listeners to a time long gone or to far away worlds of myth and legend, but also in that they manage to keep them captivating and enthralling. The eponymous track from 1986’s The Deluge is certainly such an epic, and serves as a centerpiece to the album — the linchpin that holds it all together. In a move that would go on to define the latter era of their career, the song is divided into three specific movements: Three acts to tell the tale of the great flooding of Atlantis, all flawlessly woven together in a tapestry of fluid storytelling in a way that only Manilla Road can deliver.
The first movement, “Eye Of The Sea,” starts with Road’s loftier, quiet stylings, setting the stage of a lost era of magic and mystery. The soft picking of the guitar and intermittent drum play part the clouds of imagination, with Mark Shelton’s signature croon painting the portrait of Atlantis in the mind’s eye of the listener. The seas begin to grow violent as the music bits up, giving way to solid riffing and structure. The flurrying guitar solo that rounds out the movement hits like crashing waves on the shores of the ancient, doomed metropolis.
Shelton’s voice makes a change with the atmosphere on the second movement. Less lofty and packed with much more stone and grit, Shelton’s voice begins to match the immediacy of enraged gods and titans building their wrath against the soon-to-be-lost city. The music, in classic Manilla Road fashion, follows suit, turning up the intensity with the force of a growing storm over violent, destructive seas and powerful, unforgiving tides. The riffs feel nastier, more ominous — the storm only grows as the doomed city cowers beneath the might of immortal forces. The Foxe/Park rhythm combo are in full force, taking control of the flow of the song to match the pacing of the story — a characteristic of Road’s secret weapon when weaving a tale through song. The rains pour down as another signature Shelton solo hits like a torrent of rain and thunder, mercilessly bringing the wrath of Poseidon on the vast island before the third and final movement, “Engulfed Cathedral.”.
The final segment of the song all instrumental, relying on feeling more so than words to unravel the tale of the fabled Atlantis’s demise. For as good as Shelton is at telling stories, it’s really the atmosphere and cohesiveness of the band that make their yarns so cinematic, and the soft acoustic tones of “Engulfed Cathedral” paint a portrait of the aftermath: Silent, dead monuments are buried forever by the wrath of the sea, and an air of peace and mystery closes out the song, leaving the listener to ponder on the lost course of history as the muffled chimes echo to a time that may or may not have ever been. Somehow, Manilla Road always leaves the listener with a sense of wonder, inspiring imaginative thought from their own creative output — a factor that marks the greatness of the band and so well characterized on “The Deluge” that it absolutely deserves its spot on this list. [RYAN TYSINGER]
AVATAR [Mark Of The Beast, 2002]
How remarkable is your band’s overall work when you brainstorm a record as good as Mark of the Beast (originally titled Dreams of Eschaton) and end up scrapping it in favor of a set of entirely new songs that would become 1982’s Metal. In hindsight, the fact that Mark of the Beast remained “lost” for two decades likely adds to its eminence in the modern age, and while we’ll never know how it would’ve been received had it landed after 1980’s Invasion as originally intended, Shelton & crew’s decision to put the record on ice at least seems reasonable because the material admittedly doesn’t feel like it needed to surface from the Manilla Road camp circa 1981. In short, a group of young & loud hitters finding their legs in the hard ’n’ heavy realm very well could have doomed themselves (further) with a sophomore effort that pushed this much relaxed psychedelia. But throw the material into a time capsule and unearth it again in 2002, long after what’s widely considered the band’s classic run that solidified Manilla Road as underground heroes of true epic heavy metal? That’s the sort of extra credit metal fans live and die for, baby. That’s on the level of finding a forgotten Easter egg in the backyard that miraculously contains the lost tapes of Bathory’s Blood On Ice, or King Diamond’s Black Rose rehearsals.
For its part, “Avatar” represents one of six songs on the record that would best be described as “lengthy late-night jams crafted under the influence of copious amounts of dope hoovered from an ornate dragon bong.” Manilla Road was still trying to find their footing as some sort of space metal outfit hawking tunes that found a strange intersection between Uli Roth’s Electric Sun and some of the trippier stretches of Eloy, and “Avatar” hit at the perfect point on the record because it finally delivered some true heft after two largely hushed openers.
The guitar fades in and out at its onset, sounding a bit like something that could’ve fallen off the center-point of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” but then “Avatar” quickly hustles into a vigorous strut as Shelton begins barking “Avatar, Avatar / We are waiting / Avatar we are here, for your saving,” followed by the song’s first lengthy solo. The strut continues until the midpoint, where Scott Park’s bass and Rick Fisher’s drums suddenly begin dancing more gingerly, accompanied soon after by the record’s first true right hook just before the 6.5-minute mark. Shelton riffs hard before tearing off a series of wild leads that gives the second half of “Avatar” a frenzied feel of savage battle that’s capped by a monstrous vocal effect that sends the listener spiraling into damnation. Hey, what’s not to love about a classic, nearly lost Manilla Road song that’s equally soused in blood and bong water? [CAPTAIN]
CAGE OF MIRRORS [Metal, 1982]
Although Manilla Road’s earliest efforts are sometimes overlooked in light of how swiftly their craft blasted through the stratosphere with Crystal Logic and beyond, so many of those future triumphs were telegraphed by the signposts of Invasion and Metal. If “Queen of the Black Coast” was an early distillation of Road at their most propulsively rocking, then “Cage of Mirrors” pointed the way to mystical, winding progressive suites like “The Deluge” or “The Ninth Wave.”. (In fact, without the context of the shelved 1981 demos that were eventually released as Mark of the Beast, “Cage of Mirrors” feels like an outlier from this early era, when in fact it merges the more searching, wind-blown traveler vibe with a sturdier riffing core.)
But even — and maybe especially — at this early stage, there is an irreducible magic to Manilla Road. Even though I don’t share the sentiment, I can understand when people aren’t fans of Manilla Road. Sometimes they don’t like the vocals, or the production is too rough, or whatever the case might be. But when Manilla Road really hits you and resonates in a way where your ribcage vibrates in a sympathetic frequency, it’s pure magic that can’t be defined by its constituent parts. In reality, we’re talking about a few guys from the American Midwest — if you close your eyes, you can probably still see a rehearsal space, cheaply lit and hazed with cigarette smoke. They’ve got day jobs and they’re tuning up where they can find time.
But “Cage of Mirrors” opens with those chiming harmonics and one of Shark’s purest vocal performances and you’re transported. The song tells its story in words, sure, but you can almost paint the scene with just the sound alone — the plaintive clean chorus, the galloping anticipation of that first riff, the heavy syncopation and the almost death-growl tone that Shark dredges before a maniacal laugh. The recursive structure of the song is a little bit like Rush’s “Xanadu,” but that solo in the middle hits just that exacting balance of workmanlike and dreamlike that Shark seemed to nail so effortlessly. Given where Manilla Road was at this point in their career, “Cage of Mirrors” punches way above its weight and feels like one of those perfect storm moments that a band can spend years chasing.
I only saw Manilla Road live once, when they headlined the Alehorn of Power festival at Reggie’s in Chicago in 2013. Several of your favorite Last Rites knuckleheads had made the trek, and Road’s nearly three-hour set was one of the most joyful, life-affirming performances I’ve ever witnessed. But a personal highlight for me was when they pulled out “Cage of Mirrors,” a song that was then more than 30 years old but could have been made 50 years ago or maybe 100 years in the future. Watching the absolute and almost beatific lightness of Mark Shelton in his element, packed in a sweaty club with dear friends and total strangers, I felt lifted. And that was the true gift of Mark Shelton and Manilla Road: In crafting these perfect heavy metal worlds, he was writing stories we could all tell together. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
MARCH OF THE GODS [Atlantis Rising, 2001]
By 2001, Manilla Road had released nine albums (although one wasn’t initially intended as a Road album), somehow forever avoiding true success, and subsequently, they’d been broken up for a decade. Still, it’s hard to keep a good band down, and Manilla Road was more than a good band — they were (and are, even in the Great Beyond) a damned GREAT band.
Reforming the Road with none of his previous compatriots, guitarist / vocalist / songwriter / guru Mark “The Shark” Shelton jumped right back into the deepest parts of the epic metal ocean with Atlantis Rising, a concept album separated into four “books” and comprised of the same fist-in-the-air holy-Hell-is-this-epic-or-what metal greatness that characterized the band’s first go-’round in the 1980s. The second chapter of the third book, the whole of which is titled “Bifrost (The Rainbow Bridge),” “March Of The Gods” is an out-and-out headbanger of a heavy metal track, with several of those sweet sweet Shark solos and an irresistible blend of rolling arpeggios and swaggering chug beneath his signature adenoidal croon. As the final solo builds itself up to the heavens, “March” marches right into a near-thrashing staccato riff, one that certainly could’ve been explored further, and the track’s only fault is that, the fact that, like the path of the band that created it, it ends before I want it to. We were only getting started, guys! Do it again! Do it again! More! More! More! [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
THE PROPHECY [The Courts Of Chaos, 1990]
Manilla Road has, maybe more than any band ever, excelled at capturing atmosphere in their music. It’s no mean feat for a band that explores centuries worth of inspiration. “The Prophecy” is an apocalyptic tale of the Cyborg Wars, conveyed so effectively with sounds that are both absolutely heavy metal and “very modern/futuristic” in the 80’s sense. That’s not to say it sounds dated or antique, because it doesn’t; it simply captures the essence of its time wonderfully.
That future-to-past duality is reflected, too, in the structure of “The Prophecy,” very much calling back to Manilla Road’s predominantly epic heavy metal roots, even as its songwriting makes room for those new and modern sounds, courtesy of drummer Randy Foxe on keyboard. It’s probably no accident that the keys are reminiscent of Blue Öyster Cult circa Fire of Unknown Origin and, especially, “Veteran of the Psychic Wars.” Maybe a touch of homage.
The cautionary tale of “The Prophecy” is, of course, a familiar one, concerned with how Humankind seems bent on allowing its destruction at the hands of its own creations. The Terminator might be the most famous iteration and “The Prophecy” captures the emotional essence of that movie so well, as the riffs, accents, and lyrics conjure imagery of barren landscapes, ashen skies, and heavy steps across biological and mechanical detritus. Mark Shelton’s chorus soaring chorus conveys it with vigor and, as always, his shining guitar leads draw the listener in completely to view the devastation from above. [LONE WATIE]
BLOOD EAGLE[Voyager, 2008]
Not only does the tremendous organ intro to “Blood Eagle” perhaps preview the Hellwell project that would only see light several years after Voyager, but it also sets a nice liturgical tone that makes good thematic sense. The Christian bishop attempting to convert the Vikings is rather gruesomely tortured and killed, just as the ecclesiastical tootling is surmounted and overmatched by sharp, raw riffing. “Blood Eagle” is built on the model of a sneakily classic Road tune, with each individual section set apart by a clearly delineated riff. The skittering drums of relative whippersnapper Cory Christner (in his early 20s at the time of recording) goose along a rock-solid verse riff, and the intensity of the track stays at a relatively fierce level until the beautiful simplicity of the chorus brings it home.
And I mean really, just listen to that chorus. Shark’s vocal melody is straight and easy, his guitar is just landing on big open chords, and each line is maybe two or three words. It’s hardly even a traditional chorus, because it repeats the melody pattern twice without any verse in between, but in the context of this brilliant later career concept album, those simple chords ringing out feel like waves crashing across the bow of a longship at dawn. That placidity draped against the squealing crescendo of Shark’s outro guitar solo is yet another demonstration of the seamlessness with which Manilla Road juxtaposes rawness and sophistication, epic melody and gut-punch heft, soaring imagination and a firmly punctuated thought. Imagine playing “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” while standing on hot coals, but now instead of doing that, shut up and listen to Manilla Road. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
SPIRAL CASTLE [Spiral Castle, 2002]
For yours truly, 2002’s Spiral Castle isn’t just one of Manilla Road’s best albums after their 80s heyday, it’s one of their finest albums, period. It was a perfect midpoint between the extra aggression of the preceding Atlantis Rising and the ultimately epic, long jams of the ensuing Gates of Fire. And no song better exemplified this brilliant balance than the towering (nyuk) title track.
After the album intro sets the scene, a thunderclap of rolling drums and foreboding riffs bursts forth, immediately giving the song a sense of tension and suspense. The verse opens up a bit as the vocals weave a tale of magic and wonder and all those various and hybridized mythologies that Shark so loved, smoothly leading into a truly massive chorus. Manilla Road was no stranger to a great, infectious chorus on any of their records, but the chorus of “Spiral Castle” is among their best, with a unified guitar/vocal line that repeatedly lands on the listener, great bass lines for countermelody, and that malevolent touch of extremity when “BLASPHEMY” is hammered down with a near-growl. It’s huge, but no less gigantic than the song’s latter sections, which see thrasher, punchier sections trade off with more melodic passages, all the while the song’s storytelling continues, because this is Manilla Road, after all. And that finish? Hot damn. The mere act of continually slowing the tune to a crawl results in one of the meanest and most brutal passages in the band’s entire catalog.
But we can’t forget the solos, because this is Manilla Road, after all. The first basically acts as the third verse, while the second, longer lead helps the song arrive at that monstrous finish. Most importantly, however, was how Shark’s lead work added as much to the narrative quality of the song as any combination of words. Brain tired of writing lyrics? Let the band’s greatest asset carry the load and create entire worlds. [ZACH DUVALL]