Does a legend ever die? And if it does, what then survives? A flicker haunting the void to remind one of the flame that flourished, consuming always but not always divined? Is it nurtured by misty-eyed adherents, a ghost of simpler times when the earth dreamt of ideals and heroic rhymes, or is it consigned to ashes by the faithless?
‘The Battle Of Bonchester Bridge‘ is the only truly great song on ‘Mysterium’, in concert with past classics like ‘Metal ‘, ‘Necropolis‘, ‘Dreams Of Eschaton‘, ‘Astronomica‘, ‘Divine Victim ‘, ‘ Mystification‘, ‘Return Of The Old Ones‘, and so many, many others capable of reducing a grown man to tears in the dead of night when the world outside has ceased its incessant bullshit and all that remains is the thud of your fist beating against the hollow containing your heart. It is the most vivid harkback to the vibe Manilla Road had in the 80s, a vibe that has been sadly missing on more recent work, boasting the trademark, free flowing, layered and cascading soloing style all Shelton’s own. Mark Shelton’s voice has taken on a broken, whiskey-soaked, almost bardic quality with age, and he resembles nothing as much as a veteran of numerous wars, wounded of body, mind and soul, sitting around a fire at night in the fields, recounting his tales of valour and loss. Unable to reach the fury of younger days due to irreversible damage to his vocal chords, he now sings only on the softer songs and the occasional chorus, usually elevating them to the sublime.
Unfortunately, and this hurts, there is nothing else approaching the calibre we’ve come to expect from the band. The Road are caught in a stylistic rut; their output in the new century has been stubbornly epic, memorable and admirable too in its disregard for modern musical mores, but in the process they have lost out on some of the effervescence that was the hallmark of their early music. The songs are much shorter on ‘Mysterium‘ but the general writing style is the same as all their newer music, and it makes for a somewhat disjointed experience.
Hellroadie has covered for Shelton’s deteriorating voice for many years now, and while he does a fine impression of his idol, he is no Shark and I have never enjoyed his brand of nasality. ‘Only The Brave‘ and ‘Stand Your Ground’ are some of the thrashiest songs they have done since ‘Out Of The Abyss‘, with great riffs to boot, but unremarkable vocal melodies relegate them to insignificance. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to sing along with newer Manilla Road, and that is disappointing.
But I’m not going to make this an unmitigated dismissal of the album. I merely speak from the perspective of an old fanatic steeped in the band’s mythology. There is plenty to salvage here for the new listener; Shelton’s fluid guitar style, the band’s decidedly analog production, and just a generally different approach to heavy metal. Songs like ‘The Battle Of Bonchester Bridge‘, ‘ Hallowed Be Thy Grave‘, the title song, are all plain different for the uninitiated. More power if it urges them to rediscover the band’s extensive back catalog.
There is a ballad here called ‘The Fountain‘ . I’m not sure what to make of it; it is not Manilla Road, not something they’ve ever done. It’s not terribly offensive, but it could’ve been penned by countless AOR bands in the 80s. The band’s music has always been tinged with a certain melancholia but ‘The Fountain‘ is positively saccharine, perhaps a genuine mellowing with age – with Shelton, I doubt anything is but genuine, he is too battle-hardened to be seeking commercial laurels – in fact, this song had more chance of scoring big some twenty years ago, but such is the parallel universe the band has always inhabited. Then you look at the lyrics, and it starts making sense:
My destiny drives me to stay on this path
And seek out the fountain of life
I’ve come so far now, that there’s no turning back
I’ll find the fountain or die
And that’s just it, isn’t it? They aren’t just fancy, poetic words; Shelton and his cohorts have lived them to the fullest for longer than I have been alive. He is like Lemmy in many ways; we can bicker over the quality of their later music, but far more importantly, they represent the indefatigability of the human spirit, the constant ‘FUCK YOU’ to anything that threatens to compromise their integrity. John McEntee of Incantation was asked in a recent interview why he’s still playing death metal after 25 years with little to no financial rewards. I’m paraphrasing his reply: “..the way I see it, I made a decision to play death metal when I was 17 years old, when I could’ve chosen to go for a regular, well-paying day job like everyone else. I crossed that fork in the road a long time ago and to expect fame and fortune now would be stupid….at the end of the day, I’m just a death metal freak for life.”
Yes, John. Great heavy metal bands communicate the intangible, and Manilla Road are the greatest of them all. Not only for reasons solely music-related, for that is ethereal in its own right, but for everything that they have stood for over 35 years. They represent the purest child inside us, all wide-eyed wonder and innocence, the noblest dream that we rarely consummate except in fleeting instants. Of all the legendary bands from that era, only they, Riot, and Iron Maiden, off the top of my head, have stayed true to their chosen courses. Maiden are deservedly millionaires, but Mark Reale died mostly unacknowledged, his band but a post script in heavy metal lore. It behooves us to appreciate Manilla Road while they’re still around.