We praise the blood that metal brings
The essence of creative quality
Is life so pure we cannot seek
Our hopes, our dreams to make our fantasies reality
– Manilla Road ‘Metal’
For the songs, the world-building, and the mythology of the lyrics, surely, but beyond the reach of such tangibles, Manilla Road have mattered to heavy metal for the last thirty-five years because of sheer bone-headed indomitability in the face of numerous fly-by-night fads. Mark Shelton’s vision has endured through line-up changes and a decade-long hiatus and, if anything, has grown only more trenchant and defiant with time. The music stands perfectly well on its own but when allied to what this band has represented over time comes to emphasize all that makes heavy metal a gloriously insular yet proud musical style. Manilla Road hold true to the virtues of this music from before the time of more caustic developments in metal, when lines between progressive rock and this newly burgeoning form bled into each other far more casually. In doing so they have also served as continuing inspiration to a metal world that grows increasingly ill at ease with the notion of traditional songwriting tropes in the face of convoluted playing and advances in sound technology. Manilla Road‘s ouevre may not aspire to the instrumental prowess of other metal practitioners, but they have few equals where realizing an emotion and an abstract ideal with unfailing vividness is concerned.
The experienced fan of Manilla Road knows that no other heavy metal band sounds quite like them. Why should this be so? On the surface, they do few things differently. Their template is honed from the barest of heavy metal basics; drums riding on top of open chords and standard progressions as favoured by Judas Priest, galloping parts inspired by Iron Maiden, and a propensity to come up with the catchiest, most rousing of vocal choruses. Nothing new there, right? The difference lies in the phrasing of these guitar parts and the way the drums, by turn, travel in lockstep with them or give them enough space to breathe on their own. Phrasing is the key element in all music that serves to differentiate one musician from another; phrasing in the intervals between notes, in the way notes are fretted or struck or sung, and in the very individual and idiosyncratic flourishes in picking or hitting power or vocal technique. For Manilla Road, always an intensely guitar-driven band, Mark Shelton’s phrasing has been the single most important factor differentiating them from their peers. His guitar playing, based around simple pentatonic patterns, makes impressive use of delay effects to create a free-flowing cascade of notes, like a river not in turmoil but in complete harmony with its various moods. Never hesitant to pierce in through rhythm sections, offering glimpses of blinding metal insight, it, along with Shelton’s uniquely nasal voice, is the chief colouring aspect to the Manilla Road sound.
For a vast portion of their career, Manilla Road succeeded in transferring this same impeccable sense of phrasing from an isolated instrumental level to entire albums at hand. Songs, and then albums, were constructed with a rhythm and lilt, and a faithfulness to overall theme and mood, owing much to the progressive rock background that the band came from. The first two Manilla Road albums were sloppy and gave only the minutest hints of what was to follow but from Crystal Logic onwards, the band grew increasingly adept at realizing their ambitions, bringing fantasies from literature and their private imaginations to life and evoking an indefatigable, never say die attitude like few others. After a lengthy leave of absence, Manilla Road have returned amidst a drastically changed metal landscape to consistently release albums these last fifteen years, shelving the last of the detritus lingering from the 80s and burrowing deeper still into a siege mentality. Atlantis Rising, Spiral Castle, Gates Of Fire, and Voyager are some of the finest epic metal albums ever made, grander even than the music from the band’s heyday, each demonstrating a hunger that has never quite dimmed before time’s demands.
An acquaintance on a now defunct music forum used to have the signature “If it’s not inside of you, you will never understand“. As condescending as it may sound, it strikes the truth home in context with Manilla Road. Conventional, accessible songwriting when done with integrity is an equally legitimate part of heavy metal’s heritage. The dispute arises when we ascribe values to a band such as this that it most patently didn’t strive for in the first place. Metal may have matured in terms of technique, aggression, and self-awareness over time but that in no way dilutes what Manilla Road represent. They have persisted into the present day with an old, venerable form of this music, performed with their own unique vigour and style. For that, and a lot more, they still matter.