Album Review & Stream: Manilla Road – ‘Mysterium’

If Manilla Road asked the mirror on the wall, the answer would still be “you’re the truest of them all.” The truest still, but the band’s sound is changing a little. Since Mark “The Shark” Shelton is Manilla Road just as Chuck Schuldiner was Death, that’s where the blame or accolades fall. Mysterium presents an interesting data point in the “do it for the fans” vs. “I do what I want” continuum. Per a news post on Manilla Road’s website, The Shark heard the fan complaints regarding Playground of the Damned’s sound quality. The recording was improbably thin and clear, almost as if it hadn’t been mastered. It sounded like Manilla Road and not like the generic Thick ‘N Chunky ™ brand recording any band can get these days.

Consequently, The Shark enlisted outside help to mix Mysterium. The result is…well, it sounds like Manilla Road, but a fuller. The guitar tone is still scratchy and gruff, as if Shelton were playing a $100 My First Guitar! through a 30W Marshall from a pawn shop. It’s still not a modern sounding recording though. Cranking the volume is just as satisfying as with Playground.

The sound of the songs is changing a bit, too. “Stand Your Ground” is Manilla Road bouncing off the redline of their core sound. Shelton and Hellroadie harmonize in different octaves, and that’s a new trick. Mysterium then slams on the brakes with “The Battle of Bonchester Bridge.” The band is known for their mid tempo songs and the resulting epic feel. “Bonchester Bridge,” however, is a power ballad. And…it works.

Lyrically, “Do What Thou Will” falls into the aged trope of independence and following one’s desires. Usually that portends the youthful exuberance and rebellion of 80s metal’s various genres or the “fuck you” attitude of extreme metal sans real life consequences of that mentality. Why then is the song’s main riff so slithery and sinister, and why does the song’s midsection constrict and burn? It sounds like the Devil delivering the message to Faust, not a glam metaller trying to drop a 16 year old’s Jordaches without a condom in hand. Do what thou will is a double-edged sword of a phrase, and “Do What Thou Will” mirrors that. It’s an appropriate tone for Manilla Road. Shelton’s early lyrics displayed Christian views more often than is prudent to mention in polite company.

“Do What Thou Will” doesn’t croon, but “The Fountain” does, literally. Here’s where the strange peaks: it’s a full on ballad, and it’s uplifting, and positive, and affirmative, and it’s uncomfortably earnest. And it mostly works too, but it feels out of place. It feels like a true B-side in an era where such things are anachronistic, but hey, Manilla Road. Shelton’s earned the right to sing it after over two decades of active touring and recording for tens hundreds a few thousand fans.

The title track ends the record in true Manilla Road fashion: long, epic, mid tempo, grand. There are some Middle Eastern sounding melodies. With a few more, it would fit on Spiral Castle.

Lead single “The Grey God Rises” is vintage Manilla Road, although on the faster and more aggressive side, Out of the Abyss excluded. The other songs are less successful. The band has a different drummer this time out, and his style doesn’t incorporate the busy footwork, short fills, and accents that made Playground so interesting. The drumming is very good, but I can’t help wondering if the previous guy could’ve spiced things up. Hellroadie’s still a good singer, but Shelton’s even better than on Playground. He even unleashes a credible King Diamond wail at one point.

I’ve said this before, and it still applies: one doesn’t date a Manilla Road album. One marries it and grows to appreciate it and to see the flaws and age in a wabi-sabi way, as things that enhance the beauty of the whole. I’m not sure if that will apply to Mysterium. The best songs it holds are the title track and the ones that deviate most. It might turn into a fling where the point is the new and the different. It’s in a fling’s nature to end, though.

It could also be that Mysterium’s flat spots are actually growers and that time will as always engender appreciation of the whole. That would be the Manilla Road way.

— Richard Street-Jammer