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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

Manilla Road

Voyager

Review by Mike Korn

Mark "The Shark" Shelton has been walking this road since the late 70's and in the process, he's been bringing us some of the most stirring and epic metal out there. Really, Manilla Road is one of the closest things America has to Iron Maiden...not so much in actual sound, but in length of career and breadth of songwriting. Voyager is the 14th album from the Kansas crew and sees them steadfastly holding to all the virtues that they've embraced throughout their long career. I know Shelton is very happy with Voyager but the production strikes me as a little rough for this day and age. Not that it is bad or anything close to it, but it is very much in the mold of early 80's efforts like Crystal Logic and Open The Gates. This might take some getting used to for children of the digital age. Also, there's a bit more acoustic guitar than I'm used to on a Manilla album. But really, the album still reeks of quality songwriting and the incredible lead guitar work which Shelton has demonstrated all these years. This guy shreds the axe like nobody's business and Voyager features some of his best ever solos. The story this time is somewhat reminiscent of another CD I recently reviewed, Rebellion's Miklagard. Like that tale, Voyager follows the journey of brave and hearty Viking warriors to a strange new land. But where the Vikings of Miklagard trekked to the fabulous city of Byzantium, here the crew of Voyager travels to the empire of the Toltecs in Central America...an empire they make their own. The music of Manilla Road is more than suited to bringing this story to life. If you're a fan of the band, you won't be disappointed with Voyager and if you've never heard them before, this is a good place to start!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Tomb Of The Serpent King
This makes for a very eerie start to the story. Creepy and restrained synthesizer tones mixed with subdued sound effects create an aura of dread and mystery. A deep voice intones the words of The Viking's Prayer (used to good effect in the cult film The 13th Warrior) to help set the tone.
Butchers of The Sea
This mid-paced heavy grinder is instantly recognizable as pure Manilla Road. The guitar tone of Mark Shelton is as unique as his reedy vocals. Speaking of which, Shelton mixes a much gruffer, almost death metal style into his vocals now and then. The ponderous, deliberate riffing here provides a perfect backdrop for Shelton's long, screaming guitar solos.
Frost and Fire
This is another driving, heavy tune. A band of heathen Vikings, led by intrepid Holgar, are forced to flee their homeland when they refuse to convert to Christianity. They set sail to Iceland only to find the leaders have already converted and been instructed to seize them. The drumming of Corey Christner is really powerful here, with a lot of double bass and a very organic feel. The Shark's solo is again truly awe-inspiring.
Tree of Life
This lengthy ballad focuses mostly on the acoustic and has a haunting, melancholy sound. Shelton uses his more subdued, hushed vocals here. This cut reminds me of "The Sea Witch" from their great Atlantis Rising CD, even down to the "ooooohs" on the chorus. When the electric guitar finally makes its appearance, it's a memorable one, as Shelton uncorks one of the best and most emotional guitar solos on an album filled with them. This track really grew on me.
Blood Eagle
I really love the old school organ playing that kicks this cut off. It almost reminds me of what Argent did on "Hold Your Head Up." The organ smoothly segues into some slick twin guitar sounds and then some very angry and pounding riffs, with Christner's drumming again very aggressive. Shelton's gruff vocals tell how Holgar and his Vikings battle their Christian brethren in far Vinland and sentence the fanatic Bishop Erik to the dreadful "blood eagle" torture...his ribs and lungs pulled out of his body while still alive. Ugh! There is some very majestic riffing on the chorus, but even better is yet to come!
Voyager
Clocking in at nine and a half minutes, this is one of the patented Manilla Road epics and easily my favorite cut here. Starting acoustically, with a laid back feeling, this transforms into another mid-paced metal stormer. The vocal patterns sound awkward at times, but I absolutely love that huge, distorted riff on the chorus. Mixed with Shelton's almost bluesy vocals, it has a tremendously majestic yet dreamy feel to it. This is Manilla Road at their most massive and inspiring. Needless to say, the guitar soloing here is incredibly scorching. This tune really recreates the feeling of sailing into uncharted waters.
Eye of the Storm
This acoustic ballad has a kind of Southern blues feel to it...not really pronounced, but definitely there. Unlike "Tree of Life," this one is acoustic all the way through, which is unusual for Manilla Road. The melody here is quite appealing and the Spanish flavored solo shows a different side to Shelton's talents. Story wise, our Vikings are blown by a hurricane to the far south, where no European has ever sailed before.
Return of The Serpent King
Holgar and his men encounter the savage Toltec tribe and set themselves up as rulers of these folk. This is the heaviest track on the album, with a really bruising, thick guitar tone and a lumbering pace. Shelton's inhaled vocals are definitely in the death metal realm but sound different from the norm. They make for a wild contrast with his more regular singing voice, which actually sounds more laid back than usual on this cut. The crunching climax features another lengthy guitar workout.
Conquest
You can tell this is a battle song for sure. That unique super heavy Manilla Road guitar tone...distorted yet crystalline...is all over this fast, thrashing cut. In fact, this may be the fastest Manilla track ever, with Corey Christner really pummeling the drum kit and more harsh vocals from Mark. The Vikings here take their Toltec followers on a crusade to conquer all the neighboring kingdoms.
Totentanz (The Dance of Death)
This is another huge epic in the vein of "Voyager" and almost as potent. In similar fashion, it begins with some subdued acoustic guitar, this time with a noticeable Latin flair to it. As you might expect, it turns into a heavy jam with a catchy backing riff. Nobody does these huge sounding epics quite like Manilla Road. The song is a kind of funeral dirge for Holgar, who is buried after years as the Man-God king of the Toltec/Viking Empire. The final third is a doomy, cyclopean riff with a frantically wailing guitar workout from Mark Shelton to cap things off. It's very powerful stuff indeed!
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