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Manilla Road: Mystification (1986-87, 2000)

Manilla Road Mystification cover

–MANILLA ROAD: Mystification (1986/87, 2000 reissue)

Manilla Road is one of those classic metal bands that has slipped through the San Andreas-sized cracks of the mainstream, yet somehow they have maintained a tiny but loyal worldwide following. This cult metal band from Wichita, Kansas is highly revered by some; several of my fellow metal fanatic email correspondents have long extolled the virtues of Manilla Road’s mystical lyrics and melodies all while their albums were nearly impossible to find. Often invoking the literary and poetic muses through Mark “The Shark” Shelton’s thought-provoking lyrics and unique voice, my e-metal friends worshipped The Road from their own makeshift air-guitar altars.

That being said, I never quite “got it” about all the Manilla Road fuss. I had heard a few of the band’s songs on mix tapes, but I thought the band’s music was fairly average traditional metal with some pleasant melodies. It was certainly nothing special compared to all the Maiden, Savatage, Iced Earth and Helloween CDs that I adored during high school and college. Seeing The Road live at the Classic Metal Festival in 2001 only reaffirmed my ambivalence; although the music was tightly-played and well-presented, the pedestrian nature of the material left me feeling underwhelmed. However, the handful of Greeks in the audience, who had traveled all the way to Kalamazoo, Mich. just to see the Road, certainly begged to differ with their incessant chants of “Manilla, Manilla, Manilla!”

The persistent battle cries of the E-Roaders eventually left their mark, and I ended up picking up this reissue of Manilla Road’s 1987 Mystification album a few years back. Mystification was originally released on Black Dragon Records but was severely marred by sub-par mixing and nonexistent distribution in the U.S. Denis Gulbey of Sentinel Steel Records has done a great job remixing and releasing this album, which many Manilla Roaders regard as one of the band’s top-three releases behind the “O” albums, Open The Gates and Out of the Abyss. This is the first Manilla Road album I heard, so I obviously can’t respond to that comparison. But I will say this album is a surprisingly exciting and powerful listen, and I am slowly-but-surely warming to the notion that Manilla Road is something more than just an over-hyped cult band.

In fact, I assert that Mystification is a fine collection of 1980s heavy metal with a decidedly mystical lyrical bent. There isn’t a weak track on the slab, while the standouts are particularly memorable. Musically, there’s plenty of speed metal attack in the dynamic guitarwork of Shelton and double-bass pyrotechnics of drummer Randy “Thrasher” Foxe. The music’s razor-edged aggression is always tempered by Shelton’s nasally-but- pleasantly-clear-throated voice and catchy, melodic songwriting. Lyrically, this is Edgar Allen Poe celebration to the max, with no less than five tracks based on works of the classic American bard. While I find Shelton’s literary bent intriguing, I’d rather headbang to the infectiously speedy riffs and revel in the gloriously melodic choruses than obsess over lyrical nuances. As for highlights: “Children of the Night,” with its haunting intro guitar line and gorgeous chorus, the speed metal crunch and compelling vocal line of “Masque of the Red Death,” the mystical semi-ballad “Dragon Star,” and the album’s centerpiece title track with its arpeggiated clean guitars and beautiful vocal melodies. Mystification is truly a mystifying metal song for the ages: “An art revealed to no one/Some say insanity/A lesson from The Baron/Master of mystery/I’m mystified.”

Sentinel Steel’s website says this CD, which includes bonus instrumental “The Asylum,” is temporarily out of print. But fear not, brethen, and keep your eyes peeled for this and other classic Road albums for sale online. You know I will be.

R.I.P. Curt Meisner, Manilla Road fan No. 1 and a true “Master of mystery.”

–Tracklisting: 1.) Up From The Crypt 2.) Children Of The Night 3.) Haunted Palace 4.) Sprits Of The Dead 5.) Valley Of Unrest 6.) Mystification 7.) Masque Of The Red Death 8.) Death By The Hammer 9.) Dragon Star 10.) The Asylum

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~ by jonnyboyrocker on October 27, 2009.

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