Manilla Road - Gates of fire 4/5

Reviewed: 1-26-07


1. Riddle of steel
2. Behind the veil
3. When the giants fall
4. The fall of Iliam
5. Imperious rise
6. Rome
7. Stand of the spartans
8. Betrayal
9. Epitaph to the king

While it takes a while to get past a rough exterior of raw production and very long song length, this truly epic trinity of song trilogies by the ultimate cult metal band is their best CD since 'Courts of chaos', and perhaps even 'Out of the abyss', bringing back the unique majesty of the band's mythic lyrics and compelling melodies, and is in many ways comparable with the former. While it's not up to the glory of 'Out of the abyss' or 'Open the gates', it's certainly a worthy follow-up by the band.

I recall when I first was introduced to Manilla Road, in my first online expeditions to pre-Internet Prodigy, where a good friend in New Jersey made me a comp tape of a band I'd never heard of, and especially with the best selections from CDs like 'Open the gates', 'Out of the abyss', and 'Mystification', I was fondly taken, but unable to find any of their material. Then, courtesy of some more of these most entrepreneurial Prodigy buddies, we found out I could get their CDs from Black Dragon records in France, and after pooling some funds, translating some French, and visiting a bank for some international money orders, we were soon indulging in the rarest of the rare with our Manilla Road CDs. Yes, especially in a pre-Google, pre-Ebay world, things like this were obscure in a manner which they will never be again, especially now that we've been graced with many re-releases of the band's classic works, and even works like 'Metal' and 'Invasion' which were tape-traded as the rarest of the rare, are now for sale on CD.

In any event, the substance of those releases, for those not yet on the Road, was a combination of (a) fantastic lyrics, pulling together themes that were generally pure metal, but more directly tied to a lot of Poe and Lovecraft, a good dash of history and myth, and which were exceedingly well written, (b) metal that was powerful, somewhat raw, but achingly melodic, and with a vocalist who no one else sounded like, like Axl Rose met Geoff Tate, but which did a fine job conveying a sense of majesty, and (c) some of the best damn compelling melodies you'll ever here. "Astronomica", "Return of the old ones", "Helicon", "Mystification", once heard, never leave your brain and soul.

Manilla Road has always (perhaps other than 'Out of the abyss') had quite a raw sound and production, and this latest release is extreme in that styling, something that might make a modern power metal fan blanch with its wispy rasp (closest to the 'Courts of chaos' production), this is 80s metal vinyl sound on a rather inexpensive phonograph, at its best, except for the mellow crystalline parts. It also is exceedingly long, with numerous songs branching out for 10 minutes or more, yet without a very long lyric sheet or great deal of complexity within each tune, so, if irritated, one could feel this is droning, and certainly that is something that to me greatly brought down the last 2 releases from the Road. However, while it took me a while to get into this latest release, once there, I could not get "Fall of Iliam"'s chorus out of my mind, as it quickly showed itself worthy of the band's greatest songwriting, and the rest of the CD is enthralling as well.

As noted, the CD thematically is 3 trilogies consisting of 3 songs each. The first "Frost Giant's daughter", is based on one of Howard's original Conan stories, with its opener "Riddle of steel" riding forth in pure, aggressive metal glory, lyrically and musically, but the 2nd song, "Behind the Veil", going for sharp contrast in a beautiful, haunting acoustic set mirroring the apparent beauty of the feminine trap for our favorite Cimmerian. "When giants fall" completes the first trilogy with more of the direct metal speed, again a solid classic Manilla Road chorus.

The 2nd trilogy is "Out of the ashes", and traces the Aeneid from the fall of Troy in the Trojan War, through the founding of Rome, and as noted, the chorus from "Fall of Illiam" is superb, and demonstrates what Manilla Road's Mark Shelton does, destroys you with an unforgettable melody, laced with arcane words of history, myth, thought, and power:

"Harken the tale of Aeneas - Last hero of Iliam Mortal born son of Venus - Destined to Latium Prophecy's promise of saving - The last Trojan line Spoiler of ethnic cleansing - Who fathered the Roman Empire"

Go ahead, listen and try to remove it from your mind!

The final, eponymous trilogy is based on the stand of the 300 Spartans against the might of the Persia empire at Thermopylae (and chronicled in a novel of this name by Steven Pressfield, it's also the subject of the movie "300"). The first 2 tracks offer the more typical raw, melodic, Manilla Road metal and "Betrayal" being perhaps the most acquired taste on the CD, with its barely distinct chorus, while the final "Epitaph to the king" gives us a much cleaner production in the delicate acoustic requiem to King Leonidas of Sparta, and is a welcome reminder to bands as to the benefits of contrast in song selection and composition.

For all this praise, however, it is a CD that takes a bit of getting used to depending on your tastes, and especially for someone who doesn't start out with some affection for Manilla Road, it is certainly possible to hear someone say, "Gosh, what's this stuff with a production like Hammerheart? Doesn't sound very impressive to me." However, despite an occasionally rough exterior, the beauty buried beneath here is powerful indeed.




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