Monday, September 14, 2015

Manilla Road - Out of the Abyss

Consider this an olive branch

My hate-boner for Manilla Road is both well known and massively overstated.  I don't hate this band, I never really did, I just think they're boring as shit and get much, much more credit than they deserve.  Mark Shelton is usually hailed as this guitar playing and songwriting wizard, when really everything I'd heard had been either bizarre without actually being great or just bland and irritating.  The 'Road Crew likes to go on and on about how incredible the Manilla Road is to the point of utter delusion, worshipping records that seem flawed by their very nature with the weird, incompatible voice and long stretches of plodding non-riffs.  There's even a popular editorial on Metal Crypt about what makes a good logo, and in the section about how hand drawn, artistic logos are inherently superior, it lists Manilla Road's logo as a classic example, even though it literally is a typeface, stencil type logo (notice how all the "L"s and "A"s are identical (it actually fails 4 of the 5 criteria listed in the editorial, and it only passes the last one by virtue of the fact that they never changed their logo)).  It always seemed to me that being a huge fan of Manllia Road carried a prerequisite warping of reality like that, and it further added to my utter confusion as to the cult status of the band.  It's one thing to recognize a band you love as a cult classic, it's another thing to act like they're this massively important and influential institution in metal when in reality they only influenced a tiny niche that even an only tinier niche of metal fans adore in the first place.  Yes, the difficult to define (but awesome) subgenre of "epic metal" wouldn't be what it is without Manilla Road, but Iron Maiden would have still existed and the metal landscape would be largely unchanged.  At the time of this writing, Encyclopedia Metallum lists 25677 bands with "black" in their genre, and 451 with "epic" in their genre.  Ergo, I can pretty safely say that roughly 25% of all metal bands owe their existence to Bathory, while roughly .4% (and likely much less since I'm sure a band like Darkestrah didn't have Crystal Logic playing too often in their rehearsal rooms) give a shit about Manilla Road.  Suck the math.

But with that said, I think The 'Road Crew owes me some sort of apology for trying to keep me out of their club.  I'd said before that, especially in relation to their new stuff, that every single second that isn't a screaming guitar solo or a mournful ballad is complete trash, and they'd actually be a pretty sweet band if they focused more off their riff writing energy on insane aggression, because the fast tracks on Mysterium are at least moderately entertaining, and it's a shame that they didn't focus on songs like "Stand Your Ground" when they were younger and hungrier.  If they amped up the thrash by a large margin I could definitely see the weird, nasally whine of Shelton working well with the music since bad vocals really aren't all that important in a genre like thrash where the excitement lies almost entirely within the riffs.  The Deluge is the only album I can safely say I actually enjoy in any capacity, and it's largely because the aggression is so much higher and the riffs are so much sharper.  So why did nobody point out "Hey asshole, this hypothetical version of Manilla Road you seem to want totally existed for a few albums in the late 80s"?

Out of the Abyss is the true forgotten gem in Manilla Road's discography, as it's the most powerful example of them distancing themselves from the epic sensibilities that made them famous and instead focusing on that melted steel destruction that thrash was championing so loudly around the same time.  This sounds like a lost Sabbat album, and it's completely fucking awesome.  I realize this is probably like saying that my favorite Bathory album is Octagon and my favorite Billy Joel song is "We Didn't Start the Fire", but my god they fucking owned this sound when they aimed for it.

This is probably the shallowest album they ever penned, with little of that mystical depth and mystique that fans hail from some of their earlier and later works (I personally never heard it but I'll just accept that it's a me problem for now and focus on what's at hand) and instead just spends a majority of the record ripping off faces and eating them in front of the previous face owners' families.  This isn't what the band is known for and it clearly isn't what they or the fans even want to be remembered for, but it turns out that they're really god damned good at it.  Crystal Logic may be their defining record, but Out of the Abyss is what should make them worthwhile to most metal fans at large. "Whitechapel" starts the record off on a stratospheric high note, as I felt the world was sorely lacking in 7 minute long riff fests about Jack the Ripper, and it never gets less great.  The viciously sharp riffing on the fastest and thrashiest tracks like "Black Cauldron", "Slaughterhouse" and "Out of the Abyss" are among some of the most neck wrecking in metal's entire history.  That Sabbat comparison is about as perfect as I can imagine, as this carries a ferocity in the riffs that can't necessarily be traced back to the bay area or Germany, sort of existing in its own little bubble where it seems like the riffs are influenced almost entirely by themselves, completely free of the scent of Slayer or Sodom or any of the other obvious influences most bands have.  It's just vicious and biting, chewing the scenery in the most sinister of ways.

Despite my worshipping of the insanity of the riffing, this is also one of the handful of albums where I can truly appreciate that otherworldly mysticism that a lot of fans adore.  The contrast between the blazing thrash parts and slower, more churning and ethereal moments in "Return of the Old Ones" keeps the song fresh and varied, taking the listener on a full journey into the depths of madness.  I think this works here more than anywhere else due to the fact that it's seldom overt like it's predecessors and successors, and uses more subtlety in its execution among the whirling lunacy of violence that makes up most of the guitars.  I don't mean to make this sound like a black sheep in their discography, as this sound was telegraphed by the previous five albums getting heavier and heavier with each new release, but this is just the apex where they were the most unrestrained in terms of violent, slobbering insanity, and in turn made their more epic intangibles more restrained, thus making them more impressive to me.  It probably doesn't make sense to most people, but it does to me, and it's one of the reasons that nearly every single second of Out of the Abyss is a screaming moonshot over the grandstands.

So really this is the Road album I had been wishing for ever since first hearing Open the Gates however many years ago.  This is the culmination of them scaling back storytelling and epicism, and it works magnificently because the classic metal riffs are replaced with dutch angled squealing madness in the form of rabidly intense thrashing.  There are moments of what got them the cult popularity in the first place all over the place, particularly in "War in Heaven", "Helicon", and "Return of the Old Ones", but the majority of the record is slathered in bloody wickedness and that makes it all the more entertaining to a brain dead idiot like myself.  Shelton's bizarre, nasally, nerdy wail works here because the focus isn't on his voice and the melodies that work around it, instead the focus is fully entrenched in the ferocity of the riffing, and that's exactly where Manilla Road excels, even if they never fully realized it themselves.  Basically, the dumber the Road, the more I love it.  It's a tragedy that they reverted back to the epic metal they pioneered to me, because when they stepped outside of their trademark, they accidentally made one of the most frantically destructive thrash albums out there in the vein of Znowhite's Act of God, and one of the most twisted and deranged since damn near anything else.

RATING - 91%

PS - Yeah, Mystification is probably a better album, but it's more revered at this point in time and the band doesn't seem to completely neglect it live, so to drive home the point that they're at their best when they riff like monkeys, Out of the Abyss is getting my keyboard love.