Roughly eight years to the day since Mark “The Shark” Shelton revived the underground beast that is MANILLA ROAD, the band took on a very methodical character that first embodied itself in the watery, Progressive sounding “Atlantis Rising”. Since then the band has put forth a series of conceptual albums covering classic historical literature and mythology. Their current offering “Voyager” could be seen as the ultimate culmination of the latest incarnation, carrying all of the strengths of their previous efforts and presenting them in a fashion that maximizes its potential, leaving no artistic stone unturned.
In most respects it resembles the previous album “Gates Of Fire”, but it listens more like a full blown epic story rather than a collection of 3 shorter stories, all of which listen like EPs rather than as parts of a full length album. The songs rely heavily on repetition and atmosphere to entice the ear of the refined Epic Metal listener, but with a much more tasteful combination of acoustic and electric interchanges that keep things moving, while simultaneously incorporating themes that suit the Viking period that the album’s subject portrays. Shelton deciding to put forth his own story rather than paying musical homage to someone else’s is an interesting touch, and the resulting tale is an interesting take on the genre of historical fiction which lacks the tall tale/mythological underpinnings that would drag it into the realm of fantasy.
Not one to be restrained by the conventions of accessibility, Shelton’s epic begins by reverting back to MANILLA ROAD’S keyboard heavy Progressive Rock days in the late 70s during the first half of “Tomb Of The Serpent King/Butchers Of The Sea”, a song that really should be treated as two separate compositions. It has a strong ambient character that almost seems to acknowledge the minimalism of BURZUM’S “Filosofem”, while relying on sounds that have this otherworldly or outer space character to them. It’s almost akin to musical irony as the narration that comes overtop of it is both triumphant and poignant, while the theme in the background is menacing and extraterrestrial in character; although it should be noted that the main character was a Norseman who found himself leading a tribal people in South America, so to those paying homage at his tomb the alien character of the music doesn’t clash with the tale it precedes.
When the second half of the album kicks in, the characteristic melding of Doom Metal riffing and a nasally, hard edged yet melodic and distinctive vocal story telling commence. Unlike many slower epic songs off the previous album, the riffs change with a greater frequency and are twice as intricate. Much of the vocal performance out of Shelton gets harsh enough to parallel late 80s Death Metal, though some of his KING DIAMOND emulations sneak in as well. The solo is as agitated as any heard on previous releases, but plays off the riffs it accompanies and doesn’t have the open jam quality that a lot of Shelton’s lead work tends to resemble.
As the album unfolds, the first impression put forth on the opening number of a much more stylistically varied offering than usual proves to apply to its entirety. “Frost And Fire” and “Return Of The Serpent King” bring forth more polished versions of the heavy, Doom oriented riffing and guttural vocalizations that were heard on “Gates Of Fire”, the former having this really memorable intro riff that could have appeared on a classic CANDLEMASS album. Others could draw heavy comparison to material from BATHORY’S Viking Metal era, most notably the nostalgic sounding grand epic title track “Voyager” and the Folk inspired “Eye Of The Storm”, the latter of which is actually the catchiest and most accessible thing I’ve ever heard out of this band. Equally as amazing as the stylistic variation that unfolds is Shelton’s vocal character, which switches from a stoic Viking storyteller to a Berserker war bark with literal effortlessness.
The two standout songs also prove to be the biggest surprises to anyone who’s only been following the band since their reformation. “Blood Eagle”, in addition to having one of those really hook oriented Power Metal choruses, also has this anthem-like church organ intro that sounds like something off of either MANOWAR’S past 4 or 5 albums or perhaps even something off of VIRGIN STEELE’S “The House Of Atreus” series. It’s also the least harsh vocally of the heavy songs on here, though by the precedent set on earlier songs that doesn’t mean its sweet sounding by any standard. The other highlight of the album and my personal favorite on the album is “Conquest”, which takes the mirror opposite approach and reaches back into the dark, Thrash oriented, late 80s interlude this band had otherwise known as “Out Of The Abyss”. It’s by far the fastest and most intense thing the band has done in a very long time, and despite the low fidelity approach to drum production that has been maintained throughout all of their albums, sounds like a giant Gollum turning a peaceful mountain into a colossal rockslide.
Of all of this band’s releases since their rebirth, this is both the best and the most universally accessible, but it’s still something that I wouldn’t recommend to people who like their Metal short and easy to grab on to. For anyone who doesn’t follow this band but who might be disposed to liking it due to the current Viking Metal and Folk Metal crazes, picture Ensiferum but without all the period instruments, vocal gymnastics, big choruses and reduce the keyboard presence by about 75 percent and you’ll be close to this. For everyone who has a better grasp of Metal’s lengthy history, this is an even darker yet mind blowing answer to BATHORY’S “Hammerheart” question.
(Online December 6, 2008)