MMA Reviewer's Challenge: Album Selected by Warthur
80’s Metal is not exactly my specialty. In fact, aside from some of the obvious suspects like Iron Maiden, Metallica and Helloween, my knowledge of classic metal is perhaps alarmingly bad, as I tend to prefer the modern production and use of keyboards found more often on newer metal albums. With that out of the way, then, it’s no surprise I had never heard any of the earlier albums from US heavy metal band Manilla Road until recently, though I did have previous experience with the band, hearing some of their more recent albums and getting a decent amount of enjoyment out of them, especially their 2013 release, Mysterium. From what I gather from reading reviews online, their newer releases are considered much weaker compared to their classic, with their 1983 release Crystal Logic in particular often considered their best, and so I was interested to give this thing a listen and see if it really would end up being my favorite by them. I’ll go into more details further into this review, but In short, it did not disappoint.
Manilla Road play a very melodic brand of epic heavy metal, with most tracks being mostly mid tempo, though they do speed things up from time to time and many of the tracks on Crystal Logic have some pretty fast paced sections. There’s some really great heavy metal riffs to be found throughout the album, as well as some occasional nods to classic hard rock, and even some more atmospheric, slower sections that sound like doom infused heavy metal. The latter element is something I recognized from hearing it quite a bit on some of their more recent albums, most notably the poorly received Playground of the Damned, though those elements, while not as prominent on this release, feel better defined and more like a natural part of the music, and really help add to the overall feel while also adding some variety. Speaking of which, this is probably the most varied Manilla Road album I’ve heard, as their newer releases are generally slower paced and more relaxed throughout, where this one has a nice range of sounds going on and the songs are more individually recognizable. It’s an album that stays consistently entertaining throughout, while still having a few huge standout tracks.
One element I was interested in was the production, as the band’s later albums sound very rough, and honestly, I think this album has slightly better sound quality than some of their albums released in the 2010’s, which sure is a testament to how rough those albums sound. This one sounds perfectly fine for an 80’s album, and it has a very bass heavy sound, which is cool. I’ve seen some criticism of the guitar work, but while it can be a bit rough in some spots, I find overall the riffs are very good and there are certainly some nice melodic solos here. There’s really only one trouble spot, which I’ll mention later on.
Another element that tends to be love or hate is Mark Shelton’s vocals. That makes sense, as he is also the same guy doing all the guitar parts, so I guess it’s just inevitable that his vocals would be polarizing as well. His voice isn’t overly high pitched, though he has a bit of a unique tone that works especially well on some of the calmer and more melodic sections, though he generally makes it work on the heavier parts as well. There’s a couple parts where he sounds a bit irritating to me, but for the most part I like his vocals quite a bit, and I find when he’s less animated and focuses more on singing the songs naturally, that’s when he tends to be at his best.
The album certainly gets off to an incredible start, as after an atmospheric intro track featuring some rather cheesy but charming voiceovers, listeners are immediately treated to the best track on the album, “Necropolis”. This is a fast paced track with very fun verses dominated by some great riffs and smooth rhythms, and then that chorus is very melodic and features some great vocals from Mark. Even the solo section is very melodic and really cool. Easily the best Manilla Road song I’ve ever heard. Next is the title track, which is actually almost as good. It starts off as another fairly speedy track with some great rocking riffs, before slowing down a bit around the halfway point and turning into more of an epic, mid paced heavy metal track. It has some great instrumental work and from a compositional standpoint is perhaps the best written track here, as it goes through quite a few changes throughout, while never losing track and remaining rather fun and catchy throughout. The darker tone to the guitar adds a bit of an atmospheric feel to the chorus, which is cool. Another early favorite is “Feeling Free Again”, another fairly upbeat track where the riffs feel more like classic hard rock to me. In fact, the track feels to me like a slightly speedier, more metal take on a classic AC/DC track, and it has a very fun, if cheesy, chorus. I know some people think of it as a weak link, but I actually think it’s one of the most addictive tracks on the album.
Moving in to the second half, and things slow down a bit. We have a more typical classic heavy metal track in “The Ram”, which is a solid mid paced track with some great riffs, but that one comes in between the two slowest and most doom influenced tracks on the album. The first of these is “The Riddle Master”, a mostly slower track with some great guitar work early on, before it speeds up towards the end, and honestly the instrumental work on that track is excellent, but Mark gets a bit carried away during the chorus, and so that brings the song down a bit for me. Still a solid track, but not as great as it could have been. The other slower track is “The Veils of Negative Existence”, a very dark and atmospheric track where the guitars have a very doomy sound to them and some of the riffs sound very dark and quite interesting.
Closing out the main album, we have “Dreams of Eschaton”, a 10 minute epic which is mostly a mid paced epic heavy metal track. It moves along at a pretty good pace and has some nice melodic sections and some great vocal work, though the highlight is the second half, where we get some of the best guitar work on the album and some excellent solos. Which leads into the closing “Epilogue”, another atmospheric instrumental track which is very similar to the opening track and brings the voiceovers back. Some versions of the album contain one last track titled “Flaming Metal System”, a fairly interesting song as overall it’s another faster track with some very fun vocal sections, and in fact the song itself is great. Sadly, it has an intro lasting about 70 seconds, where the guitars get really screechy and this sound hurts my ears, so I have a hard time even sitting through that part. When I do manage it, though, the rest of the song is great.
Overall, Crystal Logic is a great classic heavy metal album that sounds a bit heavier and more varied to me compared to the more recent Manilla Road albums I’ve heard, and it’s certainly highly recommended for any fan of epic heavy metal who somehow hasn’t heard it yet. Definitely the best Manilla Road album I’ve heard so far, and it makes me interested to hear some of their other classics.