Manilla Road

Out of the Abyss

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As partly hinted by its title, 1988's Out of the Abyss was to signify a homecoming of sorts for Manilla Road, following the traumatic recording of its predecessor, Mystification, in the unfamiliar environs of Memphis a year earlier, and the release of their first live album, Roadkill, as well. Now, for their seventh studio album, the Wichita, KS-based trio was back to producing itself at its favored Miller Studios; only, strangely, Out of the Abyss came out sounding very unlike Manilla Road, and the production was largely to blame. Simply put, it was ultra-compressed and rather lacking on the bottom end for what was at the time perceived to be a "thrash-friendly" sound, and therefore well suited to dominant speed metal romps like "Whitechapel," the title track, "Black Cauldron," and the excellent "Slaughterhouse," as well as drummer Randy Foxe, who puts in an absolutely commanding performance. Different, but hardly a calamity, in other words, but whoever it was that suggested vocalist/guitarist Mark Shelton should add glass-shattering falsetto screams (first assaulting the ears on the otherwise solid "Rites of Blood") to his vocal arsenal needed his head examined. Sure, many heavy metal vocalists were guilty of such a stunt in the late '80s, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a misguided and, worse, instantly dating characteristic. Those issues aside, Out of the Abyss found Shelton relying heavily on Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos for inspiration and, to a lesser degree, horror master Clive Barker ("Midnight Meat Train") and Jack the Ripper (the aforementioned "Whitechapel"). Lovingly adorned with his usual ear for lyrical expression, these greatly enhance the album's overall appeal, but one cannot dismiss standout cuts like "Return to the Old Ones," "War in Heaven" (set apart by that much loved Manilla Road majesty of yore), and astounding closer "Helicon" (which grows from surprisingly subdued origins into a powerhouse six-string catharsis). And that's why, for all its less successful choices, it's still impossible to outright pan Out of the Abyss. For one, it captures Manilla Road at a very unusual -- and quite possibly flat-out heaviest -- point in their career, but it also shows a band gutsy enough to experiment with new styles and sounds, if these felt right for their musical vision at the time.

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