Manilla Road

Gates of Fire

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Question: which heavy metal band has sacrificed more than any other for the holy quest of epic, historical/mythological heavy metal over a 20-plus-year career? Answer: no, not Iron Maiden -- Manilla Road; believe it! After all, even though the worst-selling Maiden album has probably reached more people than Manilla Road's entire discography, that's exactly where the sacrifice comes in, get it? Crazier still (at least we're admitting our lunacy, see?), 2005's Gates of Fire, with its nine songs of record-breaking length divided into three separate thematic suites, may be the Wichita-based group's most epic effort yet! The 14th album since their genesis way back in 1980, it is also the second (and apparently last) to feature additional vocals from Bryan "Hellroadie" Patrick, whose guttural grunts and piercing screams once again prove both unnecessary and superfluous next to the familiar operatic wail of founding singer/guitarist Mark "The Shark" Shelton. This is immediately evident on Gates of Fire's pounding opener, "Riddle of Steel," which also inaugurates the record's first and weakest trilogy, "The Frost Giant's Daughter" (named after the Conan the Barbarian short story that inspired it) and, sure enough, "Hellroadie" is nowhere to be found (back to humping gear, perhaps) on the ensuing uncharacteristically brief and acoustic "Behind the Veil" and somewhat repetitive head-banger "When Giants Fall." Trilogy number two, "Out of the Ashes," is devoted to Virgil's Aeneid, and immediately raises the album's creative bar with its far more engaging lyrics and the introduction of an unforgettable melodic theme. This theme not only binds the unprecedented 14-plus minutes of "The Fall of Iliam" to the suite's 11-minute conclusion, "Rome" (plus the more concise, memorable riffing of "Imperious Rise," sandwiched in between), but also supports what feel like hours of extended, face-melting solo improvisations from the always inventive Shelton. Finally, along comes the album's third, eponymous trilogy, "Gates of Fire," which is based on the heroic stand of King Leonidas and 300 Spartan warriors at the Battle of Thermopylae and, notably, precedes the blockbuster, special effects-laden movie released in 2007 by two years. Manilla Road's interpretation begins with the ominous militaristic advance of "Stand of the Spartans," proceeds through the Eastern-flavored, almost bolero-paced "Betrayal" (describing the Persian reprisal, and containing still more amazing guitar solos), and culminates in the moving part-acoustic/part-electric marche fun├Ębre of "Epitaph to the King" -- an unexpected career highlight, to be sure. Manilla Road fans are sure to disagree on whether Gates of Fire, in its entirety, also qualifies as such (not least because of Mr. Hellroadie's small but irritating role), but it really may just take the cake in terms of epic heavy metal grandeur. Eat your heart out, Steve Harris!

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