Manilla Road

Spiral Castle

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After snapping a decade-long silence with 2001's stunning return to form, Atlantis Rising, Wichita, KS' lords of majestic metal, Manilla Road, wasted little time preparing their next studio album, Spiral Castle (their tenth, give or take a few). Introduced by a regal, Brian May-like mini-guitar symphony entitled, histrionically enough, "Gateway to the Sphere," the ensuing title cut weaves a typically fantasy-laced tale the likes of which Manilla Road have been cranking out for nigh on 20 years (Ragnarok, Bifröst, and the rest of the Norse mythology gang are all here). In fact, the only entirely novel artifice on hand is the addition of one Bryan "Hellroadie" Patrick, who contributes very sporadic bursts of death metal style grunting alongside main man Mark Shelton's familiar nasal tenor -- but nothing approaching the co-vocalist set-up some sources suggested. Getting back to the songs, the evocatively foreboding, almost grunge-flavored, "Shadow" (complete with shred-tastic Shelton guitar solo) and the grandly melodic "Seven Trumpets" are both timeless tracks that could very well slot into such seminal Manilla Road albums past as Crystal Logic and The Deluge. And despite its terrifying title, the 11-minute Goliath called "Merchants of Death" has a mellow, almost jam-loose mid-section harking back to the group's progressive late-'70s days; while the placid instrumental closer, "Sands of Time," (featuring an unlikely combo of violins and bongos!) comprises the second half of a striking, Eastern flavored tandem good enough to open most any other metal album. The excellent "Born Upon the Soul" represents the first half, and, as well as conjuring up an Egyptian-sounding riff that Iron Maiden would have gone to town with, the lyrics of its third and final stanza provide a virtual mission statement for Manilla Road's entire fantasy metal career: "Through the mountains I have searched; For the place of Magik's birth; It is not a shrine of old; Magik's born upon the soul." Corny as these rhymes may sound, all aging metal heads should be so lucky as the members of Manilla Road when it comes to tapping into such unselfconscious, Peter Pan-like imagination. And, to that end, Spiral Castle offers another magic doorway for heavy metal fans to pass through, and escape this mundane reality for a little while.

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