Manilla Road


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Whether sifting through the sands of time to relate mankind's historical past, or falling down the rabbit hole into realms of absolute fantasy, almost all Manilla Road albums are guaranteed to do one thing: whisk listeners to far away lands, well beyond the tangible borders of the modern world and its everyday concerns, on the wings of classic heavy metal. 2008's Voyager is not about to change this archetype after 30 odd years -- musically or thematically speaking -- and thus its title refers, not to some deep space-exploring gadget, but to an imaginary Norse ship bearing a group of exiled 12th century Vikings upon an epic adventure, steeped in history, legend, and all the gray area in between. The journey begins like all of the best amusement park rides: to the rumble of somber narrations spoken over ominous sound effects (on "Tomb of the Serpent King"), as the Viking warrior, Holgar, and his crew return to Norway after much raping and pillaging (see "Butchers of the Sea" -- huzzah!), only to find their homeland converted to Christianity, and their traditional pagan beliefs no longer welcome. Refusing to change their ways, they instead set sail into exile, amidst the crashing waves of "Frost and Fire" (no relation to the Cirith Ungol track), and the relatively smoother waters of "Tree of Life." The album's first bona fide classic, this one, it comes replete with anecdotes from Norse mythology and epitomizes vocalist/guitarist Mark Shelton's best latter-day work: made of deliberate, mesmerizing, acoustic strummed foundations which are only gradually embellished and intensified with electric instruments before culminating in a magnificent solo, naturally. Back to the story at hand: the crew's dreamlike reverie is suddenly interrupted by still more religious oppression during their passage through Vineland, with cathedral organs heralding more imminent bloodshed (and the ritual torture of a self-important preacher) on "Blood Eagle." Seeing no alternative other than to sail ever Westward and Southward, backed by the expansive title track's soundtrack, Holgar and his (un)merry men eventually reach the Toltec civilization in what is now modern-day Mexico (through the unexpectedly gentle acoustics of "Eye of the Storm"), and are actually welcomed as gods by the natives, (described in the "Return of the Serpent King"). Two more, largely engaging but far from revolutionary-sounding metallic onslaughts, "Conquest" and the evocative standout, "Totentanz (The Dance of Death)," tell of Holgar's ensuing triumphs and ultimate demise; but if our emphasis on recounting the storyline hadn't made it obvious already, Voyager's musical portion is significantly less intriguing than its lyrics. All things considered, the album's complete picture still does the Manilla Road legacy proud -- not least for delivering on the promise of musical escapism -- but first-time listeners may want to start their examinations of the band's discography with any one of a handful of other, superior efforts reviewed here.

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