MANILLA ROAD – To Kill A King 2017 Golden Core
It’s a surprise to me that there are not more reviews for this, the last Manilla Road album before the sad passing of founding member and guitarist Mark Shelton in the summer of 2018. Granted, his early work will perhaps always overshadow the later, but his growing songwriting ability is something to enjoy on To Kill A King, as well as the high standard of musicianship from the band.
For those of you unfamiliar, the music of Manilla Road has busy drums, a busy bass, and a busy guitar, and that amount of competition should in theory make for terrible music. But Shelton’s simple yet interesting skeletal song structures always make Manilla Road easy to listen to. It really is magical. If you are a drummer, you’ll love hearing any of the stickmen over the years, and Neudi’s playing is great on this recording. Similarly bass players will be impressed with the way Phil Ross works with the songs and melodies and supports them with his own ideas. And of course Mark Shelton’s guitar playing is not going to disappoint any of you pickers out there. Shelton’s vocals are the same as they’ve ever been, a small compass that winds up and down – you either like them or you don’t – and Bryan Patrick ( the glue that seems to hold all of this band together, as seen at the recent tribute performance at KIT ) chimes in with clean and powerful singing as required.
First, let’s start with a concern. I do wonder if the production on TKAK is divisive and if it puts some listeners off. The drums are quite upfront and don’t always suit the slow epic direction some of the songs are taking, tracks that probably need a snare that goes ‘donk’ rather than ‘kak!’ Everything sounds good, but maybe like a very well produced demo which has then been mastered to be as loud as possible. Almost a rush. Yes, it is the mastering I think. Certainly on my cd copy you can almost hear the layer of random 0s and 1s from the digital exciters. Not a deal breaker, but you have to wonder if someone was suffering from high frequency hearing loss and over compensated….?
Ok let’s delve in. Opening track To Kill A King is a massive song at ten minutes, and I guess if you wanted to make sure people knew you were ‘living life on your own terms’, you’d make the first song on your album really, really long. It begins its existence as a commanding doom riff, before descending into a tender twelve string (?) sung lament which will almost certainly cause 50% of first time listeners to turn it off when they hear the vocals. But no – you are still here, right? Good. Then, the doom part starts up again, followed by more tenderness ,and then a marching syncopated chugging part that morphs into a trippy Hawkwind piece that Mark solos over within a harmonic minor scale. Then the whole piece shifts tonally to the minor sixth, before starting the tender bit up again, but this time with classic aeolian soloing, before the doom part comes back, and it’s only been about 5 minutes…..
Ok…no more muso talk. Track two is, I think, filler; all bands have to write filler tracks and there is no shame in it. The chuggy riff is very accurately played, of course, and Bryan’s vocals are strong. It’s a fine place for Mark to pull out a nice long solo. I love Mark Shelton’s solos – he always lands them so well. Conqueror then as a song is perfectly listenable.
Track three is another serious and slowish one. The anti nuclear ‘Never Again‘ ( nothing like the Discharge song with the same title and sentiment ) starts out with picked strings, rim-shots and a bass that gives melodic support to both the guitar and the vocals. He’s a good lad that Phil Ross. I like this song. It has a cool development section and then it all shifts up a semitone and back again – love it!
Track four The Arena is the simplest song and the catchiest so far. The opening rhythmic guitar shape is superb. Bryan’s vocals dominate this one whilst Shelton growls.
Track five, In The Wake, is ace. I regret I never got to see them perform this live. I know they played it at their last gig at Headbangers Open Air, a festival I planned to drive to but due to work and family commitments rescheduled for the one the day after in Italy, a gig of course that they never got to do. Let that be a lesson to any fence sitters or ditherers! Go and see your favourite band now, not tomorrow! This is the standout track. I won’t describe it, just listen to this for amazing songwriting…
The Talisman has a simplish, generic riff / phrase but an interesting structure and the band are really working to get the best out if it. Interplay between guitar and bass is strong. This would have been good to see live. Mark sings.
The Other Side starts with another picking part that, to a new listener, probably sounds too much like the intro to Never Again, before thankfully crunching into a thrashy compound time riff, and then into a catchy chorus delivered by Bryan Patrick. Pretty good.
Castle Of The Devil is a filler track by the standards of this band, and is probably the weakest songwriting on the album. The musicianship however, especially the drumming, is top notch.
Ghost Warriors is another simple and likeable track, much like The Arena, but a bit doomier. Patrick sings.
Blood Island has a great descending and ascending chromatic riff and is a fairly generic track to end the album on. Great music of course.
Overall this album has some really strong songs that certainly make it worth owning, and some tracks that maybe could have done with a little more time – it does gets a bit samey after a while. In a way, I wonder if Mark was spreading himself quite thin around this period. Certainly some of the weaker songs could have been lifted if Bryan had sung them. In retrospect it would be easy to say that a shorter release could have been a better idea. But, I think we should all be pleased that in his last years he and the band had the tenacity to rehearse and record so many of the songs that were in his heart. I know he was proud of this album, and fair enough. I hope that in some way the best songs are carried on and played again live, because they were his new ideas and they should go forth into battle!
Without this recording we would never have a glimpse into the mind of a man in the last part of his life that many admired and still do. Yes, you should definitely buy this album. Respect to all the Manilla Road guys over the years – thanks for the wealth of music you left us. Rest easy brother Shelton!