It surely was Manilla Road who put the Epic in Metal!
Mark Shelton's group must be one of the most legendary American Metal bands in history. The band's debut album “Invasion” was issued in 1980 on their own Roadster label.
If you count “Circus Maximus” as a proper Road album, then the new record entitled “Mysterium” is Manilla Road's 17th album in a long and fruitful career. And without the shadow of a doubt it is one of their best records since 1983's “Crystal Logic” (normally cited as the band's masterstroke).
“Mysterium” is both, a very personal and a very scholary album. Mark Shelton explains: “There are ten songs on 'Mysterium'. It has a couple of conceptual themes going on in it. There are several songs that are based on Scottish lore and history. Some of these songs are based on studying my family heritage in that region and also personal experience from when my daughter and I were on holiday attending family clan gatherings in Scotland. The title cut though is about my Great Great Great Uncle Ludwig von Leichhardt who was a renowned German explorer in Australia in the mid-1800's. His work was vital to the pioneering of Australia on his most adventurous expedition to circumnavigate the continent mishap ensued and the whole expedition vanished leaving little trace and no real clues as to their fate. The whole of the project has sort of a stand your ground and never give up attitude. Fortitude is the motto of this project, I think. The musical approach is a little more like our 1980's style I think but it is always hard for me to categorize my music. It just has a much more majestic Manilla approach to it than that of our last few releases. The cover art is really cool and done by Alexander von Wieding of Germany. He is the same artist that did the Hellwell album cover and also the new 'Metal' and 'Atlantis Rising' covers for the reissues. One of the nicest and most talented artists that I have ever run into. It is quite the honor to have him in our camp!”
As is Mark Shelton's craft, the album is still very powerful and has not sacrificed its musical punch over intellectual contents: “We are always trying to reinvent the wheel and 'Mysterium' is no different except that it is done in a much more epic and majestic Manilla fashion than our last couple of efforts. I would say there is a little less thrash on this album than epic though. It is a very heavy album but at the same time it has its beautiful moments as well.”
My favourite Manilla Road question always is: Could you compare the new record with any other Road album at all? I know Mark has a hard time reflecting on this every time I ask him. This time it's no different: “Man, that is always so hard for me to do but I will give it a crack. Maybe 'Mystification' to a degree but there are hints of the 'Mark Of The Beast' style here and there. I also hear a bit of 'Open The Gates' and 'The Deluge' in this one but at the same time there is that new approach thing that we always seem to throw in there as well. I hear a little bit of 'Gates Of Fire' in there at times also, I guess. Hell, it's got a lot of Manilla styles revisited but there is one thing for sure, it is a much more Manilla Road sounding album than a Hellwell one. 'Playground Of The Damned' (our last album) was a project that was leading up to the Hellwell thing and so the album had a much more dark and foreboding approach to it.”
It seems as if Manilla Road have just entered the most creative phase of their career. There is a new studio album every two years or so, the band appears quite regularly at prestigious festivals all over Europe, and then there has been Mark Shelton's side project Hellwell as well … Mark explains: “It sure feels like I'm at a peak of creation here - that is no doubt. It's a good feeling. The music seems to be just pouring out of me like water at the moment and I am loving it. I also love the fact that we are playing live and touring a lot more nowadays than in the past. It's a grand time to be in Manilla Road or Hellwell, either one.”
Talking of Hellwell, the band's sound was a bit more 1970's in style, also featuring keyboards, I liked it very much. How big was the temptation
a) to follow this path with the new Road album or b) make the new Road album a total opposite? The Shark says: “No temptation at all really because Hellwell was created to give Manilla Road a chance to climb back into the more pure epic metal approach and style. So the temptation to make this album like Hellwell did not even exist in my mind. 'Mysterium' is also not a total opposite of Hellwell because whenever I am involved in the guitar playing and creation of the music there will always be my signature style and approach to the sound and structure of the music. But I was intent on making this Manilla Road album sound more like Manilla than Hellwell. Hellwell is like the omega to Manilla Road being the alpha. It's almost like I have exposed my own split personality you might say.”
Things look rosy right now for Mark Shelton, Manilla Road and Hellwell. But that was not always the case, there was a time when Mark thought of packing it all in really: “Yep. Right after Randy, Scott and I called it quits it felt like there was no place left for me to go with Manilla Road. That is when I put Circus Maximus together. I did not really imagine at that time that Manilla Road would resurface but I am glad that our fans would not let the band die. And that is the truth of it. If not for the continued and growing support we had from our fans across the world, Manilla Road would not have had its resurrection. Now I would not dream of giving up on Manilla Road. It is truly the path of light for me.”
Has Manilla Road become a completely "European phenomenon" over the years (with strongholds in Germany and Greece especially) or are there still pockets of supporters in the US of A as well? The following comes as something of a surprise to me: “Actually, our support is growing very fast in the States and in Canada. We just got through playing in Calgary, Alberta recently and we were shocked to find out that we were really well-known there and packed out the hall with the audience singing along with all the songs. It was amazing. We are playing a few of the bigger festivals in the US this year also so I'm sure our name will spread even more after that. We seem to have a growing fan base all over at this point but I would have to agree that we have a multitude of fans in Germany and Greece that are total die-hard Manilla Road fans. I'm not sure that I do have an explanation except that the Greeks love the poetic heroic tales that we tell and the Germans love the classical Wagnarian approach to the metal music that the band has. Man, I don't know, I am really reaching there, ha, ha. I just know that I am in debt to all of our fans for allowing me to continue to create the music that I love. Thanks from the depths of this viking heart. Up The Hammers & Down The Nails.”