I suppose Manilla Road is the band around here on RiG that does not really need a broad introduction. Midwestern US underground metal legends, influenced a ton of bands in trad and even a little outside of it – albeit in more modern times than in their own era, but still – you know the drill. For my own personal part though, I’ll say that I’ve always had a special appreciation for Open the Gates. I first heard this one when I was about 17 or so – I’d heard about the Road, as they’d steadily been gaining appreciation through places like the Metal Archives and such in the wake of their 2000s albums like Voyager, and their older stuff was being reappraised probably a while beforehand. I’d chosen this one over Crystal Logic on that grounds that I was more into thrash metal at the time and this was the thrashier of the two – I’d also heard the vocals on CL were offputting at the time; naturally I came to love them in later years. Even then after listening to this album, I knew they were destined to become one of my all time favorite bands.
Open the Gates, as most understand at this point, is when the band began incorporating more of a thrash metal edge into their sound than before. The previous few Manilla Road albums, in spite of their release dates, were in many respects creatures of the 70s – the loose yet coherent song structuring owning as much to 70s prog as the emerging metal sound as the 80s dawned; the drumming meant to provide more of a fat groove for the band to bounce off than anything flash; the occasional tangents into psychedelic territory etc. There are certain parts of all that in which Road never really lost, but on the whole Open the Gates is a far more upfront album in its aggression than prior outings were, both in riffing and with the addition of new drummer Randy “Thrasher” Foxe.
Of that, Foxe’s contributions to the band are the most immediate and striking. Thrasher had a far more active, athletic style that he brought to the band what they had previously and it’s something that fit perfectly with the change in direction that the band had evolved into. Foxe could lay down a fat groove with the best of them, but his contribution to the band matters more in the sense that he uses his kit in a manner that mirrors what Mark’s guitar is doing constantly – from those constant rolling tom fills he does in “The Ninth Wave” that gives the song a strange, floating feeling – to the way he accentuates a certain snare hit that underlines the main riff of “The Fires of Mars”, or how he uses specific cymbal strikes to foreshadow a certain transition into another riff or passage. People apparently used to criticize the fact that he couldn’t play a straight beat, which is beyond me – his drumming is varied, rich in texture and tempo use, highly imaginative, and unflinchingly always matches the exact mood and feeling that the rest of the band is conjuring up, near-instinctively. When interviewed some years ago, Foxe once spoke about how they’d work out a lot of their songwriting live via improvised jams and about how he felt as if he had a “psychic connection” with the rest of the band when doing this. Understanding that makes it really easy to grasp how everything meshes together so intuitively. And he’s a hard-hitting motherfucker on top of all that.
While the band certainly incorporates the thrash edge into their songwriting, Road still doesn’t really sound like a thrash band here and wouldn’t probably for a few albums. They’re definitely inspired by thrash metal and its energy – some of Mark’s riffs on this album do have a passing vibe similar to early Metallica – Road also was always a band who had a pretty distinct identity and sense of purpose of their own. Perhaps you could chalk it up to the band’s isolation in the Midwest, away from the major trendy coast scenes of the day, but nobody really sounded a ton like them at the time. It’s Mark’s riffing and his voice, in the largest part – the shimmery open chords on the balladic tracks; that loping/ambling sense of movement that isn’t quite a gallop but is pretty close to it; his free flowing lead guitar style that acts less as a sense of melodic precision – though he obviously was one when he needed to be – and more as a vehicle for pure emotional expressionism. The idea that music isn’t a disposable thrill, but in fact, a method to conjure up and explore worlds; express thoughts, emotion and the very sensation of things long forgotten about but desired on a deeply primal level. That’s what the whole “Magic can save soul and set the spirit free/It’s not just fantasy” line from “Astronomica” gets at, really. It’s one thing to snidely proclaim yourself as a metal band and obsess over the image and pageantry of it over the real form, the essence of it. It’s another thing to unflinchingly exalt and embody the substance of it – not as a pose, but because you can’t possibly ever be anything else and don’t even bother trying to be that. Manilla Road unflinchingly was the latter to the day Shelton passed away, which I’d say is the highest compliment you can pay to a band.
While you can certainly make a case for this not quite being their most consistent set of songs, I feel like its high points are tracks most bands will cut off a limb to write. “Metalstrom” gets the album off in fine rousing form – from its opening proclamation to the way the drums just constantly loop and weave around a truly leaden main riff that has constant movement throughout. It’s a truly killer riff and the way it flows into the chorus – Mark’s gruff yet distinctly melodic voice taking the lead – is something most couldn’t match. Every riff in that song is a gem and the way the drums play off is mesmerizing throughout. The aforementioned “Astronomica” has an incredibly nifty built up, its shimmery-delay-riddled intro builds into that bending, groaning lead as the rest of the band springs to life. It is an innately melodic song that uses its spaciness to underline the force of the riffing for when shit gets real. Every song has at least one part that’s an earworm and takes forever to get out of your head once you’ve heard the album, and yet there’s constantly something new and interesting to find; something absorbing, to lose yourself in. “Witches Brew” takes a similar format and transforms it into something much more affectingly eerie than before, woozily smearing the line between rhythm and melody; reality and fiction as it increasingly unfurls itself. The final climax of the song – Mark’s ragged bellowing of the song title and his final solo, this strange psychedelic number where the reverb lets his notes smear together, is a real gem and one of the highlights of a career filled with them. “The Road of Kings” is one of the great “feel good” anthems in metal; Mark’s voice is at its most melodic here, beckoning you to “Break away from your anxieties today/Don’t ever let them drag you down.”
My favorite cut off this album though, is “The Fires of Mars”, which builds itself off this truly leaden, dour riff and everything spring forth as the song progress. Akin to molten metal flowing into a mold to forged. The way Foxe underlines the riff during the verse by accentuating the space between Mark’s voice with his kick drums is one of the coolest little effects in metal. There’s this slinky riff that appears during the verses and it’s one of the most memorable of the album even as it’s used to crank up the tension. The way Mark foreshadows the solo by doing a bend before howling his way into it is a great little bit of writing. The solo itself is a purely elegant bit of untethered melodic brilliance. In his own way Shelton pulls a Jimi Hendrix, the solo becoming less its discrete thing and more as a manner of pure, moody melodic expressionism that is the embodiment of pure mood. I’ve never not been consistently blown away by it.
I suppose if there is one dud on here – albeit a minor one, all things considered – it is perhaps “Heavy Metal to the World”. By no means is it a bad song; the chorus itself is enjoyable enough in its own way, but I’ve always felt like Road’s forte wasn’t in the straight up rocker, per se. It’s why I never really vibed much with “Feeling Free Again” off the previous album for instance. It’s a pleasant enough song by itself but I’ve never really been able to help the feeling that it’s mildly out of place with the patient, brooding mysticism and constantly surprising loops and turns that the rest of the songs undertake, save for perhaps the title track.
The rest of the album, though? Absolutely magnificent and don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise. It’s one of the best albums by one of the best metal bands of all time; its finest moments are sublime in respects that almost nobody else really captures quite like this band does. Whether it’s the “most accessible” choice to get into the band with or not, it still remains essential listening and one of the very finest out there.
Favorite Track: The Fires of Mars