On Friday July 27th, Mark “The Shark” Shelton passed away while playing the Headbangers Open Air fest in Germany.
Mark was an active musician from 1977 all the way to the very end. In his decorated career that spanned over 40 years, Mark has put out 21 full length metal albums. He’s primarily known for being the major driving force behind Manilla Road, but in recent years he launched a side projected called Hellwell. I can say earnestly that virtually all 20 of these albums across both bands are great. The sheer level of quality control and consistency seen here is virtually unheard of and only rivaled by the legendary Black Sabbath and Motorhead.
Mark’s passing is extremely tragic and unfortunate – he deeply touched the lives of many, myself included. He toiled for decades and decades in the metal underground without a single ounce of proper mainstream recognition. While the advent of the internet has brought about a revitalization of interest for Mark’s music, it can be quite daunting trying to get into a band with such an expansive discography like Manilla Road.
My goal is to use this unfortunate opportunity to help introduce people to Mark’s wonderful career. Manilla Road are a very special band and deserve far more acclaim than they’ve received.
Who are Manilla Road and what style do they play?
Manilla Road are a Witchita, Kansas based metal band that started out way back in 1977. Mark Shelton, on guitar and vocals, founded the band with a few high school buddies and after playing in the local bar scene for a bit, they managed to get traction and release their first album, titled Invasion, in 1980.
In the early days, Manilla Road played a traditional style of metal that blended elements of progressive and space rock to create a relaxing and otherwordly sound. The band’s landmark 1983 album Crystal Logic saw the band evolve to a style almost entirely their own – epic heavy metal.
The famous Manilla Road brand of epic heavy metal blended elements of traditional metal, US-style power metal, doom metal, and sometimes even thrash metal with the loose and lengthy song structures found in the band’s space rock roots. While lyrics don’t determine a musical genre, Mark always had an affinity for building fantasy worlds with his meticulously crafted words. All this melts together to create a unique and grandiose sound that separates Manilla Road from the legions of bands out there.
Manilla Road would evolve and adapt their style with time. Mark was great at incorporating the various influences and forces at work within the metal world into his own songwriting. As a result. each album has its own unique flair and character.
In addition to lead guitars and songwriting, Mark Shelton does the vocals for the majority of Manilla Road’s albums and it has to be said that he has a unique voice. Mark’s vocals are nasally and not elegant in the traditional sense compared to someone like Crimson Glory’s Midnight for example. After some time, Mark’s vocals have become very charming to me. It’s a little cheesy, but to me Mark has always sounded like a wise Sorcerer who is there to guide us through the dangerous, fantasy-filled soundscapes that he creates via his music.
Mark’s vocals are tough to get into at first for some, if you find yourself trying a few of these songs and not having it click that’s totally understandable. Jump ahead to the “What about the vocals?” section below and see if those releases click for you!!
With all that said… let’s get started!
Starting Point: Crystal Logic
Manilla Road’s most famous and popular album, Crystal Logic, serves as the band’s best starting point in my opinion. Drawing heavy influence from the NWOBHM that was raging at the time, while keeping their space rock roots, Crystal Logic is the first album where we see Manilla Road start to develop their signature epic heavy metal sound.
Crystal Logic is the most accessible of Manilla Road’s epic heavy metal albums and is nearly perfect in my eyes. It is heavier and more epic than the band’s previous efforts while being notably more relaxed than what succeeds it. The only glaring flaw of the album is the song “Feeling Free Again”. This song was written with radio air play in mind at the coercion of the producer. Hearing Mark sing “hey baby” kind of breaks the mysticism that the rest of the album has. With all that said, the bonus track “Flaming Metal Systems” is exceptionally good and serves as the spiritual replacement to this song!
Classic Era – The “Manilla Four”(1983-1987)
Starting with the previously mentioned Crystal Logic, Manilla Road had a four to five year stretch where they put out what many consider to be their best material sometimes referred to colloquially as the “Manilla 4”. The band really refined their signature epic sound and expanded on it, resulting in some of the best heavy metal albums around. Every album from this period is absolutely essential listening. I recommend listening to these four in chronological order to get a feel for how the band’s sound progressed.
As mentioned above, Crystal Logic marked the beginning of Manilla Road’s transition to epic heavy metal. Its accessibility and innate sense of familiarity make it the perfect starting point for the band.
This album saw the continued evolution of Manilla Road’s sound. The songs were similar to Crystal Logic but even bigger and more epic in structure. Open the Gates saw a step away from NWOBHM influences and American-style power metal began to really make an appearance. Mark continued to grow into his songwriting style here and the band brought on Randy Foxe, aptly nicknamed “Thrasher”, on drums. As one can glean from the name, Randy is an aggressive and extremely talented drummer who is able to bring out the absolute best in Mark Shelton and Scott “Scooter” Park (the bassist for the majority of Manilla Road’s tenure). Mark’s vocals, while still not traditional, are notably improved from Crystal Logic. It’s hard to believe they put out an album that rivals (and in many cases, exceeds) Crystal Logic only two years later.
Somehow less than one year after Open the Gates came out in 1985, Mark Shelton and co. grace us with 1986’s massive The Deluge. To me, this album is peak Manilla Road – it’s darker, more aggressive, and more epic than their previous efforts. The Deluge features a number of shorter and punchier songs to start out before reaching a duo of epics “The Deluge” and “Friction in Mass”. Clocking in at just under forty minutes, the album is the perfect length to keep your attention while giving enough room for the previously mentioned epics to shine.
Manilla Road’s next effort, Mystification, beautifully demonstrates the band’s ability to adapt and incorporate new sounds. At the time of release, thrash metal was starting to rule the metal world. Manilla Road were no exception to the craze and they incorporated a healthy amount of thrash influence with notably more aggressive riffs. Epic heavy metal and thrash are not a combination that you really see often outside of this album, but Manilla Road really make it work. Fans of heavier and more aggressive music tend to favor this album over others. Brilliant stuff.
The Early Years: Space Rock and Proto-Metal Roots(1977-1982)
Essential Listening: Mark of the Beast (1981)
Manilla Road’s debut is a progressive and space rock filled affair that is closer to proto-metal than anything else. Invasion is a fun rocker, but it suffers from poor production and consistency issues. With that said, the highs of the album are quite high and make up for the glaring flaws. Songs like “The Empire” show off Mark’s impressive guitar skills and ability to create epic soundscapes that would define Manilla’s later sound.
This album has a particularly interesting story. Mark of the Beast was originally written and recorded in 1981, but was unfortunately shelved. It was later re-recorded and released in 2002. While this album technically came out during Manilla Road’s post-reunion period, it’s an early album for all intents and purposes. Mark of the Beastrepresents the height of Manilla Road’s early spaced-out sound. It’s a shockingly consistent album and quality 100% of the way through – it’s the highs of 1980’s Invasion for the entire duration of an album.
This album is Manilla Road’s final effort before their proper journey into the epic. As the name might suggest, this album is notably heavier than the band’s previous material found on Invasion and technically Mark of the Beast. Musically, this album is a stepping stone towards what the Road would eventually become. There are clear hints of it here as seen in the album’s penultimate track “Cage of Mirrors”, a massive epic that could have easily found a home on Crystal Logic.
Mid-Era Manilla Road (1988-1992)
Randy Foxe’s influence on Manilla Road’s sound is undeniable – Out of the Abyss is even thrashier than Mystification was. Manilla Road’s epic sound and power metal influence gets thrown almost entirely out of the window here and what we have left is a unique take on thrash metal. This album is more aggressive than anything else Manilla Road have put out. It’s definitely worth a listen!
The successor to 1988’s thrash-filled foray, The Courts of Chaos, saw the band move a bit closer to their signature epic heavy sound. It’s not quite in the same style as the “Manilla Four” – there’s a darker, more sinister influence that rears its head here. The material on this album is solid, but it’s not quite at the same caliber of quality and accessibility as some of the more classic era material. I do not recommend this album early on in one’s Manilla Road journey, but if you find yourself craving more once you’ve worked through some of the classics and modern miracles then this is a good place to go.
There is a lot of contention whether this is truly a Manilla Road album. The band broke up from 1992 to 1994 and Mark Shelton started a new project called The Circus Maximus. This project created one album, listed here, which the record label released under the Manilla Road name in order to sell more copies. If we are to count it as a true Manilla album then this is certainly my least favorite in the discography. The way this album is structured is that there are 3 artists each taking vocals for certain tracks. There are some redeeming songs here and unsurprisingly, it’s the ones that Mark Shelton appears on (“Throne of Blood”, “No Sign From Above”, and “Forbidden Zone”).
This is not a true Manilla Road album in Mark Shelton’s eyes and it isn’t in mine. This is the only album you’ll find here that I recommend you specifically avoid.
Post-Reunion Pt.1 (1994-2008)
Atlantis Rising is the first full length album featuring Bryan “Hellroadie” Patrick as a full member of the band. Hellroadie, as one can guess, worked as a roadie for Manilla Road in the 80s and eventually began playing live with the band before becoming a full time member. Manilla Road broke up briefly between 1992 and 1994. Atlantis Rising is Mark and co.’s triumphant return to form, coming a full eight years post-reunion. This album is a bit longer, progressive, and more ambitious than the band’s previous 80s and 90s efforts. As far as comeback efforts go, Atlantis Rising is a strong showing but doesn’t quite capture the same spark that their 80s classics have.
Spiral Castle is without a doubt my favorite Manilla Road album outside of their classic four. Every small detail that went wrong with Atlantis Rising was fixed for this album. It’s a surprising return to peak form nearly a full twenty years from the start of their initial classics run. The leads, songwriting, vocals, lyrics, etc. are all as good as they ever were here. This album incorporates a healthy amount of Middle-Eastern influence that becomes readily apparent in tracks like “Merchants of Death” and “Sands of Time”. Being of Middle-Eastern heritage myself, seeing Mark incorporate it so eloquently into his tried and true formula speaks to me personally on a very fundamental level. The album’s only major flaw is the long winded instrumental outro that could be cut in half. Really, other than that it’s right there with “The Manilla Four” as some of the best stuff Mark Shelton has done.
Taking a full three years to release, the gap between Spiral Castle and Gates of Firerepresents the longest period of time between albums in Manilla Road’s career outside of the comeback. This is another very ambitious release as is evident by the length of time it took Mark to write it. Gates of Fire clocks in at over seventy minutes from start to finish, this album is one of Manilla Road’s longest. It covers three different concepts and stories as is portrayed by the cover art. Unfortunately, this is the album’s major flaw as the result more closely resembles three different EPs rather than one cohesive album.
Voyager is one of The Road’s most unique records. There is a healthy amount of death metal influence present in the songwriting. With that said it isn’t very blatant. You won’t find cavernous death metal riffs or bludgeoning blast beats here, but you will find dissonance and strong, harsh vocals that Mark rarely used prior to this effort. Mark has always been amazing at morphing and adapting new influences to spice up his classic formula and this album is the shining example of how he’s able to do that. The extreme metal influences are tastefully done and add an extra dimension to this album. Essential listening!
Post-Reunion Pt.2 (2008-2018)
Essential Listening: Playground of the Damned(2011)
This album demonstrated a return to roots of sorts with the extreme metal influences of Voyager being dropped in favor of the more epic approach the band used to take back in the 80s. Playground of the Damnedrepresents some of the most accessible material that Manilla Road have written and is a pleasant listen end to end. It doesn’t have the same punch or wow factor as some of the classics, but it’s a very solid album in its own right.
Manilla Road’s next effort, Mysterium, continued the return to roots that Playground of the Damned started. The A side of the album is solid, but between the two ballads and the long epic at the end, the album loses some serious steam as it closes out. Overall, this is a solid effort that doesn’t quite stack up to the rest of this band’s impressive catalogue.
The band’s 17th studio album, The Blessed Curse, is a marked step up from the previous Mysterium. This album is a little more obtuse and closer in spirit to releases like Spiral Castle and Gates of Fire. The major issue I have with this album is again the length, clocking in at almost 100 minutes once you factor in both halves, it can be a lot to get through. This Sumerian-themed epic of an album would have benefited from culling a few unnecessary track. Still quite an enjoyable listen either way.
Manilla Road’s final effort is a doomy, one-hour long affair. It’s notably darker than the previous The Blessed Curse. This album features a new bassist and has a bit of a heavier low end than the previous few which is a nice change of pace. A whopping eighteen albums and Manilla Road prove time and time again that they’re capable of writing quality music with zero regard to trends and accessibility.
What about the vocals?
Not digging Crystal Logic’s approach? Try:
It’s no secret that Manilla Road are not a very accessible band. Mark always did his own thing without a care for anything but the music itself. Part of the reason that Manilla Road take so long for some people to get into are the vocals. Mark is not a traditional vocalist and is quite nasally relative to some of his peers. It may take a few listens to get used to his style and the Manilla Road sound, but it’s certainly worth it! As mentioned in the intro, Mark has always sounded like a wise Sorcerer to me. Someone who is there to guide us through the dangerous and mystical soundscapes of Manilla Road.
Summary – Essential albums and Recommended Path
Something I have to make note of again – while some Manilla Road releases are clearly a step above the rest, there is not a single bad release among them. Bands could come out with material at the same caliber as the worst Manilla Road releases and we’d be talking about how promising that young band is.
Open Letter from the Author
Thank you Mark “The Shark” Shelton. Thank you for providing me with over ten years and countless hours of mystifying music. Thank you for being the stalwart of the metal underground. Thank you for twenty full-length albums of flaming, bloody steel. Thank you for over forty years of crystal logic.
Mark’s music has been critical in my personal metal journey. I found Manilla Road early on in my descent into the metal underground and Mark’s songs have been a guiding torch for me ever since. I’m not the only one – Mark’s art has touched many in our community. Mark’s unrelenting persistence and consistency made it feel like he’d never really go away. It was always a fact of life that Mark Shelton would be out there somewhere either writing kick ass music or performing it live for his fans. At the time of writing this, it’s already been a couple of weeks since his passing and I still can’t believe it’s real.
Rest in Power. July 27th, 2018 – The day epic metal died.
I was a rocker from the birth
A rocker I’ll be till I die
Scorching the face of the earth
Bringing the music to life
Flying on high like a bird
Nothing can ever shoot down
Metal is dead so I’ve heard
But not while I’m still above ground
So dig me no grave
Manilla Road – Dig Me No Grave(1990)