One year ago today (July 27th) metal lost one of its most ardent and valiant warriors in Mark “The Shark” Shelton. Mark’s impact on the metal underground cannot be understated. He was a passionate musician who cared deeply for both the music and the people. His career with Manilla Road spanned four decades and nearly twenty remarkable records. Like many, I’ve taken the year since his tragic death to more deeply reflect on Manilla Road’s career. In doing so, I’ve found a much deeper appreciation for eras of the band that I had mostly ignored in favor of their classics. In particular, Mark of the Beast has resonated with me, leaving me wondering why I didn’t appreciate it as much before.
Manilla Road are known for their brand of epic heavy metal that really kicked off with Crystal Logic, but their sound before that was much more firmly rooted in a progressive rock offshoot known as space rock. From the band’s inception in 1977 all the way through to 1981, they played a metal-tinged space rock that is notably different than the Manilla Road sound that we’re so familiar with now. Manilla Road’s debut album, Invasion, came out in 1980 and their next official album release was the more straightforward Metal in 1982. However, in between the recording and release of these two albums, they wrote an entire album originally titled Dreams of Eschaton that was intended for a 1981 release, but it was deemed unsatisfactory by the band and shelved. The songs floated around as low quality bootlegs for over twenty years in the metal underground before eventually being revisited. Its proper release came in 2002, when Monster Records cleaned up the masters and finally reissued the songs professionally under a new album name: Mark of the Beast.
My first listen of the album came a few years after my introduction to Manilla Road. At this point in time, I was really only familiar with the band’s “classic run” of four records starting with Crystal Logic and ending with Mystification. I had just begun exploring the band’s huge catalog and I had listened to other albums here and there. While looking for my next Manilla Road album to try, Mark of the Beast’s brilliant artwork, licensed from Jim Fitzpatrick, caught my eye. The vibrant colors, stark lines, and the calm sense of triumph – it was all so captivating and I immediately went searching for it. I don’t think I was really prepared for what I heard and I certainly wasn’t in the right mood for it to click. I enjoyed it, but nothing really stuck with me – I visited the album maybe once a year at most after that. After Mark’s death, I visited the entirety of Manilla Road’s discography several times over and there was something about Mark of the Beast that just clicked with me in a way that it hadn’t previously.
The emotions and ideas behind the album suddenly made a lot more sense. Musically, Mark of the Beast is the logical stepping stone in the evolution of Manilla Road’s music. Its sound is deeply entrenched in space rock just like Invasion and Underground, but the riffs are heavier and a bit closer to what we get with Metal and Crystal Logic. Given Manilla Road were still trying to find their legs, the quality of musicianship displayed on the album is surprising. Mark’s vocals, at times smooth and dream-like and others aggressive, are among the best he’s ever done and lift the album up. The tracks are generally long and sprawling with some hitting harder than others, but they cycle through a number of different emotions and each track builds upon a central theme. By the end of the album’s hour long run time, you’ll feel like you’ve gone through the mystical journey right there with them.
While Mark Shelton wasn’t particularly fond of this record, it stands as a remarkably unique and underappreciated piece of Manilla Road’s history. Mark of the Beast has been my reprieve in the last year. After a long work week, or an emotionally taxing day, or whenever I just feel the need to relax, Mark of the Beast has been my back drop. It’s so easy to just close my eyes and let the waves of music take over.
Album rating: 95/100
Favorite track: Mark of the Beast