Album review: Manilla Road – Crystal Logic

Occult visions and power chords in the theater of the unconscious.

Genre: Heavy/power metal
Country: United States
Release date: December 1983
Label: Roadster Records (reissued on vinyl by High Roller Records)
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: HRR 193

Mark Shelton – lead vocals, guitars, composition
Scott Park – bass
Rick Fisher – drums, percussion, backing vocals








Crystal Logic



Feeling Free Again



The Riddle Master



The Ram



Flaming Metal System



The Veils of Negative Existence



Dreams of Eschaton/Epilogue


Total running time:


Last month we examined the album Kin Sonic by Jupter and Okwess, a band from the Congo, a country whose world ended a long time ago. Perhaps several times, depending on what your personal threshold for “everything is fucked” is, but the Congo is a place where people have, for centuries, even before King Leopold II of Belgium turned it into his personal plantation, witnessed nearly every form of horror that has ever existed day after day, year, after, year, all the way up to the present day. Now we look 35 years into the past, at a band called Manilla Road, from the United States of America. White people from the United States of America. The sort of people all those sundry and manifold horrors, and many others like them all over the world, were perpetrated for, in a land that, if not quite as luxurious as the one that existed before the oil crisis, still seemed to be only experiencing a temporary setback in a never-ending march to prosperity and perfection. Jupiter and Okwess are a scintillating, joyful band that make exuberant, accessible, relentlessly life-affirming music. Manilla Road, on the other hand have a guitar tone that sounds like robots dying and write sullen, brooding metal songs about civilization dying, sometimes filtered through metaphor, sometimes nakedly. Manilla Road inherited the land of milk and honey and Manilla Road thought the land of milk and honey was a crock of shit that is going to eventually blow itself up out of its own hubris. And, being more emotional than intellectual in their approach to things, found a vehicle for expressing this alienation in their own distinctive brand of heavy metal.

A lot of white people, when they become acquainted with non-white music, remark on how “happy” or “carefree” it is. But I prefer to flip the perspective: European music, and European art in general, seems uniquely grim, full of neuroses, self-doubt, and a preoccupation, even obsession, with death. Part of it is Christianity and its highly death-centric mythology and metaphysics, but countries that received Christ from the point of a conquistador’s sword don’t seem to have the same affinity for morbid imagery outside of explicitly Christian contexts (and even then, like with Mexico’s Día de Muertos, such imagery is often vastly less ominous and threatening). Deep down inside, most of us lucky enough to have been born in the bosom of Empire are aware of what said empire has done, the moral costs, and the social costs—the isolation and loneliness of car-centered neighborhoods, the mutual hostility and resentment between us and those whose lands, labor, and bodies have been plundered for our benefit, the endless striving and competition, and the disconnection with, disregard for, and wholesale destruction of the natural world that was our habitat for countless aeons before the Industrial Revolution, and upon whose continued health our existence still depends.

Heavy metal spoke to all of that, emerging from the post-industrial wasteland of northern England at the dawn of the 1970s and putting down roots in blighted white cities, towns, and neighborhoods throughout the Global North in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. We are out of touch and out of balance with our environment, each other, and ourselves, and metal speaks to and gives voice to this alienation. Few have ever done it better than Manilla Road, who, while never famous even in their mid-’80s heyday, enjoyed one of the most loyal and devoted fanbases in the entire genre—the “’Road Crew” have always been small but they managed to sustain Manilla Road and the members’ lifestyles and families (without day jobs until the very end, a rarity in metal these days) all the way up until bandleader Mark Shelton’s death last year. And yes, a lot of the metaphors used to speak to this spiritual malaise by metal bands (Manilla Road being no exception) are absurd, and the egoistic, individual, me-against-the-world spirit that seems inextricably bound to heavy metal feels completely inadequate against problems that seem to feed on fighting rather than be resolved by them, but this music said things that needed saying in 1983, as if Crystal Logic had already existed and Manilla Road were just a conduit through which it could manifest.

Manilla Road were broadly aligned with the greater American power metal scene of the 1980s, but they’ve always been more than a little contrarian about it—in this early period they were still fairly laid-back in presentation and tempo while other bands were getting faster, louder, and more attention-grabbing, and later they would themselves pivot towards jackhammering riff-o-ramas just as the “white collar” bands that proliferated from 1985 onwards were following the lead of Queensrÿche with pretty-boy pseudo-classical tenors, buttery-smooth guitar tones, and progressive rock influences. They were shamelessly nerdy, deliberately ugly, and entirely unpredictable. Manilla Road’s performance on this album, with one exception (“Flaming Metal System”) never gives you the feeling that they are trying to impress you on purpose—in fact, they seem almost entirely unconcerned with what you, the individual listener, personally want. They played the music that was in their hearts, and the listener could decide if it did or did not resonate.

Warning: this album contains scenes of explicit male nerdity. Listener discretion is advised.

Or more specifically, Mark Shelton’s heart, because he played all the guitars, sang most of the vocals, and wrote all of the music and all of the lyrics. Fairly unusually, he had extensive classical music training from early childhood and learned several instruments, but gave all of it up to learn rock singing and metal guitar on his own, from scratch, and in late 1970s Kansas there were no YouTube tutorials and few references—indeed, many of the techniques were still being invented! Like his music, his technique on both guitar and vocals was weird, though his playing works a lot better than his singing—indeed, it varies from good to absolutely sublime throughout the album. His riffs here are still fairly short and simple compared to the long, twisting passages he would explore starting with The Deluge and culminating with the first few albums after their reunion (after the horrendously bad alternative rock-inspired Circus Maximus side project in 1992 and a subsequent hiatus) in the early 2000s, but they’re all full of spicy chord voicings and odd note choices, while his solos are roiling vortices of furious shredding, but even here the scales and phrasing are all just a bit odd in a way that makes a Shelton solo immediately recognizable. It is something that nobody did or could teach him, but a style almost entirely his own.

His singing, too is a style almost entirely his own, but not really in a good way. For starters he’s nasal, and I don’t mean a little nasal, but prank-order-50-pizzas-with-a-clothespin-pinching-your-nose nasal, to the point where the nasal honk sometimes eclipses the other tonal characteristics of his vowels (especially “The Veils of Negative Existence”, where his pronunciation of ex-iiiist-aaaaaaaawnce sounds almost more like French than English). It’s not an easy sound to get used to, and I can only say I’m used to it rather than really liking it, but it goes pretty well with the esoteric, mystical vibe this music so effortlessly gives off. Manilla Road were not a beautiful band, they did not make music about beautiful things, and a singer who sounds like Geoff Tate would probably be completely out of place. However, if a taste for his vocals is not one you can easily acquire, you will struggle very, very hard to enjoy this music, and his singing on the later albums is easier on the ears only because it’s far less prominent and important to the music, and in a more restricted range. Crystal Logic is still heavy metal heavy metal with all the rock baggage the “heavy” implies, and on this album the melodic content of his singing is a critical part of the experience—these are rock songs, not riff-based compositions with occasional singing like those on The Deluge or Mystification.

Not to say there aren’t many riffs, however. Indeed, the album is absolutely packed with them, and they form the primary basis of the musical arrangements; they’re just forced to share the focus with the vocals instead of having it all to themselves. The biggest and most obvious influence on Crystal Logic’s riffs is Black Sabbath (especially on the down-tempo songs “The Riddle Master” and “The Ram”, which also borrow Sabbath’s trick of suddenly speeding up towards the end of a song), but Manilla Road’s approach is a lot less bluesy and a lot more weird, and unlike with Sabbath, the presence of the bass and drums on this album is very limited. While the rhythm section’s playing is solid, the material they’re given is very unassuming and low-key, serving only to support Shelton’s guitars and vocals. This would change on later albums with the replacement of drummer Rick Fisher with Randy Foxe and his much more aggressive, busy style starting with this album’s sequel, 1985’s Open the Gates. Tempos on this album are slower than on their later albums, with even relatively brisk songs like “Necropolis” and the title track feeling a bit staid compared to what would come later.

My copy of the album is one of High Roller Records’ endless colored vinyl editions of this album, and in my case the vinyl is colorless and transparent (crystal, perhaps a High Roller marketer might tell me), and makes for a pretty damning indictment of the fad for funky vinyl colors because the disc sounds awful, even compared to CD/digital editions of the same album, with a shameful amount of surface noise for a record that’s been only rarely played, by a single owner, on high quality equipment. Vinyl in general tends to lose a bit of treble compared to digital, but this is a particularly extreme example, to the point where Rick Fisher’s cymbals almost disappear. Additionally, the fact that you can see the grooves of the other side of the record through the side you’re playing makes lining up and cuing individual tracks a rather frustrating experience of trial and error. If you are in the market for this album and can get a copy on black vinyl, by all means do so, or just skip vinyl altogether and find an old CD from the ‘80s or early ‘90s (considering that Roadster Records was a very small indie owned and operated by Shelton himself, I would not expect great things from an original vinyl). The jacket isn’t as flimsy as a lot of modern reissues but the packaging is as basic as it gets, with a plain red gatefold interior with printed lyrics, the triumphantly dorky band photo shown a few paragraphs above, and a brief reminiscence on the album and Manilla Road’s career up to that point written by Mark Shelton.

However, if you want an audiophile record, Crystal Logic probably isn’t for you anyway. The mix is raw, fuzzy, and murky, with guitar distortion spilling out everywhere and bleeding all over the bass and drums. The guitar tone itself would normally be pleasant enough, combining the full, fat timbre of “very ‘eavy, very ‘umble” ‘70s bands like Sabbath, Uriah Heep, and early Styx with the acidic bite of ‘80s metal, but it is completely out of control, with little apparent cleanup, processing, or EQ to make it play nice with the other instruments. On the other hand, the turbid production means Mark Shelton’s vocals are not very exposed, making his shortcomings as a singer a bit less apparent than they might otherwise be. The one thing it does well is convey an atmosphere of obscurity, loneliness, and desolation, of half-remembered legends and dusty crypts. It might not be good, technically speaking, but like with the singing, it is at least appropriate to the material in a way that a mix like that of say, Queensrÿche’s The Warning would likely not be.

While Crystal Logic is not a concept album, it does have a clear progression musically and thematically from start to finish, beginning with short, musically simple, and catchy pieces and slowly getting denser and weirder, both musically and lyrically, as it builds towards the concluding “Dreams of Eschaton”. After an intro consisting largely of guitar effects and pitch-shifted monster voice narration, the album kicks off with “Necropolis”, a concert mainstay and fan favorite for good reason—of the very few “rock singles” Manilla Road have made over the years, it is by far the best, a short and no-bullshit three-minute job that runs through multiple riffs and has probably the best sing-along chorus in the band’s entire discography. If it were not for how obtuse Manilla Road’s sounds and singing were, it could have easily made it onto album rock radio, especially in Europe. But instead, the band’s choice for a radio single was “Feeling Free Again”, and it sucks—pedestrian, predictable British-style “NWOBHM” that was already getting tired by 1980 and was beyond stale by ‘83. It doesn’t belong, lyrically or musically, and features agonizingly trite lyrics about how good Shelton is supposedly feeling at the moment, which are not only diametrically opposed to the general feel and mood of the album, but even clash with the underlying music of the music they’re delivered over. There’s even a “hey baby” in the chorus, because everyone knows how much women are turned on by hirsute Renaissance Faire hippies with marginal singing voices. It’s embarrassing, both for the band and any listener unfortunate enough to be overheard playing the song in public, and in interviews Mark Shelton would frequently disparage this song for being what it is—a cynical, insincere attempt at a radio hit forced on them by label executives.

Another outlier is “Flaming Metal System”, and while it’s quite good as a fist-pumping power metal anthem, it clearly doesn’t belong, and indeed it was not even on the original version of the album, having instead been written and recorded towards the end of the Crystal Logic sessions for Shrapnel Records’ compilation U.S. Metal Vol. III. It’s optimistic where the album tracks are gloomy, extremely showy and demonstrative where the album is mostly laid-back and restrained, and breaks the momentum that would normally be built up starting with “The Riddle Master” and carry on through to the end of the album. On its own, though, it kicks serious ass, with the best solos of the band’s career up to that point (and many of them, to the point where leads, sometimes with singing over them, occupy a good half of the entire run time) and a somewhat better mix than the album tracks. Unfortunately the lyrics are trash, a series of empty, pandering “metal” images in an album that otherwise chooses its words pretty carefully, including a very obvious name-check of the record company the song was written for and the single worst line in Manilla Road history, “burning cross, sword of fire” near the end of the track. Not only does it accidentally (I hope it’s accidental, at least, and I can’t recall any similarly problematic imagery in their later work) call to mind the motherfucking Ku Klux Klan of all things, but it’s two nearly identical fire metaphors in a row. Clearly Shelton considered this song a lesser priority than the album tracks, but a line like that is even more shameful than Mark’s attempts at picking up girls in “Feeling Free Again”, and should have been removed and replaced. The placement of this song on reissues’ track lists varies, and early editions will likely not have it at all. The album definitely flows better without it, even though Crystal Logic in its original form is quite short, not even breaking 40 minutes.

However, any misgivings such moments give me are dissipated by the incredible “Dreams of Eschaton”. Even the fact that the main riff is straight-up stolen from Angel Witch’s “Angel of Death” from 1980 (listen for yourself; they’re not just similar, they’re the same exact riff) doesn’t bother me because this song uses it so much more effectively than that one did with its repetitive root canal of a chorus and mush-mouthed screeching vocals that made Mark Shelton sound like Caruso in comparison. The song opens with an acoustic section that’s far more sophisticated than the usual sequence of basic arpeggios that so often serve as “acoustic intros” for metal songs, with a lush harmonic exposition that recalls the beginning of Yes’ “And You And I” and both the best singing and the best lyrics on the album. Here Shelton drops all the wizards and skeletons and moldering tombs to state his fears of human self-annihilation plainly and openly, and sings with a lot more space in his vocal tract to give a richer, fuller sound that even displays some natural vibrato. The fantastic metaphors return when the riffs come in, mixing Norse, Christian, and outright fantastic imagery—and why not, because all eschatologies ultimately point towards the same thing—human civilizations’ ability to destroy themselves. The Book of Revelation was never really about fire and brimstone, four horsemen, poison stars, and giant wasp-men, but a prediction of the demise of the oppressive Roman Empire due to its own cruelty, avarice, and arrogance—a demise that did indeed happen in the 5th century, and whose prodromal convulsions and dysfunctions now look strikingly analogous to what has been happening in our own Western civilization since the 1970s. Every lyrical theme and idea explored on this album (except for “Flaming Metal System” and “Feeling Free Again”, naturally) returns here in a fever dream of an ash-choked, radioactive future, a postmodern prophecy of 21st century Armageddon. It’s utterly riveting, both in the soft parts and the heavy parts, and mandatory listening for anyone with even the slightest interest in metal. What is metal about? This is what metal is about, the knowledge that the society you live in is indifferent or even hostile to the continued survival of the earth and the living things on it, and there seems to be little or nothing you can do to stop it. The very essence of metal flows straight through these eleven minutes of music, and it was this song that made me re-evaluate my original impressions of Manilla Road as a quirky but highly overrated band with cringey album covers and a guitarist with no business singing, and start taking them seriously.

Crystal Logic was never a commercial hit, but it and its successors in Manilla Road’s discography cast a long shadow on the history of heavy metal, both through their almost unbelievably ardent fans and through their influences on later metal bands like Brocas Helm, Virgin Steele, and pretty much any band that uses “barbarian” themes or imagery. It is an album that could have only been made in 1983, when heavy metal was still finding its identity as a new genre and not merely a style of rock music and fantasy roleplaying games and groups were proliferating across the United States and creating a new and distinctly American fantasy aesthetic that would sweep across the world in the later ‘80s and through the ‘90s. And Manilla Road, much more than most other metal bands, understood what the dungeons and dragons and elves and goblins’ real power was—to uncover truths about society, the human condition, and ourselves on an emotional, subconscious level, to reach people who would never be impressed by a tome of abstruse theory translated from French and studded with $50 words. Crystal Logic is not an album for everyone, or even an album for every metalhead. It’s a challenging listen full of ugly sounds, blatant geekery, and bent song structures that will likely not grab you on your first or second listen. But if it does click with you, this album will resonate with you forever, and still hold your attention after hundreds of listens. It will never be popular, but it will likely never be forgotten, either, unless Shelton’s dreams of eschaton do indeed come to pass and sweep our industrial world away to be replaced by another, maybe with humans, maybe not, that we cannot even begin to imagine. Until then, I’ll never tire of being lost in Necropolis.

Rating: 88%

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