Cover to Cover: Manilla Road
Manilla Road is an amazing band. Few 80s metal acts successfully ran the gauntlet of time to still be with us producing great material, and even less manage to keep anywhere near the level of consistency Manilla Road has in terms of producing bona-fide classics. But I'm not here to regale you about psychedelic solos, masterful riffs, or Mark "The Shark" Shelton's soaring vocals. No, I'm just briefly going to make fun of the album covers, covers which span from epically terrible to over-the-top awesome.
Manilla Road's first album cover is the most innocuous of the lot and clearly takes a stab at the new metal aesthetics of the 80s - swords, arrows, magic, lightning.... a city, yeah whatever - we're off to a badass start for 1980.
You know what worked well on the last album? The metal. Let's just call this thing "Metal" and be done with it. Oh and the cover... just "Metal" as well I guess, metal's pretty rad. Laughing in the face of Spinal Tap, Manilla Road has started the descent into hand drawn cover madness, strap in.
Ah "Crystal Logic." Manilla Road makes it clear we're going to indulge in every Frank Frazetta like fantasy trope we can possible. Weapon wielding, horse riding warriors in a crystallized land of castles and pure water streams with mystical mountains and radiant green pyramids. Well ok, I'm not sure how the green pyramid thing works or why they're contained in a paper thin fortification wall that looks like it couldn't hold back a 6 year old wielding a pair of safety scissors, but I do know but this is exactly the sort of ridiculous fantasy garbage I want adorning my metal classics. Somewhere in the mid 80s it was no longer cool for your covers to be painted by someone without "talent," and that was a sad day.
Number one from artist Eric Larnoy! We've upped the fantasy ante to far past the simple "crystal pyramid" level now and entered a truly mythical realm of metal covers. Epic defined - a brooding battle mage, a viper for a staff, glowing magical debris and exploding portals to distant underworlds. Haha, nah just kidding the spiders with skulls for heads still ruins it. It's that classic point in every painting where the artist thinks, "Hmm is it done? No wait one more small change.... ah crap."
The second of two brilliant covers by Eric Larnoy, and to be honest I really can't fault this one. Ain't nothing funny about Poseidon. Here his wrath bears down on Atlantis in a beautifully painted scene truly deserving to adorn a band given the label "epic metal."
Huh so... no, wait who's hand is...? ... and that head's from …? and who's holding the knife? I can only assume the kids lining up for life drawing classes were declined for their leather jackets and Manowar patches because taking liberal artistic license with anatomy seems to be almost a theme in 80s covers. Knowing the background of the Edgar Allen Poe tale "The Masque of Red Death" sheds a dim light on what's going on, but it's still the kind of rendition that makes you stammer awkwardly when an attractive girl thumbs through your CDs. "Uhh th-the music is good, I swear!".
Back on track, now this is what I'm talking about! Ok, so we're in space now, and there's some sort of... let's be kind and say an abyss, with what can only be described as a horrifying plant menace growing out of it. I guess some sort of blood ritual has been performed to summon this hellish vegetation (at least that's how things to grow in my garden), and though phasers are firmly set to weed killer at this point the sword from the cover of "Invasion" seems to be involved. Yet despite all that, this is really stretching the limits of how little you can actually have going on in an album cover and still convince people it's legit. I guarantee it was supposed to feature a haunting demon right smack in the middle but subject to "time constraints" (aka alcohol) the concept was cut down to "bloody table attacked by grass".
How are all these covers so infuriatingly empty, yet still make me want to part with my food budget just to see it on the front of a vinyl re-release?! Putting aside the flayed corpses for a moment (gotta love the detail), there's only one thing going on in this cover and it's the world's most ominous looking residence. I've always wondered what prompts an evil mastermind to go with "giant skull" as a design choice...
Hearkening back to "The Deluge," yet this time with a bird! No wait err I mean old man. All I know is I'll never look grandpa the same way again. It's Odin's ravens or something, but when your concept involves Cthulhu fighting Norse gods over Atlantis you really can't not be confused. The three pyramids make a return with a symbol in the background, adding to the hodge-podge of references to past album covers.
As far as low fantasy goes, "Spiral Castle" is everything and more you could ask for in a metal album cover. Our muscular hero has just cleaved open the meaty head of a beast-man, and he's about to annihilate his next foe before trundling up to the gates of a spiral shaped castle. Nothing more, nothing less, no brains, all balls. That's the true magic of Manilla Road covers - they're random frames from a comic book instead of the mid comic spread. And it's precisely because of this they work so well at representing just a hint at the epicness to come. One of my (many) absolute favorite album covers. Also, a rainbow. Don't try to tell me metal is all bloodbaths and loincloths.
The three pyramids logo fits in beautifully here with this album that tells three mini stories across 9 songs. Not too much to say here - more muscled warriors, more epic heroes, more great hand painted scenes, more passion for art than you'll find in 100 poorly Photoshopped deathcore covers.
Most other bands attempting a semi-concept album about Vikings in 2008 would be laughed at mercifully for being 15 years late to the table and forced to pay a $5000 fine to research into raising Quorthon from the grave. But this is Manilla Road, and as they're still producing epic metal as if they're actively living out an elaborate theatrical re-enactment of 1984 they're allowed to do as they please. Once again, not a whole lot actually going on in this album cover... bunch of vikings, milling around on the ocean.... wait a minute, is that one of those damn spider skulls again?!
Being released in 2011 and all, "Playground of the Damned" is symbolism soaked homage to the past (as was "Voyager" if you look close). You've got skull spiders, portals, skulls, whirlwinds, demon symbols, Chthulu, etc. and, oh for the love of god can we just get one decent cover where the main character takes up more than 20% of the space? Here's hoping for a new album sometime in the future.
Well that's it for Manilla Road. Despite the grief I've given, Manilla Road's loyalty to the silly epic aesthetics of metal is one of the reasons I'll be buying the band's albums until the day we all perish in the inevitable hipster/metalhead war of 2016. Tune in next time because I can promise you, the depths of metal album covers have yet to be seen.
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