On July 27th, an era came to an end in metal history when Mark Shelton – guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for Manilla Road – died of a heart attack while on tour in Germany. It's difficult to really appreciate just how enormously influential he was over his long career, the moreso because Manilla Road was such an underground band, and had only recently begun to get the respect it – and Mark – deserved.
When Mark's musical career began, metal as we know it did not really exist. Manilla Road was officially begun in 1977, when Iron Maiden were unknowns, Motorhead had just released their debut album, and even the venerable Judas Priest had only been putting out albums for three years. The landscape was much, much simpler, and there was a lot of new territory to explore, Mark set out to explore it.
Over more than forty years and over twenty albums under various names, Mark Shelton created his own sound and his own niche, laboring in the underground without much success or attention. Even in the halcyon days of the 80s, when Manilla Road produced seven full-length albums and a live disc, they remained a largely unknown band, revered by a small but devoted fanbase. Being a cult band is often a thankless job, and there may have never been a more cult band than Manilla Road.
The early Manilla Road albums were mostly straight-ahead affairs with driving riffs and shout-along choruses, but there was always a slower, weirder, almost acid-rock side of the band, producing early songs that were longer, slower, and stranger. "Cage of Mirrors" was an early example, but the earliest is probably the seminal "Far Side of the Sun". By the time of Crystal Logic in 1983 the formula had almost been perfected with "Dreams of Eschaton". Songs like this became what is now called Epic Metal, because there's not really another word for it.
Epic Metal is less a genre than a style, a feeling, a way of approaching the music. Epic Metal is about big things, mysterious and cool things, the songs are long and often complex, the compositions detailed, and the lyrics filled with fantastical, historical, and occult references.
Mark always kept to his roots, and Manilla Road always produced more conventional songs, and many of those were classics in their own right, but the epics are what fans kept coming back for, because they were something you could not get anywhere else. The aesthetic of the epic songs combined with Mark's ear for riffs and melodies made for a unique sound, though not one that was immediately accessible. Manilla Road remained an acquired taste, but over the decades more and more people acquired it. They remained a band passed from fan to fan, discovered and hoarded and beloved.
And Mark was Manilla Road. Over the decades other members came and went, taking their places and then passing them on, but it was Mark who remained, who drove and guided the Road. The band could have faded away once the boom years of the 80s were over, but he came back and kept going. In the new millennium Manilla Road found new life, and as the metal scene in general bloomed and began to rediscover its roots, people came to realize there was a living legend working among them.
The late flowering of Mark's career is part of what makes his passing so painful. He was finally able to devote himself to music entirely, to tour and record the way he wanted to, to make the music he wanted, and he was loved for it. A generation of fans have grown up on his music, and bands with Manilla Road worked deep into their DNA have begun to pass on what they have learned. He was being recognized, and lionized, in the way he deserved.
And you would never meet a more humble and open man. Mark was always known as a man of the people, as a fan as well as an artist, as one who never forgot where he came from. He was always to be found at shows and events out in the open, having a drink and a smoke and happy to meet people and talk. He shared stories and answered questions and signed autographs, and never seemed anything less than happy to do so. He had worked very hard for the success he had, and he appreciated every minute of it.
Fans have been calling his death "The Day Epic Metal Died", and it might seem like it, but Mark would be the first one to say that the music is more important than he is, and that it has to go on without him. No one would want it to go on more than him, and it will go on. Bands who have grown up under his influence, too numerous to name, will keep going and keep pushing for that epic sound, but we all have to remember where it came from.
And that's the legacy of Mark Shelton. Not just that you can succeed if you keep going and refuse to stop, but that you can change things, that you can create things no one has ever created before, and put your stamp on a style to such a degree that it alters the landscape around it. Mark was just a guy from Kansas with a guitar, but because of his will and his talent and tireless work, he became a legend, and now that legend has its capstone, much as we wish it did not. Go to your rest, Mark. Lords of Light be with you.
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