Vangough's Manikin Parade is the greatest Progressive Metal debut of 2009.
At over 75 minutes, this young band from Oklahoma, USA packs an intense musical journey examining the impacts of losing a loved one with incredible songmanship and splendid musical performance. The musical prowess on display here belies that this is just their debut album. The album sounds like a collection of songs written and recorded by seasoned musicians rather than people in their late-twenties.
Now onto the music. If you like Pain of Salvation circa Remedy Lane, right down to the vocals by vocal god Daniel Gildenlow, then the first couple of tracks on Manikin Parade will leave you drooling and mesmerized. Although they are far from being a clone band, the comparison to Pain of Salvation is impossible to deny. From the many-angled vocalizations to the hypnotic synth patches to the melodically enchanting guitar work and extremely variable bass and drum patterns, this album is a stunning tour-de-force.
Band leader, Clay Withrow, who sings and plays guitar, is an incredibly talented musician who has channeled tremendous amount of palpable feelings of fear, despair, betrayal, and panic into these tunes. He sounds out of this world on "Estranger" -- his diverse vocals, the fantastic drumming that lays the foundation for the other instruments, and the heart-wrenching lyrics ("I want to see truth in your eyes") set the tone and direction for the album, underscored by obvious nods to the great Pain of Salvation.
With the title track, they fully cement their sonic expanse. This is one of those songs people would define as the epitome of musical perfection. Rousing bass guitars and cracking cymbals are wrung through twisted time signatures without getting the least bit show-offy before synths and kick drums are brought into the mix effectively. The vocals are brilliant -- I can't remember the last time I was so impressed by a new band's singing. Withrow expresses despair and anger simultaneously, perfectly in sync with the music. His schizophrenic vocal technique comes from doubled vocals -- one high and one low -- spaced an octave apart. As the music tunes lower, he sings higher. The music comes to a brief halt, adding a sweet piano break to the mix. Then, Withrow emotes spoken lyrics effectively before shifting into dramatic passages that further highlight his rich baritone. A combination of shaking bass and guitars arrives out of nowhere to drive the piece into heavier territory. Despite the extreme density of the arrangement, the song somehow retains its melodic focus. Again, they transition into a solemn solo passage of throbbing bass guitar supplemented by lofty electric guitars for added atmosphere. All of a sudden, Withrow starts a wicked guitar solo punctuated by tumultuous bass which culminates in a breathtaking unison lead. As the bass retreats to its initial format, keyboards come in only to thicken the already mammoth soundscape. Finally, everything but the drums cut out and a silvery guitar solo dominates the mix inducing goose bumps all over. This is easily the best song of the year.
"Christmas Scars" is even darker in scope. It is a rich alchemy: elements of metal, rock, and pop are interwoven into each other. Gildenlow-like rapid-fire lyrics are alternated by more melodic vocalizations, with stomping bass and guitar crunch and atmospheric keyboards. Perhaps the most pivotal tune to the concept, we are now fully introduced to the theme of loss and/or separation, as the song takes on a feverish intensity dropping its ultra-soft parts and launching into an elegiac lead guitar solo followed by Withrow's tortured scream at the end. The coda of the song is musical bliss: the singer's croon will get you every time as will the synth orchestration.
"The Twilight" is broken down into a trilogy with "Part I - Deception" and "Part II - Love" rivalling the best moments of progressive rock, as they are paced more slowly, showcasing the diversity of Withrow's singing. His singing takes on a panicky edge on "Part I - Deception" atop a killer guitar theme, a slightly folk-based mid-section with beautiful piano lines. "Part II - Love," on the other hand, expands on the folky theme, conveying a sylvan atmosphere, and utilising theatrical vocal parts. The last part of the trilogy is also the heaviest, and some of the singing recalls Evergrey's Tom Englund, particularly during the a capella/piano parts.
That said, the album's highpoint has got to be "One Dark Birthday," easily the darkest and most personal song on the CD. The singing is reminiscent of The Flower Kings' terribly underrated album Adam & Eve. Think "A Vampire's View" sung by Daniel Gildenlow for a perfect example. The voice is simply heart-wrenching, and the guitar solo is the most intense ever.
In between all these tunes, there is the halcyon instrumental "Bricolage Theater" at just over a minute; the cleverly orchestrated "Handful of Dreams," weaving classically themed acoustic guitars with sounds of jazz/blues inflections, odd backing vocals, majestic synth elements; or the longer instrumental cut "Dance of the Summer Mind" which sets strummed acoustic guitars against gargantuan bass work with cinematic passages and textured guitar themes.
Actually, each song stands a sonic monument on its own. Most bands would have crafted two full albums with the ideas presented in one tune on this disc. But Vangough knows better. They haven't exploited a single moment here, which is the reason why Manikin Parade has become what it is.
The production is fantastic, with great sound separation and space. The kick drums sound absolutely phenomenal as does the bass guitar, and the multiple vocal parts have been mixed expertly by Sterling Winfield (Pantera, Damageplan). Everything else was done by Clay Withrow: he recorded, engineered, produced, and did all the instrumentation except for the drums which were recorded by Brandon Lopez.
Being that Manikin Parade is an independent release; the album comes housed in a neat digipack with little information on the band. There is no booklet detailing the storyline, but the band has expressed their will to reissue the album with a different packaging if there is sufficient interest.
If you're a fan progressive music and you're still not convinced, then I do not know what to say. This is the best album of the year so far. This is musical perfection.
- Manikin Parade
- Christmas Scars
- Handful of Dreams
- Disorder Quotient
- Bricolage Theater
- Paradise for the Lost (The Twilight Part I: Deception)
- Gabrielle (The Twilight Part II: Love)
- Dance of the Summer Mind
- One Dark Birthday
- Etude of Sorrow (The Twilight Part III: Oblivion)
- Halcyon Days
- The Cosmic Bus Stop