On July 27th, 2018, Mark “The Shark” Shelton passed away from a heart attack caused by severe heat exhaustion. His band Manilla Road had just performed a set at the Headbangers Open Air festival in Germany mere hours before. He was sixty years old. Manilla Road wasn’t the most prominent name in the metal world, but the four decades of activity and eighteen studio albums to their name ensures that Shelton leaves behind a massive legacy.
If you’ve ever heard a band with any sort of traditionally “epic” metal style, chances are they were influenced by Manilla Road in some way. Manowar may be the group most commonly associated with the ‘Robert E. Howard with heavy guitars’ aesthetic, but albums like Crystal Logic and Open the Gates truly captured the dark underbelly of swords and sorcery. Shelton’s emphasis on mid-tempo riffs and loose structures set the standard for much of the epic doom to follow, as his signature vocal style ranged from sagely wizard to deranged madman.
Such a formula could potentially lead to stagnation and typecasting, but Manilla Road’s willingness to tweak their formula was the key to their longevity. The band retained their quirky musicianship and fixation on fantasy lyrics over the years, but they were never afraid to incorporate different influences through their career. Whether it be the psychedelic space prog of Invasion, the thrashy Mystification and Out of the Abyss, or even the tinges of death metal on their mid-2000s work, they never stopped finding new ways to tread seemingly familiar ground.
Alas, four decades of activity were also full of setbacks. The band’s home base of Wichita, Kansas had to be an instant death sentence in the pre-internet world, where your location was intrinsically linked to your exposure, and their labels’ limited distribution likely didn’t help either. But even with proper promotion, Manilla Road was never a “singles” band. I sure wasn’t there in the mid-80s, but I just can’t imagine mainstream metalheads ever acquiring a taste for The Shark’s nasally delivery and unorthodox riff work.
But like other such “niche metal” groups as Cirith Ungol and Anvil, Manilla Road started to get their just due in recent years. They were a staple on both the European and American festival circuits, and their cult status was boasted more publicly than before. Leading bands in the underground emphasized their influence, as Visigoth included a “Necropolis” cover on 2015’s The Revenant King, and Indy’s own The Gates of Slumber took on “The Riddle Master” for a split with Spiritus Mortis in 2007. No recording may best sum up Shelton’s elder statesman status than the cameo he provided on BattleroaR’s “Sword of the Flame” earlier this year. It’s only fitting that the last recording released in his lifetime would have such a wizened dungeon master feel.
Like the accomplishments that he achieved in life, the loss of Mark “The Shark” Shelton cannot be understated. He was a performer who was as easy to admire as he was difficult to mimic, and if past anecdotes are anything to go by, he likely died doing what he loved. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, Crystal Logic is a mandatory listen. If you are so inclined, I also implore you to contribute to the Go Fund Me page that has been set up to ensure that his body can be returned home and properly attended.