Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Marilyn Manson's 'Heaven Upside Down' - Album Review

After just over a two-year wait, the self-styled 'God of Fuck' is back with his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down. After what is often perceived as a decade-long slump in his creativity and studio output, Marilyn Manson returned to form in a big way with 2015's The Pale Emperor (which I reviewed here). Prior to The Pale Emperor's release Manson's last great album, in my opinion, was 2003's anthemic The Golden Age of Grotesque, an album which in many ways heralded the end of Manson's true heyday. It was the last album with longtime band members John 5 and Madonna Wayne Gacy, and was the last album to really showcase the industrial metal crossed with arena rock sound that he had been building on ever since his 1996's classic sophomore album Antichrist Superstar. That is not to say that Manson released nothing of note during the late 2000s and early 2010s. 2007's Eat Me, Drink Me, 2009's The High End of Low, and 2012's Born Villain all contained memorable songs, but none of those albums felt like complete pieces of work. Manson's previous work had always featured a strong aesthetic vision which gave each album it's own musician and visual identity. The three albums highlighted above certainly lacked this cohesion and suffered as a result. It was great to this changed on The Pale Emperor however, the first Manson album since The Golden Age of Grotesque to really feel like a complete piece of work. Manson chose to work with multi-instrumentalist Tyler Bates, who was more well-known for his work on many TV and film soundtracks, and the two immediately seemed to strike up a winning writing partnership. While it was sad to see Manson's longtime collaborator Twiggy relegated to largely just a touring musician as a result, Bates gave the spark back to Manson's music. Bates always brought about a slight change of direction, and injected a heavy dose of the blues into Manson's sound. As a result, The Pale Emperor sounded quite different to anything Manson had put out previously but still sounded right for the shock rocker. The album has a bass-heavy sedate strut throughout it, which works perfectly for Manson to croon over the top of, and was easily his best-received album for a while. This success, and to a lesser extent sound, has been built on on Heaven Upside Down. Bates again returned to co-write the album and play all of the instruments, with the exception of the drums which are again handled by Gil Sharone (Stolen Babies; The Dillinger Escape Plan). The blues influences introduced on The Pale Emperor return here, but are mixed in with a heavier industrial rock sound that recalls Manson's classic era. The anger is certainly back here, with plenty of heavier material in comparison to the previous album, but the bluesy strut worked on previously is retained to provide some class and groove.

Opening with distorted clippings from news reports, the album's first song Revolution #12 soon opens out with a dry guitar riff and Manson's trademark part-spoken vocal style. His voice has often been accused of deteriorating over recent years, and it is true that he can often have off-days live, he sounds excellent here with a confident display as he spouts the causing lyrics. The song is mix of bass-heavy verses and heavier choruses, which make great use of some stark guitar riffs, which is all underpinned by Sharone's somewhat tribal drumming style. While the song's main refrain, which is made up of Manson counting rather menacingly, sounds a little trite on first listen, this is something which gains more power the more that you hear it and makes for a strong opening impression. Tattooed in Reverse feels like a bit of a leftover from The Pale Emperor sessions as it is built around a bluesy bass groove with plenty of chiming guitar melodies throughout. This sound is mixed in well with some more traditional industrial tricks however, with fuzzy synths and white noise thrown in to give the song a creepy edge. The song's organic feel definitely helps it to stand out here, and creates a big contrast with the following number. WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE, which is that following number, is probably Manson's heaviest piece in a while and is based around an angry chorus, packed full of punky guitars and electronic-sounding drums, that really hits home. Fans of 1998's Mechanical Animals in particular will particularly enjoy this one, as it resembles the sound that Manson forged on that album pretty closely. The verses are fairly slow, and all build up towards the chorus with mechanised drumming and cold synths. Manson even unleashes some of his blood-curdling screams for the chorus, something which he does less and less these days, to great effect. SAY10, which was originally going to be the album's title track, follows and is much less heavy but is filled with plenty of creepy effects to create a strong atmosphere. The verses are mostly whispered, with swirling atmospherics and distant piano notes to back up the sparse vocals. It does get heavier during the choruses, but this is nothing compared to the previous song. Instead the guitar plays a very classic rock-inspired riff while Manson barks a repetitive but catchy refrain. Sharone's slower, hollow drums really help to add groove to this chorus and it becomes one of the album's most memorable moments. KILL4ME sees the blues element return to the album's sound, with some surprisingly great guitar leads in the song's intro, but mixes it with poppy melodies that are most reminicient to the sound pursued on Eat Me, Drink Me. The bluesy verses mix well with this these more upbeat choruses, which are packed full of 1980s-style synths, to create a strange but somewhat addicting sound. This is a song you could genuinely dance to, and in the 1980s would have had a dance mix released on 12 inch vinyl.

Saturnalia is the album's longest song, at just shy of eight minutes in length, and it sounds like a culmination of everything Manson and Bates were working towards on The Pale Emperor. This is a fairly sparse song, despite it's length, and features lots of excellent bass playing from Bates. There are heavier moments, like a guitar-driven chorus with some surprisingly melodic vocals from Manson, but most of the song is led by this bass performance with swirling synths to provide a cold backing. That being said, the more upbeat sections of the song are surprisingly catchy. Manson has always been the master of creating tricky vocal melodies that sit atop music which would not usually be considered melodic and making them work. This song is a great example of that, and also one that showcases his modern sound perfectly. JE$U$ CRI$I$ is another bass-heavy song, but features some odd lyrics which, even for Manson, sound a little crass. He's also written challenging, and often controversial, lyrics but the main hook here just seems to be trying to be offensive for it's own sake. In fairness the song is still really catchy, with some great wordless vocal sections, but I just feel that this is the song that those who have always found Manson abhorrent will point to and say 'I told you so'. Manson has rarely felt contrived, but this is one occasion where it does feel that way. That being said, the slow, doomy section of the song is great with a strong guitar riff that really sticks out. Blood Honey gets things back on track with a doomy feel with slow guitar riffs and a hollow drum pattern. The best part about this song however is great keyboard work throughout. Bates has utilised a lot of classic synths here, many of which would not sound out of place on a 1970s progressive rock epic, which gives the song a great retro feel. The somewhat cheesy synths clash perfectly with the heavier parts of the song to create a creepy atmosphere and a perfect backing for Manson's tortured vocal performance. There is even something of a guitar solo towards the end, which sees Bates attacking his guitar with fury to produce an eerie sound. The album's title track is next, and is a fairly straight ahead rocker with plenty of prominent basslines and a strong chorus. Manson has always been inspired by classic rock throughout his career, and this song showcases that perfectly with a less-dense overall sound and a more conventional structure. Bates actually gets a true chance to solo here, with a bluesy guitar solo towards the end of the song which sounds a little out of place on a Marilyn Manson album but fits in with the style of the song well. The album comes to a close with Threats of Romance, a fairly gentle (by Manson's standards) song that actually reminds me a little of Queen in places. Famed session musician Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. plays the keyboards throughout and this gives the song a piano-driven sound which adds to the theatrical feel of the piece. Glam rock has always been another of Manson's big influences and I feel that this shines through here with the song's relatively upbeat sound. It's a good choice to end the album with, as it feels like a bit of a wind-down after a few harder-hitting pieces, and it is another instantly memorable piece. Overall, Heaven Upside Down is another really strong album from Manson that builds on the success of The Pale Emperor by expanding on that successful sound by looking at his past and key influences. Manson seems to be entering into a second golden age of late, and I hope he can keep this up going forward.

The album was released on 6th October 2017 via Loma Vista Recordings/Caroline International. Below is Manson's promotional video for WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE.

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