The Mandrake Project

rating icon 9 / 10

Track listing:

01. Afterglow Of Ragnarok
02. Many Doors To Hell
03. Rain On The Graves
04. Resurrection Men
05. Fingers In The Wounds
06. Eternity Has Failed
07. Mistress Of Mercy
08. Face In The Mirror
09. Shadow Of The Gods
10. Sonata (Immortal Beloved)

26 years ago, Bruce Dickinson released one of the greatest metal albums of the '90s. It was called "The Chemical Wedding", and it was seriously fucking heavy. Sandwiched between 1997's similarly monstrous "Accident Of Birth" and 2005's diverse and dynamic "Tyranny Of Souls", the IRON MAIDEN frontman's fifth solo album was widely and justly hailed as a classic, not least because — whisper it — it was much, much better than either of the albums his former band had released in his absence. Hearing Dickinson bellow commandingly over the heaviest riffs that long-time collaborator Roy Z had ever conjured was, for discerning metalheads, one of that decade's greatest joys.

All these years later, "Tyranny…" still takes the breath away. Thrillingly, "The Mandrake Project" is every bit as good. He made us wait for it, of course. 19 years have passed between albums, during which the polymath, pilot and certified force of nature has been extremely busy fronting the greatest heavy metal band of all time, as they enjoyed a second run of globe-conquering albums and tours. Nonetheless, Dickinson has been quietly muttering about his next collaboration with Z to anyone who would listen, and now we have the goods to explain his great enthusiasm. Released in tandem with a 12-issue quarterly comic book spree, wherein the secrets of this thunderous return will be slowly and meticulously revealed, "The Mandrake Project" has labor-of-love scrawled over it, and the singer's obvious delight at the whole, unapologetically indulgent exercise is both understandable and infectious. A grandiose, conceptual splurge that recounts a century-spanning generational war between the forces of science and mysticism, as they duel it out to gain control of immortality itself, this may be the most extravagantly none-more-metal thing that the MAIDEN frontman has ever done. Either way, "The Mandrake Project" is an absolute fucking beast.

Of course, the flurry of comic books and the self-evident passion that Dickinson has for this record would count for nothing if the music contained within his seventh solo album was anything less than magnificent. Fortunately, his partnership with Roy Z reaches a pinnacle of efficacy here. Infused with progressive rock pugnacity and realized in iridescent, heavyweight shades, "The Mandrake Project" feels like a more natural follow-up to "The Chemical Wedding" than its predecessor. This thing is crushing, and it crackles with a very Dickinsonian vitality. Roy Z has made the most of his producer status, imbuing each of these ten songs with a very timely sense of heaviness and plenty of magical detail. Even ignoring the fact that he gave cancer a brisk slap in the chops only a few years ago, Dickinson has never sounded better. To say that this was worth the 19-year wait would be an understatement. Assuming you haven't swallowed the modern metal media Kool-Aid and fallen for the notion that so-called "old-school" metal is a creative cul-de-sac, "The Mandrake Project" will be in your albums-of-the-year list come December.

Steeped in doomy grandeur and blessed with melodies that bring the ageless power of the Dickinson larynx into sharp focus, opener "Afterglow Of Ragnarok" is a towering entry point that wrings every last atmospheric drop from its murderous, mid-paced flow. Again, the sound of Dickinson letting rip over such flagrant heaviness is utterly thrilling. Next, "Many Doors To Hell" takes a more subdued route, but it's still powered by Roy Z's upgraded classicism, blessed with a gloriously dark and devastating chorus and a sumptuously tripped-out mid-section laced with Roy Z's exquisite lead work. Recent single "Rain On The Graves" digs deep into the album's overriding narrative, as Dickinson intones black-hearted poetry over a richly layered arrangement that has more than a hint of symphonic intent to it. There are riffs that reek of the '80s, and keyboards that display the DNA of the decade before that, but the combined effect is fervently contemporary; the impact of Dickinson's voice, as it swims around in another maelstrom of riffs, is absolute. Permission to fanboy like an idiot is absolutely granted, incidentally.

As it unfolds, "The Mandrake Project" grows darker and more nuanced. "Resurrection Men", which features Dickinson himself on twangy, spaghetti western guitar, offers an audacious blend of tough-as-hell hard rock and progressive metal opulence. "Fingers In The Wounds" broods and batters, awash with mellifluous piano and drenched with otherworldly strings and sonorous organ tones. A repurposed version of the opening song from IRON MAIDEN's "The Book Of Souls", "Eternity Has Failed" is an existential anthem of grotesque proportions and measurably heavier and, curiously, more overtly psychedelic than its earlier incarnation. Superficially redolent of "Freak" (from "Accident Of Birth"),  "Mistress Of Mercy" motors along at a giddy pace, with Dickinson's muscular howl scorching the clouds over riffs that make a virtue of the dirt under their fingernails. In contrast, "Face In The Mirror" fulfils its balladry brief with great elegance; a somber moment made all the more effective by the singer's finessed restraint, and the florid piano lines that twinkle majestically in the near distance, adding depth to the song's relative simplicity.

"The Mandrake Project" concludes with two epics that expand Dickinson's musical universe with the same glee that underpins the entire enterprise. "Shadow Of The Gods" begins as a sober hymn to the void, with all the orchestral trimmings, before picking up the pace, dropping more gnarly Roy Z riffs and building towards an almost comically dramatic crescendo. Notably, Dickinson's vocals are as aggressively infernal as any he has ever committed to tape: another wickedly exhilarating moment. Meanwhile, the closing "Sonata (Immortal Beloved)" is jaw dropping: from the quasi-industrial beat that ushers in an opaque stream of gothic guitars, to another chorus that seems to be precision-designed to illicit goosebumps, it represents a subtle but unmistakable stride into fresh territory for everyone involved. As it rumbles towards its epicurean denouement, the sheer ambition and verve on display hits like an elbow to the eye-socket.

Let's face it, he did warn us that this was going to be fucking great. At this stage, we should know better than to expect anything less. "The Mandrake Project" is magnificent, mandatory listening for fans of heavy metal.

Author: Dom Lawson
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