album review

​Marilyn Manson - The Pale Emperor

Released January 19, 2015
Dylan Sonderman
​As a teenager, the cathartic anger, bitterness, and blatant disregard for social taboo so present in Marilyn Manson’s music strongly appealed to me. And for all of the controversy the band and its eponymous front man have stirred up throughout their 20-plus years' long career, the grooves on their pre-2004 albums still rock me really hard nine times out of ten. But somewhere along the line, my own personal tastes and Manson’s musical direction went their separate ways.

When the compilation Lest We Forget: The Best Of debuted in September 2004, I was convinced the band could do no wrong. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel such a moniker indicated the group’s finest work was now behind them. And sure enough, subsequent albums proved unable to draw me in a as a listener, no matter how hard I tried to enjoy and appreciate them. This was Marilyn Manson! I didn’t want watered-down, mope-y, radio tunes with a gothic twist. I wanted rough and gritty anthems of nihilistic screaming and distorted riffs to blow my mind again, and Eat Me, Drink Me, The High End of Low, and Born Villain just didn’t cut it. I’m not saying those are terrible albums, but they’re definitely not for me.
So, with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, I sat down in front of my laptop to listen to Manson’s much-hyped new record, The Pale Emperor, for the first time. I told myself that if this record let me down, I would give up on Marilyn Manson and write the group off as washed-up has-beens. But still a part of me hoped… would this album turn things back around and renew my faith in the Canton, OH-born shock rocker?  The short answer: Hell yes!

I have to admit, 14-year-old Dylan would probably not have been as into this album. But my tastes have developed a lot since then and the industrial blues-rock permeating The Pale Emperor resonates strongly with me. Though the album isn’t as heavy as most of the band’s back catalog, the songs feel inspired, genuine, and largely true to Manson’s signature aesthetic. Distorted keyboard sounds, reverb-laden guitar leads, and punchy basslines provide the tapestry for Manson to air his most recent demons and musings over.

Marilyn Manson has received criticism in recent years that his vocals lack the power they once had. Whether or not the claim held any truth before, his emotive voice feels as commanding as ever on the album. His raw, blues-inspired crooning generally works very well. Occasionally, Manson adds some extra oomph with a scream or two, most prominently on “Deep Six”, “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge”, and “Birds of Hell Awaiting” (on which he sounds almost like Jim Morrison). His lyrics also stand strong, featuring allusions to Greek mythology and the devil as well as Manson’s typical vulgarity, innuendoes, puns, and references to violence, sex, and drugs.

The song “Warship My Wreck” contains a line I found particularly interesting. “Cannot say, I’m breaking the rules, if I can glue them back together,” howls Manson over a plodding drum beat and squealing guitars. I don’t know exactly what the meaning of that line is supposed to be, but it made me think about how breaking rules, particularly social taboos, has arguably become cliché for the band. Since this album is considerably less edgy than, say, Antichrist Superstar, I felt this was Manson acknowledging this fact and pointing out that shock value isn’t all there is to his music. Which perhaps I had forgotten.
Though Manson remains the principal star of the show, the exceptional guitars, bass, and instrumental arrangements exist thanks to Tyler Bates. Best known as the composer of movie soundtracks for big-budget films such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Watchmen, Tyler Bates brings a more atmospheric approach to the songwriting on The Pale Emperor. The diversity of sounds that pop up throughout the album is refreshingly interesting. However, even when playing more traditional guitar riffs and solos, Bates’ playing seems largely focused on supporting Manson’s vocals rather than drawing interest on its own. A few notable exceptions: The clean intro to “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles”, the mini guitar solos on “Killing Strangers” and “Deep Six”, and whatever the fuck is going on at the end of “Slave Only Dreams to Be King” and “Odds of Even”.

I always felt that the guitar playing on the Marilyn Manson albums I enjoyed had a very distinct character. Tyler Bates does an impressive job of capturing the same sound while still expanding the sonic palette. The basslines are pretty strong, as well. If I hadn’t read otherwise, I would have sworn it was longtime on-and-off bassist Twiggy Ramirez playing on the album. Actually, I’m not sure why he didn’t, since he is now in the touring lineup once again. The bassline on “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” feels especially reminiscent of early Manson.

Drum duties on the album fell to Gil Sharone of Stolen Babies. The drummer previously gained notoriety as a fill-in drummer for technical and spastic mathcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan. With such a pedigree, I hoped the drum parts on The Pale Emperor would contain at least a bit of the jaw-dropping skill and groove that Sharone is capable of. Alas, no such luck. To my disappointment, the beats on the album are perhaps the simplest Manson has ever had. Undoubtedly, the playing feels appropriate to the songs and does not necessarily drag down the album, but damn, why hire a drum virtuoso when the parts would not overly challenge a 7th grade music student who’s been playing for all of six months?  Still, good for Sharone for getting the press of being part of such a high-profile record.

Overall, I think my issue with Manson owed to the fact that I wanted a particular element from his music and said aspect was absent. But at the end of the day, artists must create for themselves to some degree. Putting my preconceived notions aside, I have to admit The Pale Emperor kicks ass. If I had to guess, I’d say Marilyn Manson is very proud of this album. And I’ll say rightfully so. It manages to do something relatively new while still feeling like the group’s classic work. I also would bet I’m far from the only disgruntled fan who had their faith restored with the record.  At worst, the album is an admirable step in the right direction. At best, The Pale Emperor shines as a triumphant comeback in Manson’s career.