By Adrien Begrand
How significant a release is Manilla Road‘s After Midnight Live? Imagine if Judas Priest or Iron Maiden suddenly went, “Whoops, look what we found lying around, a live recording from the early days featuring songs none of our fans have ever heard before.” Okay, it’s not likely that will ever happen with a well-established, popular metal band, but coming from a band as underground and tragically underappreciated as Kansas’s great Manilla Road, the discovery of a long-lost tape recording of a radio session from 30 years ago is the kind of event that will set their small fanbase salivating.
Recorded at Wichita, Kansas’s KMUW radio in December 1979, After Midnight Live is a fascinating snapshot of the band in its infancy. At the time they were not quite at the level they’d achieve on 1983’s landmark Crystal Logic, as like any other developing young band, the trio of guitarist/singer Mark Shelton, bassist Scott Park, and drummer Rich Fisher was still trying to forge their own identity. Their Underground demo, released as a limited pressing of 50 copies, was making the rounds, and the release of their debut album was still a few months away when they joined DJ Sherry Avett on her late-night program to belt out a bunch of new live tracks well into the wee hours. 45 minutes of that epic session have survived, and we are indeed afforded plenty of glimpses of the greatness that was to come later in the 1980s.
Manilla Road’s slavish admiration of such bands as early Rush and Cactus couldn’t be more obvious on these five tracks. That combination of robust heavy rock and long progressive rock song structures that the debut album would do a good job of capturing is also at the forefront here. “Cromaphobia” is the best song on the CD, a spirited rocker that feels directly lifted off Rush’s Fly By Night, Shelton’s use of dynamics easily transcending the raw, barely-mixed recording. At more than 12 minutes, “Life’s So Hard” goes about five minutes longer than it should, but the threesome’s even-keeled performance manages to keep things from meandering too much, Shelton’s rough-throated vocals conveying genuine emotion. The work in progress “Pentacle of Truth” is a straight-ahead boogie-woogie jam with lyrics so nonsensical that the band didn’t even bother to reprint them along with the other songs, while “Herman Hill”, a track from that first demo, brings thing to a rousing close.
Although the sound quality isn’t perfect, dB levels shooting up unexpectedly, the mood of the whole performance is wonderful, as host Avett pops in between songs to comment and introduce, while the band sounds like they’re having an absolute blast playing live on the air. And anyone who loves good, old-fashioned American heavy metal will have just as much fun. Sloppy sound and all, this album is an absolute treasure.