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Marilyn Manson
The Pale Emperor Dean Brown , January 16th, 2015 13:37

It must be strange to be an artist who once struck fear in the heart of the mainstream with their music and exploits, but whose presence no longer possesses the same seismic clout of controversy and spectacle.

Brian Warner, better known by his nom de guerre Marilyn Manson, is one such artist. Mid-to-late 1990s hard rock/mainstream metal belonged to Manson. He was feared by parents the world-over for his actions with and without a microphone, igniting the 'Satanic Panic' of the 1980s for Generation X. But while sensational news headlines – ranging from ridiculous attempts to attach accountability to Manson for inspiring the Columbine massacre, to outrage from conservatives at his provocative music videos – did nothing to prevent him selling 50 million albums in his hey-day, it also helped that Manson wrote confrontational yet hook-riddled music that connected with the disaffected youth in ways that frightened adults who had no understanding of the kind of incendiary characters Manson modelled himself on; most obvious being shock rock legend Alice Cooper.

Fear and panic begat mass intrigue and critical acclaim (not to mention huge sales of black lipstick and nail polish), and the self-proclaimed The God Of Fuck ruled with an iron fist and a latex gimp mask from the time his Trent Reznor-produced masterpiece Antichrist Superstar landed in 1996 until 2003's The Golden Age Of Grotesque highlighted that his stardust had started to lose its shimmer. By 2009, Manson had descended deep into a drug-fuelled depression following his split with his then girlfriend, actress Evan Rachel Wood. He was also dropped by his label Interscope due to a severe dip in sales throughout the 21st Century, and both the The High End Of Low (2009) and Born Villain (2012) were far from impressive; much like his often shambolic live shows around the same time, these albums sounded about as lethargic as a bloated corpse.

But dwindling superstardom is expected in popular culture – nobody stays at the height of their power indefinitely. The longer you're in the spotlight the harder it is to shock and engage, and the more money you make the more distractions get in the way of you following your muse (if you still have one) to places that are rewarding for your fans. Therefore, no one expects Manson to reclaim the edginess that made his name in the first place – it's impossible. Yet after releasing a number of disposable records since 2000's Holy Wood (In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death) and suffering some personal lows, few imagined Manson would make an album like The Pale Emperor, which, while pretty incomparable to his best work due to it being a different time and place, actually shows he still has a future as a legitimate recording artist.

"I realised that I need to focus more on creating than destroying," said Manson in a recent interview with Metal Hammer, giving an insight into his change in mind-frame, supported by the stability his acting role as a white supremacist in the final season of Sons Of Anarchy gave him. His new found focus is one of two main reasons why The Pale Emperor is the best album Manson has put his name to in fifteen years. The other one being: his collaboration with songwriter/guitarist/producer Tyler Bates who has a reputable career as a composer for film and television, and whose experienced stamp is all over Manson's ninth studio album. First single 'Third Day Of A Seven Day Binge' really piqued interest when it was released back in October 2014. With Twiggy Ramirez's pulsating bass lines (the bass is central to the album, often more so than the guitars and keyboards) locked in with Gil Sharone's uncharacteristically rigid drumming and in contrast with Bates' twangy guitars, firing off classic rock licks, musically 'Third Day Of A Seven Day Binge' is suggestive of the overall sound of the album. On top of this musical backdrop, Manson's signature drawl is carcinogenic in its potency and his knack for hooks that appear sickly sweet but are rotten to the core (think a toffee apple infested with maggots) are readily lurking throughout The Pale Emperor.

'Deep Six', the second single, is the most metallic song found here; again the solid rhythm-section meets hard rock and quasi-industrial metal guitars while Manson lets loose a threatening performance that actually surprises given how disengaged he has sounded for over a decade. 'Third Day Of A Seven Day Binge' and 'Deep Six' – which were both written by Bates (he is also attributed with writing the equally infectious 'Cupid Carries A Gun') – come with fantastic choruses and this was something Manson needed to improve upon, and he succeeds on almost every one of these ten songs (some tracks were even recorded in one-take to make it sound live and "dirty"). The skulking and foreboding funk of 'Killing Strangers' is a fire-shot at American gun culture, bearing the brilliant refrain of "We're killing strangers so we don't kill the ones that we love". The bluesy stomp & roll of 'The Mephistopheles Of Los Angeles' packs a hell of a chorus line in "Lazarus got no dirt on me", and 'The Devil Beneath My Feet' ("At least I know wherever I go I've got the Devil beneath my feet") is brilliant in its simplistic robo-rock.

Manson has admitted that he lets melody dictate the direction of his music these days, and the former firebrand has been quoted as saying that an appreciation of the blues has changed the way he sings. Musically, the strong undercurrent of blues here is most likely attributed to Bates, and his relatively new creative relationship with Manson needs to be continued on the next album because their chemistry is essential to The Pale Emperor's worth. However, one thing that may irk some people is that the tempo they favour is trapped in slow-to-mid-paced parameters and therefore the music sounds very controlled from start to finish, so maybe a couple of reckless, faster paced songs would have added variety to the listening experience. Luckily, though, Manson – like all talented singers – manages to keep attention fixated on his performance in the face of such stylistic regimentation; with his pained vocals on the emotional highpoint 'Warship My Wreck' displaying a vulnerable side to the storied musician that has very rarely been heard in the past.

While it may not be the most musically adventurous or frightening albums you'll hear this year, when it comes to writing memorable, mature songs full of devilishly addictive hooks without trying to relive the past, The Pale Emperor breathes new life into Marilyn Manson's previously ailing music career, and significantly boosts his relevance in 2015 to give his fans, both old and new, something to really rally behind.  

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