Review Summary: The God of almost fu*king it up.
I’m still not quite sure what Manson’s thought process was when developing Heaven Upside Down
, given the success of his previous album. For a guy who went, arguably, irrelevant as far back as Eat Me Drink Me
, he somehow managed to garner polarizing praise in 2015 with his 9th studio effort, The Pale Emperor
; a record that fused his bare-bone Born Villain
sound with a blues bite. The results were a refreshing success, a sharp and mature experience which delivered the most electric sounding album since Holy Wood
. A career defining achievement, and one that yearned for a continuation if there was ever going to be another album. But surprise came to many when he announced in interviews, back at the start of the year when the new album was announced, it’d be a departure from The Pale Emperor
, sounding more like a cross between The Golden Age…
and Mechanical Animals
. The bottom-line: it would be an album more reflective of the past than one which pushed creative boundaries.
The question which persists to irritate me, is why build a new album almost entirely around a retrospective mind-set? Why look back at previous works when there was a whole world to discover with this new grandiose, cinematic soundscape? To try and understand Manson’s frame of mind you need to look at his roots, given how Manson’s trajectory into stardom stemmed from a collection of shock-rock tactics and a punk-like attitude when it came to lyric-writing; his topics shining on societal flaws and problems in America: politics, religion and the unattainable American Dream. So, in the context of what made him the artist he is today – and given the unlimited supply of topics he could rip into with modern America – I can see some reason in why he’s decided to tap into the old beast and bring the heartrate up with a heavier record.
Collectively, the album runs with what “We Know Where You Fu*king Live” offers: distorted bass, which pierces through the mix, heavy guitars, trickling electronics and a wider emphasis on his older industrial sound to add layers and dynamics. By and large, this is textbook Manson; you’ll hear countless snippets from various eras of his career. “Tattooed in Reverse” sounds like something which could have come from The Pale Emperor
, had it fermented in the bathwater of The Golden Age of Grotesque
for a year or two: a punchy and infectious rhythm section, saturated in ominous electronics and a vocal performance which lends a lot of what made Brian sound great on his 2015 effort. “Revelation #12” and “We Know Where You Fu*king Live” sound like a blast-from-the-past, aesthetically pandering to the Antichrist Superstar
framework of harsh vocals and a musical backdrop set for war. There are some less on-the-nose tracks here as well which find a perfect balance of fresh creativity and old ideas: the bellowing bass and dank, bleak nature of “Say10” is one of the strongest moments on here – and probably the freshest sounding thing to boot – given its easy-going rock riffs, catchy melodies and reliance on a pretty standout atmosphere. Its lean run-time also ensures its place at the top of the pile. While other highlights come from the melancholic “Blood Honey”, the kind of number which would appeal to fans of “Coma White” or “The Nobodies”; sadomasochist lyrics aside, it’s a brooding goth-rock epic that hears Manson delivering an impressively convincing performance, pouring his emotions onto the track using a combination of harsh screams and a string of engaging melodic choices to make a sharply interesting experience. It’s something which had a lasting effect on me after I’d heard it; a track which contains all the hallmarks of what made “If I Was Your Vampire” so enticing: engulfed in gloomy ambience, weeping guitars and a synth working its way on climbing out of the darkness. Like “Say10”, it’s a track that stands out from the rest and offers listeners something old, yet, presents itself in a new and exciting way.
However, despite what Heaven Upside Down
gets right, there is a lot which irks me about the album as well. Sure, there’s no denying this is an extremely entertaining record to listen to, and will certainly please long-time fans, but where’s the risk? A lot of the tracks on here tap into the past in a tasteful way, other times they can end up sounding like B-sides: “KILL4ME” is a decent song, but eerily similar to “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge”, containing a lot of recycled ideas from the track in question and the first indicator at revealing wear in the album’s armor; the opening to “Je$u$ Cri$i$”, which hears Manson spewing out the “oh, ow-oh” chants he’s used a million times before is another jarring idea which took me out of the mood the album was trying to put me in. You’ll find quite a few moments like this throughout Heaven Upside Down
– an album which runs at a modest 10 tracks – making it hard to shake the thought they got a little complacent during the writing process. At the album’s worst, it’s brought to the level of being downright boring: “Saturnalia” is ultimately the culprit for it: at a whopping 8 minutes, the only emotion this track will draw out of its listener is complete boredom. There’s a total lack of character coming from the song and it doesn’t bring anything to the table in the way of making Manson look like he’s at the top of his game. Thankfully, this was the only time the LP totally flatlined.
The album suffers from a production standpoint as well. Muddy is the best way to sum it up; instruments feel as though they are buried under a blanket when they should be soaring to deliver in full effect when needed. The drums in particular take the biggest blow in terms of sound quality, most notably on “We Know Where You Fu*king Live” where it sounds like they are aching to get out and bring a bruising result. Instead they sound blunted, and it’s a shame, because when you hear what they are doing at points – had they cut through – they could have had a devastatingly great effect on the track at hand. Sure, the production makes the heavier numbers sound rawer and “like the early days”, but when you get to the softer tracks, the production doesn’t quite sit comfortably. And it isn’t just the drums, the problem rears its head on all fronts, and, indeed, had it got a clearer polish, I think the LP would have benefited far better for it.
On the lyric front, things can get just as disappointing, too. Considering this album comes from the guy who made the triptych trilogy – records that contain depth, intelligence, meaning, and, to this day, relevance – songs can be outright obnoxious at times: when you come to “Je$u$ Cri$i$” and Manson opens up with:
“I write songs to fight and to fu*k to, If you wanna fight then I'll fight you, If you wanna fu*k I will fu*k you. Make up your mind, or I'll make it up for you”
the whole statement comes across juvenile and strange; “Blood Honey”, one of the strongest numbers here, has lyrical content which boarders on embarrassing for a guy of Brian’s age, talking about how much of a sassy minx he is; while “We Know Where You Fu*king Live” contains some of his most primal lyric-writing yet. Most of the time the subject matter is adequate, but when you compare it to his older works it pales in almost every conceivable way.
The verdict for this one is tough because I enjoyed Heaven Upside Down
; “Say10” and “Blood Honey” for their heightened innovation, “Revelation #12” and “We Know Where You Fu*king Live” for tapping into the visceral Manson I thought had long gone, and various other tracks for having some really great moments – “Je$u$ Cri$i$” and “Tattooed in Reverse” being easy reminders. But there is so much on here which damages the final product. The record walks a dangerous line of becoming a parody, and when it isn’t self-referential of the past, its plagiarism of The Pale Emperor
can be extremely distracting at times; the bulk of “Threats of Romance” sound is based almost entirely around what “Slave Only Dreams to Be King” brought to the table. These moments creep up more than I’d care to admit, and while it’s great to see Marilyn Manson attempting to amalgamate his aggressive works with recent offerings, the execution can be ham-fisted at times, and it becomes hard to accept songs as their own entity – rather imitations of things that have already been done before – appearing as if Tyler Bates and Brian were looking a little too hard into what he was doing 10-20 years ago. When you couple all that with the dud “Saturnalia”, it affects the overall quality quite a bit. Make no mistake; this is a great LP to add to his weighty discography, I just wish he’d made more time taking risks and less time looking at what once was. Manson’s vocals are excellent throughout, this is the best I’ve heard him sound in a long, long time – and that’s saying something given how good he performed on The Pale Emperor
. The quality of the music mostly matches that of the singing, and the lyrics – while disappointing in a lot of ways, and less abrasive than I was expecting – offer more of what we’ve come to expect from him. Overall, if you’re a fan of the man, you’ll enjoy this without a doubt. However, if you’re looking for another remodeling in sound, you might have to wait another decade.
SPECIAL EDITION: N/A