MANILLA ROAD Straight outta Wichita.
RICHARD CATHEY

THE STORY of Mark "The Shark" Shelton and his band, Manilla Road, goes back nearly four decades, although it's only in the past 15 years or so that they've finally received their rightful due. It's common knowledge among metalheads today that Manilla Road's mighty trifecta—1983's rough and tumble Crystal Logic, the more polished and perfected Open the Gates (1985), and The Deluge (1986)—are thrash-metal masterpieces.

Those records were released at a time when bands like Slayer, Metallica, and Anthrax were banging heads and taking names. But they were mostly obscured by the fact that Manilla Road was born in the most un-metal of places: Wichita, Kansas. "When I grew up, people were still riding horses down the street," says Shelton. "We're just a bunch of cowboys who were lucky enough to make it in metal."

He gives credit to his mother and stepfather, both music teachers, for turning him on to music—classical and jazz, in particular—and making him learn the piano at age five. ("I tell my mom jokingly that this is all your fault," Shelton says.) He was soon buying Beatles and Monkees records before discovering the heavy prog of Deep Purple, UFO, and Rush, bands that would influence the first two Manilla Road albums. But one night in particular set Shelton down his path. "My first show was Black Sabbath on the Paranoid tour," he says. "I stood in front of Tony Iommi and said, 'That's what I want to do.'"

By the time Manilla Road released its third record, Crystal Logic, the band was starting to receive attention in Europe, but they didn't quite catch on stateside. It was frustrating at the time, but Shelton can find humor in it now. "The thing that is really strange to me is that Kerrang! called us the 'ugliest band in rock.' And other magazines called [Crystal Logic] crap. Now a lot of the same writers are saying it is a must-own classic."

And it is. Crystal Logic is a raw slab of classic thrash, with Shelton's operatic yowl rising from flaming riffs on "Necropolis" and "The Ram." And while Manilla Road never made the commercial impact that similar metal bands from Los Angeles and San Francisco did, Shelton has enjoyed a music career devoid of missteps, simply doing things (and recording things) on his own terms.

Manilla Road never really went away. Although the band's recorded output stalled during metal's lean years in the '90s ("because what was the point?"), Manilla Road played small gigs in Wichita, where Shelton still lives today. By 2000, those early records were reissued, and Manilla Road was invited to play the Bang Your Head!!! Festival in Germany.

"I hate to say we're lucky, because we've put the work in over 40 years," Shelton says. "But so many bands, including ones that were better than us, have come and gone because they didn't see a future in it."

The future is now, and Manilla Road are still standing, swords raised. The band released a new record this year called The Blessed Curse, and are touring the West Coast for the first time ever. Shelton, now 57, seems as energized as anyone half his age, and he's keeping the horns held high—he's definitely earned the right to use "metal" as a verb. "I never felt like I was too old to metal," he says with a laugh. "I'll be doing this 'til I die."