Marilyn Manson holds a curious place in the rock and roll pantheon. On one hand, he hasn’t quite reached legend status alongside '90s contemporaries like Trent Reznor and Tool. On the other, he certainly isn’t some relic of the decade we would just as soon forget, alongside bands like Limp Bizkit and Orgy. Rather, Manson exists in a sort of purgatory, not quite credible enough to reach the top of the mountain but more than talented and relevant enough to avoid the novelty status for which he once seemed destined.
Manson was supposed to play Houston this weekend, but alas, that will not happen. He was originally scheduled as one of the headliners for the annual Houston Open Air Fest, but that festival – which was also to include Prophets of Rage, Five Finger Death Punch, Stone Sour and assorted other metal and hard-rock types – was cancelled in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Manson rescheduled for Saturday at House of Blues, but a recent on-stage accident put him on the shelf for a few weeks. Shame too, as Manson really needs a rebound showing after last year’s debacle in The Woodlands.
But I digress. I come to praise Marilyn Manson the performer and musician, not bury him. Hell, Manson – based on his early career trajectory – shouldn’t be headlining festivals or venues of any sort in 2017. Between 1996 and 2000, Manson was public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of those who viewed music as a catalyst for tragedies like the one at Columbine High School in April 1999. Manson’s antichrist persona, the language, the makeup and wardrobe, the drugs, encouraging violence – they all legitimately scared the hell out of some people.
This is not to say Manson would have the same effect today. The Internet and social media no longer allow rock-star mystique, and the mystery that surrounded Manson upon his mid-'90s breakthrough — remember the famous rib myth, or the one that surmised Manson as Paul from The Wonder Years? — helped propel him to full-fledged superstardom. So, yes, Marilyn Manson was a shock-rocker once upon a time, and while this padded his reputation and bank account, it masked something that has since come to light; namely, that Marilyn Manson makes quality, badass rock music.
Manson was already a name in rock circles when he released Antichrist Superstar in the fall of 1996. But it was that album, and primarily its lead single, that launched into the pop-culture mainstream. Its hit single, “The Beautiful People” remains a rock radio staple, long after the shock-rock shtick wore off, and that’s because “The Beautiful People” – like many a song on Antichrist Superstar – is a really good rock and roll song.
The mystery surrounding Manson the man was cleared up a bit in early 1998, when he released his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, easily one of the best rock memoirs of the past 20 years. Manson was not Paul from The Wonder Years, nor did he have a rib surgically removed to, um, take care of himself. Rather, he was simply Brian Warner, a kid from Ohio who went to Christian school and wasn’t exactly Mr. Popularity.
With the shock wearing thin, Manson’s follow-up to Antichrist would be based more on musical merit and less on the man’s ability to freak people out by standing at a pulpit in women’s undergarments. Turns out, Mechanical Animals not only lived up to its predecessor, but far surpassed it. In fact, Mechanical Animals – with hits like “The Dope Show” and “Coma White” – still stands as Manson’s best studio album, a pitch-perfect glam-rock show.
Manson’s relevance began to fade around the turn of the century. The hits dried up a bit, and the controversies faded as well. Manson put out a couple of Gold records in Holy Wood (in the Shadow of the Valley of Death) and The Golden Age of Grotesque, but those records didn’t register in comparison to his work in the latter half of the '90s.
This is a shame. Holy Wood is probably Manson’s most musically developed album, and The Golden Age of Grotesque finds him experimenting with a variety of sounds. Manson took a little time off from there, only to return with the trinity of Eat Me, Drink Me (2007), The High End of Low (2009) and 2012’s Born Villain. The trio of studio releases easily marked the low point of Manson’s catalog, something he has since admitted in interviews promoting more recent material.
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And this is where Manson can enjoy another act of his career. The Pale Emperor, released in 2015, marked the appearance of a more somber Manson, which makes sense, considering his mother died the year before its release. His latest, Heaven Upside Down – released last week – is decidedly not somber. Rather, it marks the welcome return of hard-charging Marilyn Manson; seriously, it’s his most inspired-sounding record since Mechanical Animals.
Heaven Upside Down, like The Pale Emperor before it, isn’t going to vault Manson back into the mainstream. The days of shock-rocking are over, and that’s for the best. After all, there’s perhaps nothing sadder than an older performer (Manson is approaching 50) carrying oneself as they did during their commercial heyday.
Instead, Manson’s last two records showcase what many failed to notice when he was being picketed and protested during his initial rise to infamy. The man may have set out to cast a cloud of shock and awe on the mainstream rock community, and he certainly succeeded in doing so. Along the way, Manson also carved out one of the more unique, distinct and noteworthy catalogs in the annals of hard rock.