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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

Manilla Road

Playground of the Damned

Review by Mike Korn

Playground of the Damned is the latest chapter in the long-running saga of one of America's best cult heavy metal bands. The band forges ahead with extreme determination and in steadfast ignorance of what ever trend dominates the rest of the music world. Fans of Manilla Road should be more than happy with this latest effort, as it has all the trademarks of past MR material but just enough experimentation to keep things fresh.

The record is decidedly less "epic" than most Manilla projects, especially the band's last album Voyager, which related a huge saga of Vikings conquering the ancient Mayans. Here, each song is a separate tale and many subjects are dealt with instead of the usual Camelot/Atlantis/Viking material Manilla Road dwells on. This gives the album some freshness. The production is much better than Voyager as well, with richer guitar and bass sound, though the drums still sound kind of "clacky."

Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Mark Shelton is not only one of the best and most distinct guitarists in the metal scene, he's also one of the truly nicest guys as well. I'd love to see Playground of the Damned break out to a bigger audience which Manilla Road surely deserves!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Jackhammer

This song surprises by beginning with a stately, medieval flourish instead of the pounding the title indicates. Although it soon develops into a pacey cruncher, it retains much of that medieval feeling. Shelton's vocals are also surprisingly laid-back and mellow even though the song itself is pure metal. As usual, Shelton's lead guitar soloing is superb.

Into the Maelstrom
Starting with mysterious guitar tones, this tune is a little heavier and more forceful than "Jackhammer." It also features the lead vocals of Bryan "Hellroadie" Patrick, which are deeper and less nasal than Mark Shelton's. I kind of prefer Shelton's just because I'm used to them, but the difference is not so great as to be jarring. This tune has a very dark, almost Sabbath type vibe to it.
Playground of the Damned
The aggression finally kicks in big time with the title track. The drumming of Corey Christner kicks in hard and the song has a meaner feel, even though Shelton's singing still has a dreamy, almost mystic quality. The tune oozes with the peculiar songwriting style that can only be found in Manilla Road. Nobody else has this sound! The ending is a noisy cacophony.
Grindhouse
This tune is lyrically inspired by the gnarly horror and action flicks that used to be found in drive-ins and cheap urban theaters. Despite that, the opening again is startling because it's so laid back and bluesy. A stalking slow and creepy feel comes in, and this is where most of the song remains. It's a doomy epic with great atmosphere, a killer heavy chorus and some of the most scorching guitar work on the disc.
Abbatoir De La Mort
This might be the most bizarre Manilla Road song I have ever heard. It has a disjointed, nervous, almost psychotic sound and the drumming sometimes sounds like golf balls falling down a staircase. The name is French for "Slaughterhouse of the Dead" and the tune sounds like it deals with human sacrifice. Deep death metal growls contrast with a restrained acoustic section. It settles down into a steady medium paced metal beat, but, really, the song almost sounds like several combined into one. It's not terrible but it's extremely experimental for Manilla Road. The beautiful guitar solo at the end goes a long way to redeeming it.
Fire of Ashurbanipal
This is another track that starts with a relaxed, highly melodic feel before beefing up into an excellent mid-paced power metal stomper. In contrast with the number that preceded it, this is very traditional Manilla Road, although I'm again struck by how beautiful the opening section is. It's a dream-like, mystical tune.
Brethren of the Hammer
Here's one that's heavy and driving all the way through, with a real "call to battle" feel. Bryan Patrick's vocals are harsher and more aggressive as they relate a story of Vikings heading into war. It's a very traditional Manilla Road "battle metal" song. The clacky drum sound bothers me, though.
Art of War
The album concludes with a power ballad. This disc seems to have a bit more emphasis on the mellow stuff, but unlike the other tunes, the ballad feel is maintained this time around. Really, I found the first half of the song to be rather dull, but what saves the song is Shelton's amazingly emotional and unique guitar soloing. This guy is a stand-out  player, no doubt about it. I also like the lyrics, which are a tribute to the combat of the ancients.
You'll find an audio interview of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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