I realize it’s an absurd comparison, especially considering the fact that I’ve never been a parent, but I imagine I’d have nearly as difficult a time rating one of my children as I do a Manilla Road album.
“Freddie? Yeah, he’s a good kid, but he dribbles food and occasionally stares off like a dullard; I’d give him a 7.5.”
The point is: some things just aren’t meant to have a cold, concrete number attached to their worth. Really, where’s the comparison point for a band that’s been nurturing their abundantly unique brand of traditional US heavy metal for over THIRTY years? Hell, no, it’s not modern; it’s not intended to be modern. So forget about stacking this record up against anything currently coming down the pike — the only true connection can be drawn to the band’s own ample discography. But then, just like any parent’s brood of ankle-biters, each record birthed from Shelton & crew has its own little quirks and moments of nearly incomprehensible joy, so they’re all likely to be considered ‘necessary acquisitions’ for the relatively small pocket of the population they’re intended to reach.
Three certainties endure in the life of a die-hard fan of this band (not counting alcohol consumption): death, taxes and supporting Manilla Road. So that number you see up there in the corner? I really don’t know what to make of it, and I’m the one who put it there.
Here’s the bottom line: If you’ve never cared for Manilla Road, or you have yet to even hearthis band, Playground of the Damned A) won’t change your mind, and B) probably isn’t the best place to start. The record is surprisingly different within the scope of the band’s ample discography, and it tacks on a few distinctions that will likely further alienate them from bystanders who’ve spent the years watching albums pass by.
On the other side of the spectrum, if you’re a fan but have yet to take the plunge for various reasons, here are the first things to notice about Playground of the Damned compared to their most recent works: its brevity (47 minutes compared to the hour+ provided by the last two efforts); its focus on diverse lyrical content, as opposed to an album-wide concept; and most significantly, the fact that much of the material delivers a more straight-forward, mid-paced emphasis on HEFT, whereas Voyager and Gates of Fire enunciated epic, complex arrangements.
The heft might not hit you right away, especially if you’re the type who spends time with the more extreme ends of the metal spectrum, but once you fall into “Manilla Road mode,” you’ll hear things on Playground of the Damned that are surprisingly beefy: 4:40 into “Abattoir de la Mort,” for example. Or the heart of Shelton’s ode to horror exploitation films, “Grindhouse.” And much to the chagrin of a scattering of old-school MR fans, the vocals during these heftier moments occasionally take on the more grumbly/nearly death-ish twists that also raised eyebrows on Voyager. But the grumbling is less frequent this time around, and the overall chunkiness and slower pace of the record is nicely balanced by some of the most melodic, pretty soloing I’ve yet to hear bursting from Shelton’s fingertips.
In terms of production and vocals, it’s still a Manilla Road album, which means there’s a muddy coating and an odd, brittle sound to the drums (which also happen to be very well played), and that sound is further accented by the requisite nasal singing of Mark and Bryan. Honestly, at this point I think if the band were to significantly shift any of these elements, fans would collectively shit their pants so hard, the Earth would fall off its axis, so it’s best that the present course is maintained until the end of time; we’re used to it, and in a strange way, it’s part of Manilla Road‘s charm. If I had to point a finger to any one element I feel Playground of the Damned is lacking, it would be the fact that I would’ve preferred at least one mellow, fully acoustic tune to round things out — that would’ve been a nice addition.
And for those perhaps walking away from this review thinking that Playground of the Damned is wholly un-epic, there are some wonderfully heroic moments to be found on this record as well: the chorus to “Brethren of the Hammer” will have fans swinging arm-in-arm, and “Art of War” closes the album out on a spectacular note, particularly the beautifully lead that crescendos and smooths out during the culminating two-and-a-half minutes — stunning stuff.
Simply put, Playground of the Damned is yet another feather in a cap already littered with enough plumage to give Big Bird a boner for a week. It’s different, in a subtle Manilla Road kind of way, but very rewarding when given the time and proper Manilla-mood. The CD version is available through the good folks at Shadow Kingdom Records, and the LP is available through the always delightful High Roller Records. Go buy!
In closing, I’d like to offer up the following idea to Mark Shelton:
Somewhere deep in the heart of Kansas — nestled imposingly amidst yellowing harvest fields, crumbling barns and the occasional chomping cow — lies a great, spiraling fortress very similar to the cover of 1983’s Crystal Logic: a place where fans will gather, dump their high-techery at the gates, and spend the entirety of their stay completely entrenched in all that is “Manilla Road.” A heavy metal hesher’s Dollywood, so to speak, where wild boar-on-a-stick is king, mead can be scooped from a fountain, and children can be left to twirl playfully on the “Blood Eagle” as adults line up to ride “The Deluge.” At night, motley fools will entertain the young as the spirits begin to flow more freely. And at the strike of every midnight, The Shark will call up his players to rip through an assortment of his rollicking tunes deep into the wee hours of the morning.
Build it, and they will come*…
*but don’t ask me how the hell to fund it.