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It’s almost hard to review a Manilla Road album these days, because they’re just such an institution in the metal underground, and so much has been said about them already. They’re not famous and never really will be, but the sheer magnitude of their influence on countless underground traditional metal bands says something anyway. They’ve been resolute and soldiered on for thirty years, and show no sign of slowing down even on their – holy gods, 14th album? This is Playground of the Damned.
I don’t think this one is up to the level of epic masterworks like Voyager, but it’s certainly a great album on its own. This is probably the simplest and most stripped down sound the band has ever had. Even in the 80s with their more straightforward old material, they always had a tinge of the dark and mystical in their huge epic-length mammoth tunes like “Dreams of Eschaton,” but here they have delivered a very classic sounding 70s metal album that hearkens back to Blue Oyster Cult, early Judas Priest and even some Sabbath at times.
There are a couple of longer songs but nothing over 8 minutes, and the shorter track listing makes this one the Manilla Road equivalent of travel-ready snacks a la Yoplait Yogurt or those nifty peanut butter crackers – don’t have time for the sprawling Voyager or even idiosyncratic works like Mystification or Courts of Chaos? Throw on this one and get on the road.
Shelton shares vocal duties with younger second-vocalist Hellroadie on here, who utilizes a very clean, smooth voice that fits Manilla Road’s style really well. Shelton himself still sings on about half the songs, and his ancient-sounding nasal croon is soothing and mystical – great stuff. The guitars are less acrobatic and oceanic on this, and sound more traditional in the riffing; you wouldn’t have seen this kind of guitarwork on their previous few albums. Here it’s all about rocking bass grooves, catchy drums and chunky, groovy old school metal riffing like only a band actually from that time period can get down perfectly.
The first half of this album is really strong, with the hooky “Jackhammer” and the traditional epic stomp of “Into the Maelstrom” starting things off with class. The title track is one of my favorites on here with its hypnotic riffing and a great, swirling chorus courtesy of Shelton’s masterful vocal chords – a haunting, magical tune that you will never forget. “Grindhouse” and “Abattoir De La Mort” rule with pounding riffing and horror-movie inspired lyrics: “From the taste of the blood in my mouth / I know that I am eeeeeevvvviiiiiilllll…” Hell yeah.
“Fire of Asshurbanipal” and “Art of War” fulfill the slower song quota, and both are quite good, with the grace you would expect from this strange band, but I have to say neither one is my favorite on here. “Brethren of the Hammer,” however, is one of the album stand outs. The chorus is sung in such a triumphant, sword-raised-high manner that I can’t help but feel almost patriotic when I listen to it – patriotic, perhaps, for the whole metal genre which produces such fine-tuned, high-flying mastery.
Playground of the Damned is not Manilla Road’s best album and it is not Spiral Castle or Voyager-level excellence, but to fall short of masterworks is no crime, and that the band wanted a more laid-back sound after the continually increasing scope of their recent works is understandable. This is a solid, enjoyable work from one of metal’s flagship bands of the underground, and you should go get it as soon as you can.