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Post-2000 Manilla Road have been incredibly hard to predict. 2001's Atlantis Rising, while definitely still sounding like the 'Road of old, was especially accessible compared to the band's earlier material and, for the most part, pretty mediocre. Then they dazzled us with 2002's Spiral Castle, a huge departure from the thrashy sound they'd had since 1986's The Deluge, as well as remarkably more ambitious than the previous effort. 2005's Gates of Fire dialed it back down again, presenting a few choice selections amid several slow, plodding, meandering numbers that weren't particularly inspired. In 2008, they astounded us again with the fantastic Voyager, more along the lines of Spiral Castle, but even darker and heavier, one of their best albums to date. Given their track record of abrupt changes in both style and quality, I was completely unsure of what to expect of 2011's Playground of the Damned. True to form, Shelton changed the style and the quality for the fifth time in twice as many years, presenting us with eight songs that are strange in their own way.
While 2008's Voyager accommodated completely to Shelton's weathered old pipes, making him sound as though he were some elder of the Vikings relaying their ancient tales, I can't quite say the same for this effort. Certainly he doesn't sound bad here, but, if anything, he sounds markedly even older and more weathered, and his voice isn't as well suited to the album as a whole as it was on Voyager; there are some tracks, such as "Fire of Asshurbanipal" and the title track, where he doesn't sound as much like a badass ancient sorcerer as just a tired old man. That being said, his performance is quite good on the rest of the songs, certainly better than that of Bryan Patrick, who makes a return on vocal duties here, on the songs "Into the Maelstrom", parts of "Abattoir de la Mort", and "Brethren of the Hammer". While on Spiral Castle and Gates of Fire it was difficult to tell between the two - in fact, before I knew better I thought Shelton handled the vocal duties on those albums solo - here there is a significant difference, Shelton sounding much older but also having much more character than Patrick, who sounds good but much more restrained, with much less expression than the still-quite-animated Shelton.
Musically, the album tries to be a throwback to the '80s, abandoning the styles they've established in the 21st century and attempting to reach some combination of Crystal Logic and Mark of the Beast, as it would seem. It's got the heavy, catchy riffs of CL combined with the laid back, moody feel of MotB - although I'm fairly sure Shelton wasn't intentionally emulating that album, as he's expressed his dislike for it multiple times. He does a pretty good job of it here, though, albeit in a way no one likely expected. The songs feel very stripped down, which makes them both more accessible and less satisfying - however, most of the songs are quite good nonetheless. While the riffs on songs like "Brethren of the Hammer", and "Fire of Asshurbanipal" are pretty bland, at least for the most part, and it does occasionally feel a bit too simple, it hasn't failed to capture the Manilla Road magic. It's actually a pretty damn good album; just hard to compare to some of the other works in Shelton's huge, practically spotless discography.
The production, thankfully, is good, with a strong, thick guitar tone, a very audible bass, and a good mix. Cory Christner's strange, busy drumming style is less noticeable on the album, neither adding nor detracting much from the music, which is laid back enough that it would be more or less the same with a better or worse drummer. Musically, the album ranges from mellow acoustic ballads to slightly more aggressive, harder metal numbers, with most of the songs lying somewhere in between. The two ballads, thankfully, are both pretty good, with "Fire of Asshurbanipal" starting out great, with a fantastic acoustic intro, but then becoming merely decent, and "Art of War" being consistently great, sounding at first as if it might be a second "Epitaph to the King", but then taking a simpler, catchier direction, slightly worse than "Epitaph" - but then, it's hard not to be, as that's one of Manilla Road's best songs. This was the first song I fell in love with from the album, and I still thoroughly enjoy it - despite the album's inconsistency, I know I'd miss songs like this if they'd gone in a different direction.
The other highlights here are a bit heavier - the progressive, mystical "Abattoir de la Mort" is a personal favorite, containing not only some of my favorite vocal lines but also my favorite lyrics of the album, as Shelton bellows out nastily, "From the taste of the blood in my mouth, I know that I am evil...". This song is definitely one of the great MR songs, and one you don't want to miss. Another highlight is the epic, sprawling "Grindhouse", which is replete with menacing riffs and leads, and contains a similarly evil atmosphere to "Abattoir de la Mort". Unfortunately, some songs just don't make the cut - "Playground of the Damned" gets pretty boring at times, and "Brethren of the Hammer", while catchy, definitely isn't one of my favorites, while thankfully "Into the Maelstrom" is another good one, with a mysterious murky atmosphere that's quite good, but I feel would be even better if it wasn't held back by Bryan Patrick's mediocre vocal performance. "Jackhammer" is in a similar vein, and thankfully features Shelton instead of Patrick; his voice fits much better with this song.
Overall, despite its flaws, Playground manages to be a very good album, not living up to classics like Crystal Logic and The Deluge, but still adding several good songs to add to the MR repertoire, which is never a bad thing. It's more catchy and immediate than most MR offerings (though still quite hard to digest at times), which unfortunately also brings down the quality even of the best songs, but any fan of the band will be happy that it's not in any way a disappointment, and, as I mentioned earlier, it still ranks higher than albums from the vast majority of bands of the same style. Even in 2011, Mark Shelton proves that he's still the master of epic metal.