News of a new Manilla Road record is always welcome. This seminal American metal band, still led by founder and guitarist Mark Shelton, offers their sixteenth (depending on your count) album Playground of the Damned. Of course, and typical of Shelton, the album offers listeners a mild conundrum by blend familiarity with some novelty.
The heaviness, sometimes near doom quality, with the epic metal feel remains here. But Manilla Road offers shorter songs with more melody and hooks as on Into the Maelstrom and, oddly enough, on the horror-titled Playground of the Damned. Shelton offers fret fireworks, yet turns more to melody and variance than simple shredding as on Grindhouse, Abattoir De La Mort, and Art of War. Also, there's more singing, in deference to melody I suspect, and less growling or screaming as on the previous Voyager.
Though not a concept album, Playground of the Damned finds the band revisiting the familiar Viking theme as on Brethren of the Hammer or the Art of War. Shelton has also leaned to a more darker lyric, sometimes with a moral edge. The aforementioned Grindhouse, while not leading to the latter, definitely explores the former. The song is based on 'Grindhouse' style movies made popular in the late 60's and early 70's, and reinvented by Paul Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino The music, however, is a different story. Considering the movie genre is grisly and exploitive at times, the song starts out with this benign melodic guitar start only to build to an eerie and epic metal movement.
There's much to explore and digest on Playground of the Damned, but that is to be expected on a Manilla Road album. It's certainly a reason why fans keep coming back, and why both peers and newcomers still look to the band as an important influence to their craft. If there is any downside here it may be in the mix. If you listen to the tinny timbre, mostly heard in the drums, on the opener Jackhammer, you may be put off enough not to venture forward. Conversely, you may listen and say that the production is nearly minimalist as if the band was recording the songs 'live' in the studio. This mystery adds even more charm to the enigma of Manilla Road. In the end, fans of the band and classic heavy metal will find Playground of the Damned this Manilla Road album a worthy addition to their epic catalogue.
There's much to explore and digest on Playground of the Damned, but that is to be expected on a Manilla Road album. It's certainly a reason why fans keep coming back, and why both peers and newcomers still look to the band as an important influence to their craft.