Manilla Road // Playground of the Damned
Rating: 2.5/5.0 —A rocky road
Label: Shadow Kingdom Records
Website: truemetal.org/manillaroad | myspace.com/manillaroadofficial
Release Dates: EU: 12.08.2011 | US: 08.12.2011

Manilla Road, thy name is cult! These aged metallers from Kansas have been keeping it “true” since before the 80’s. Over their long existence they released no less than fourteen albums of old school, vintage metal to the acclaim of a small but loyal niche following. Led by guitarist/singer Mark “The Shark” Shelton, they’ve plumbed the depths of 70’s and early 80’s metal, some albums sounding like old Cirith Ungol, some moving closer to Manowar, Doomsword and Slough Feg. They’ve always lived in that realm between classic metal and doom and their discography has its great moments (and a few missteps as well). In some circles these guys have attained legendary status and while they clearly deserve it for dedication, I never thought their material was all that consistent. However, I always find myself rooting for them to succeed. I did so again with their fifteenth album Playground of the Damned, but I’m not too thrilled with the end product. Like some prior albums, there are great moments but some cringy ones as well. Definitely an acquired taste and not for everyone, this is one of those bands you really have to hear for yourself. However, I will endeavor to do my humble best to describe what lies within as only the Lord High Protector Steel Druhm can.

First things first. While Manilla Road‘s material was never too consistent quality wise, they’ve ALWAYS been consistent with their shitty production jobs. Following suit, Playground sports a sound and mix that appears unfinished. To be charitable, I’ll just call it amateurish and leave it at that. The guitar tone is washed out, weak and powerless. The drums are tinny and set back in the mix. This emasculates the power and impact of the songs, which does the album quite a disservice. I mention this upfront because its a real problem and impairs the full enjoyment of the album. Is it St. Anger bad? Well no, nothing is that bad.

As for the songs themselves, opener “Jackhammer” is a mid-paced, Slough Feg-style number with some crunchy riffing and interesting noodling but the extremely laid back chorus and vocal style seems out of place. Its not bad (Shelton actually sounds good),  its just a little confusing dynamically speaking. “Into the Maelstrom” and the title track continue in the same slow to mid-paced style with Shelton sharing vocal duties with Bryan Patrick (who has a distinct Layne Staley sound). Both tracks work well enough and feature some compelling guitar. The biggest ouch moment comes with “Grindhouse” which just doesn’t work for me at all. With lame lyrics and a poor chorus, its an irritant and very poorly conceived. Things return to goodness with “Abattoir De la Mort,” which features a heavier approach and surprisingly, death metal vocals. The rest of the album is mostly slower material with only occasional forays into speed. At times they channel Blaze Bayley material (“Fire of Ashurbanipal”) and veer into old Manowar territory (“Brethren of the Hammer”), the latter being a tad cheesy for my tastes. The key reference though is Slough Feg. The album’s best song is the last one, “Art of War,” which has a lot of cool touches and a slowly building intensity. Sadly, none of this material is classic, essential Manilla Road and between the production and the song quality, its a let down.

The element that always made Manila Road stand out were Shelton’s vocals. While he shares time here with Patrick, his trademark nasally whine sounds as good as ever. However, he has one of those voices you absolutely love or completely loath. He has a pretty limited vocal palette and while I always enjoyed his style, many will find it offputting or outright annoying. The same can’t be said for his guitar-work. The man shreds up a storm all over Playground and his playing is of the “so metal it hurts” variety. The guitar saves several tracks from going off the rails and keeps things engaging, even during the low points.

This isn’t as good as I hoped and aside from two or three cuts, I won’t be playing it much going forward. If you never heard these guys, I wouldn’t recommend starting here (all their mid to late 80’s releases are superior as are some of their recent releases). I respect the hell out Mr. Shelton and crew and I hope they never stop churning out the Kansas metal. I have to pass on this one though, no hard feelings.