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Archive for the ‘Devin Townsend’ Category

The Devin Townsend Band, Synchestra (2006)

No puns or jokes here, just a mind-bogglingly good album

Three years passed between Devin’s first record under the name Devin Townsend Band, which was a longer gap than that between any of his preceding ‘solo’ albums.  Rather than signaling a bout of inactivity, however, it simply meant that he had released a solo ambient/drone album in 2004, the monstrous metal onslaught of Alien with Strapping Young Lad in 2005, and then both Synchestra and SYL’s The New Black in 2006.  So, yeah, I think we can cut the guy some slack here.

There’s no sense beating around the bush: I totally fucking love this album.  I think it’s the best thing that Devin Townsend has done so far, which is saying a lot, given the strength of much of his other solo material and the industrial-strength viciousness of Strapping Young Lad.  Still, none of that other music, admirable though it may be, quite touches the holistic brilliance of this album.  I will not, therefore, try to be objective in discussing this album, though I will try to convince you of its merits with more than just relentless cussing and exhortations.

The opening trio of songs is a perfect suite, flowing smoothly from one musical theme to the next.  Throughout the album, it is apparent that Devin has thrown essentially every trick he can muster at these songs; the thing is, the songs are so goddamn unbelievably strong that this instrumental excess never even comes close to overwhelming them.  Check out the brief excursion into front porch-sitting country twang in the middle of “Triumph” – I dare you to tell me that it doesn’t just work, beyond any reason.

“Babysong” works its way through some almost, but not quite, cloyingly winsome melodies in a very sing-songy way.  About midway through it, though, the song changes up its rhythm and just starts swinging furiously.  The light-hearted instrumental “Vampolka” introduces the melodic theme of “Vampira” with some surf guitar, organ, and, yes, a motherfucking tuba.  If you’ve ever tried playing a tuba (as I have), you’ll know that it’s no mean feat to make the instrument sound as jaunty and light as it does here.  Interesting to note, by the way, is that it’s really only with “Vampira,” which is six songs into the album, that we got a song written more or less on the model of a classic heavy metal rager, replete with thick, aggressive riffing, muscular rock drumming, and some intensely pungent howling from Devin His Fucking Bad Self.  (Note: The video for “Vampira” is also a hell of a lot of fun – I’ve got it posted down at the bottom of the review.)

Accordingly, the break between “Vampira” and “Mental Tan” is the first time there’s been a full pause between tracks on the whole album.  Rather than proving tiresome, however, this fluidity of movement between songs is indicative of the unified nature of this album as a composition.  Unity and oneness are indeed prominent themes in much of Devin Townsend’s solo work, but on this album those lyrical themes find equally full expression musically.  “Triumph,” for example, does both.  Its lyrics reference Carl Jung, in regards to which the simple but insanely powerful chorus reveals a deeper meaning to the song itself.  Jung’s psychological theory of the collective unconscious suggested that the human species, in addition to having in common certain biological traits, also shared a species-wide psychological reservoir.  The idea was that, simply by virtue of our shared humanity, every individual had access to a set of precognitive ideas, archetypes, and so forth.  Our species, thus, was not only one body, but also, in some respect, one mind.  So, yeah, fucking belt it out with me: “ONE WORD – COLLECTIVE!  MANKIND, CONNECTED!!!”

Even the title of the album is similarly inspired.  Synchestra obviously combines the words ‘synthesis’ and ‘orchestra’.  But ‘orchestrate’, as a verb, already means to arrange, to bring about, or to control the movement of numerous components.  ‘Synthesis’, then, would seem to be superfluous, as it typically denotes the combination of parts into a hybrid whole.  Or, in philosophical terms, the synthesis is the outcome of the operation of the dialectic: one begins with the thesis, against which is opposed the antithesis; the confrontation and negotiation between a thought and its opposite thus results in a third way, the syn-thesis.  In the context of this album, then, and its other lyrical preoccupations, it’s difficult to see the title as the suggestion that Townsend is attempting to fashion an orchestra of opposites, or to combine, beyond the fullness already suggested by the word ‘orchestra’ on its own, as many disparate parts as possible in order to arrive at a newness – a rejection of both prior supposition and flat refutation.  I mean, it’s still heavy fucking metal, sure, but conjured and synthesized right before one’s eyes into an untrodden path.

After the marathon of musical brilliance and songwriting acrobatics on display in the first half of the album, the pacing of the latter half is comparatively deliberate and thoughtful.  To be honest, the 14-minute stretch of “Gaia” and “Pixillate” drags a little bit, which may be the only fault I can find with this album.  Still, even that slight dullness makes sense when arranged into the sequence “Gaia”-“Pixillate”-“Judgement”-“A Simple Lullaby.”  As further evidence  that this album is somewhat all over the place, the sound effects and melodic construction of “Gaia” are reminiscent of new wave, while the introduction to “Pixillate” makes me think of “Dragonaut,” the first track from Sleep’s Holy Mountain, though this latter thought is merely a tonal similarity rather than compositional.  Around five minutes into “Pixillate,” this synthesizer joins which sounds a bit like a kazoo and noodles around for a while until the chorus kicks back in.  The stretched-out nature of this tune, with its deliberately stomping pace, is suggestive of a dirge, which, given the otherwise jubilant nature of the remainder of the album, is an effective contrast.

In fact, because of the thoughtful sequencing of the album, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to suggest that it can be organized into four suites along the following lines:

Suite A – Introduction & Primary Theme:
1. “Let It Roll”
2. “Hypergeek”
3. “Triumph”

Suite B – Refinement of Theme & Rising Tension:
4. “Babysong”
5. “Vampolka”
6. “Vampira”
7. “Mental Tan”

Suite C – Reflection, Doubt, & Reaffirmation:
8. “Gaia”
9. “Pixillate”
10. “Judgement”
11. “A Simple Lullaby”

Suite D – Epilogue & Valediction”
12. “Sunset”
13. “Notes from Africa”
14. “Sunshine & Happiness”

If you haven’t been able to parse it by now, this is my absolute favorite Devin Townsend record, and it may, in fact, be one of the very closest things I have ever heard to a perfect album.  It’s hard to put a precise finger on it, but something about Devin’s approach to songwriting, singing, emotive guitar playing, and overall tonality makes my otherwise objective and critical faculties turn completely to mush.  For fuck’s sake, these songs could all be ballads in celebration of goat molestation, and I’d keep prattling on, like, “Oh, Devin!  What a marvelous way you have with words/goats!”

“Judgement” continues the dirge tempo from “Pixillate” somewhat, but has an altogether more mournful tone; towards its end, the drums kick into some great martial snare rolls, as the bass and piano trace out a deep melody.  The closing section, which has got the drummer following the chiming guitar with deft hits at the center of the ride cymbal, is but another breathtaking moment among many.  One of the album’s biggest strengths, in fact, is that these little moments of genius are scattered across its entire breadth, so that the listener picks up on more (and different) details each time through the album.

“Notes from Africa” continues to change up the pace as it closes out the album, featuring some chunky slap bass playing at the front.  The song is constructed primarily in a modal fashion, especially in the verse sections, where the guitar keeps fleeing from, but eventually finding itself drawn ineluctably back to, that same high note.  The chorus section does eventually pull in some chord changes, but the song is effective in the way it winds itself around that central note.  The song also contains a very reedy-toned synth which flits across the stereo spectrum, daring you to follow it.  The song eventually deposits you on a bed of flowing water and various animal noises, a fairly clear reminder of the terrestrial grounding and thematic focus on nature and oneness.

The “hidden” track, “Sunshine & Happiness,” is almost ludicrously upbeat, sporting a bluesy, boozy, boogie shuffle with pure classic rock and roll piano vamping under the AC/DC-esque riffing.  “Sunshine and happiness for all!,” it goes.  Yeah, it’s absolutely cheesy as hell, but Devin’s got the musical chops to pull it off, singing these wry, winking gestures at sixty years of rock and roll history without coming off as engaging in pastiche or soured irony.  To put it somewhat simply, if this tune doesn’t smack a tremendous fucking stupid grin all over your face, the world may be in sorrier shape than we’ve been told.

This album is an honest-to-goodness masterpiece.

Overall rating: 99%.  I have quite literally injured myself stomping around and flailing my arms in time to those massive drum beats in the chorus of “Triumph”: MAAAN-KIIIIND, CONNNNECTEEEEEEEED!!!!!!”
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Here’s the video for “Vampira”:

Pretty much speaks for itself.

– Dan / ST

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The Devin Townsend Band, Accelerated Evolution (2003)

Gyroscope with a rainbow, or Pepsi ad?

Accelerated Evolution was the first album to be released under the banner of The Devin Townsend Band.  Rather than marking a mere cosmetic change, however, in comparison with its immediate predecessor Terria, this album does sound much more like the work of a full band.  Part of this is likely the result of adding a second guitar player, which gives the songs a thicker feeling even when Devin is noodling around.  A large portion of the change, though, stems from the songwriting itself, which has produced an album chock full of much more classic song structures and gestures.  This type of more basic songwriting technique can often restrict an artist’s vision, but Townsend’s music seems equally adept at expressing itself through avant-garde and more open, textural compositions as through this mode of straightforward verse-chorus songs.

Thus, Accelerated Evolution is unmatched in Devin’s “solo” catalogue for its straight-ahead, absolutely gorgeous pop catchiness (or, at least, was unmatched until last year’s jaw-droppingly brilliant Addicted – more on which at some future date).  “Storm” features some of Devin’s most beautiful, heavily emotive vocals.  Plus, make sure you pay attention about a minute from the end of the song, where you will hear what is probably the highest note we have yet to hear Mr. Townsend emit.  It is truly a thing of agonized beauty.

The references to rain throughout “Deadhead” evoke Devin’s earlier Ocean Machine project, as does the song’s atmospheric spaciousness, while “Suicide” boasts another ridiculously catchy chorus (although I’m still unclear as to what exactly an “internal suicide” is) AND probably the closest thing to a breakdown the man has ever produced.

“Traveller” is essentially a perfect pop song, which just happens to be disguised as an awesome heavy metal sing-a-long.  “Away,” on the other hand, is an extremely melancholy, primarily instrumental piece, whose sound hearkens back to the wide-open ambience of Terria and Ocean Machine – Biomech.  Where that ambience grew a bit tiresome on Terria because there was little to break it up, in this context if functions quite effectively as a palate cleanser and point of reflection between the harder-driving, insane catchiness of the rest of the album.  Its closing section also features some wonderful melodic improvisation while the rest of the band floats along in a chilled atmosphere.

I find that toward the end of the album, the songs become slightly less differentiable, so that by the time “Slow Me Down” has finished, I feel quite certain that I’ve just listened to an album of fantastically catchy metal/pop gems, but I can’t necessarily recall them all to mind.  “Storm” and “Deadhead” are definite highlights, though “Depth Charge,” “Suicide,” and “Traveller” are just as likely to worm their way deep into my subconscious.

When the dust settles, the most non-hyperbolic way I can describe the appeal of Devin Townsend’s music is that he strikes a wonderful balance between balls-out heavy metal insanity, instrumental wizardry, and a deft classicism of heartstring-tugging melody.  Accelerated Evolution finds Devin in fine form, gathering up the wayfaring excess from previous outings and compressing it into judiciously apportioned anthems; to extend the metaphor, Accelerated Evolution is the ultra-dense black hole to Terria’s vast, hypnotic nebula.

Few artists could claim credibly the term ‘evolution’ for an album which exhibits pure retrenchment into classic rock song structures and irony-free melodic emoting.  Devin Townsend, mercifully, is one of those blessed few, and Accelerated Evolution is a tremendous album.

Overall rating: 88%.  “Now the rain, it comes / The rain, it blurs the grey line.”
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Note: If you can track it down for a non-exorbitant price, I would definitely recommend picking up the limited edition 2-disc version of Accelerated Evolution, which attaches a bonus disc featuring three tracks entitled “Project EKO.”  These are full-on ambient/electronica excursions, all smooth and mellow, but thankfully without falling pretty to the frequent pitfall of ambient music; namely, that it is so ‘nice’ and ‘inoffensive’ that it immediately fades to the background.  The songs have electronic beats rather than just pleasantly drifting tones, and contain enough movement and variation to remain interesting.

“Locate” sounds like a less dub-influenced version of The Orb’s first few records, an impression which “Echo” intensifies with its heavy use of spoken-word samples.  “Assignable” is even more upbeat, with some clanging guitar echoes laid atop the energetic techno beat.

All in all, these three pieces are a nice come-down from the metallic heft of the main album, and should appeal somewhat to anyone with an interest in the very early styles of IDM (especially late 1980s British techno, and early Warp Records artists), but certainly will not appeal to all fans of Devin’s more metallic endeavors.

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Devin Townsend, Terria (2001)

Like a child, you're born again

My snail’s-pace trudge through Devin Townsend’s solo discography continues after some delay with 2001’s Terria.  I think I’ve been subconsciously avoiding this for a while, because for some reason, this album has always been one of the toughest of Devin’s solo albums for me to wrap my head around.

In general, this album is much more abstract and relaxed than much of Devin’s other solo work, and as a result needs to be approached somewhat differently.  Many of my hang-ups with this record, I think, stem from the fact that I kept trying to approach this album as a collection of songs, which, in comparison to the majority of Devin’s other records, this is not.  This album is much more a mood piece, a largely ambient and consistently-paced exercise in atmosphere.

Now, by calling this ‘ambient’, I don’t mean that it’s all floaty keyboards and nature sounds.  In fact, the heavy metal instrumentation and wall-of-sound production from Devin’s other work remains on display here as always; it’s just that those elements are combined in such a way as to produce an hour-long meditation on the themes of home and place.

Things get off to an odd start with the opening duo of “Olives” and “Mountain.”  I’m not exactly sure why Devin offer me a martini by way of opening the record, but hell, why not?  I’ll take mine dry as a Mormon, with a twist of prog, if you don’t mind.  “Mountain” still feels more like an introduction than a proper song, as it’s mostly instrumental with some bizarre sampled stuff in the background.  But have no fear: when “Earth Day” finally kicks in, it’s got absolutely all of the cinematic grandeur and blustery metal melodrama we’ve come to love and expect from Devin.

Unfortunately, this album has one major drawback.  The production has a very odd quirk to it which I find rather difficult to ignore.  Something about how the drums are mixed seems to make the sound levels of the other instruments fluctuate, such that when the drums are hit, the sound level of other instruments falls sharply into the background, then reemerges at the normal level when the drums are on off-beats.  It’s unpleasant to my ears, because when the levels dip, I automatically try to follow more intently what’s going on, but the levels are back up on the very next beat.  It’s off-putting, and casts an unfortunate shadow on the album.

Still, when that chorus to “Earth Day” swings around, it’s hard not to crack a huge idiot grin.  Devin consistently manages to combine exceedingly earnest melodies with somewhat off-the-wall lyrical content (“Eat your beets / Recycle, recycle”), so that for every quirk which pushes me away from this album, there’s always another hook waiting to pull me back in.

As I’ve said, the album gravitates toward a slow, deliberate groove, and one can’t help but get the impression that its title, Terria, is meant as a sort of reflection on the notion of home – but whether that home is Canada, Earth, or the universe at large remains an open question.

The album never gets particularly heavy, but this is more an observation than a criticism.  The drums are well-matched to the laid-back tone of most of the songs, although it does seem that the prodigious talents of a certain Mr. Gene Fucking Hoglan are being put to ill use.  In a strange way, this album’s relatively even-handed tone and deliberate pacing are the very attributes which make it a somewhat avant-garde entry into Devin Townsend’s discography.

The instrumental track “Down and Under” is really one of the only places where I feel the character of the fretless bass, which is a shame.  It seems like the album could have taken advantage of the note-bending and glissando possibilities of the fretless instrument.  Another notable aspect of the album is that Devin appears to have gone a bit sampler-happy.  This is especially true on “Deep Peace,” which overlays some incredibly live-sounding plugged-in acoustic strumming with everyone’s favorite new age signifier, whale song.  About midway-through the track, though, Devin busts out some soothing arpeggios to mollify the potentially impatient listener.

Things get nice and penitent toward the end of “Tiny Tears” (most definitely NOT a Godflesh cover, mind) with the chants of “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy), while the closing track, “Stagnant,” most resembles a pop/rock song with some bluesily elastic vocal turns from Devin straddling beautifully that fine line between parody and sincerity.

(“Universal” is a bonus track on my version of Terria.  Like so many of the bonus tracks on previous Townsend releases, this is a bizarre cast-off, which, in thise case, sounds like an acoustic country/boogie tune buried deep in the background and swathed in spaced-out ambience and dripping water [?] noises.  Just in case you thought Devin had gone mainstream, I suppose.)

Terria is much more about mood and ambience than the previous few solo Devin Townsend records (and most of those which follow, as a matter of fact).  Devin’s lyrics tend, as always, to veer somewhat precariously between the abstract and the personal, but in an endearing fashion.  This may be the Devin record that I spin least frequently, but it still hits the spot when the mood is right.  And, it seems to me, it’s no accident that following this record, Devin went through another slight name change, reemerging in 2003 as The Devin Townsend Band (that last word being quite crucial) for Accelerated Evolution.  More on which to come.

Overall rating: 70%.  Remember the space whale song in Star Trek IV?

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Different people listen to music differently.  Seems painfully obvious, sure, but since I posted a little while back about quizzing myself on how well I knew my own music collection (apparently, I half-know my collection…) I’ve been thinking about just how it is that we recognize and/or remember particular music.

This got me trying to figure out what metal songs are most likely to find themselves stuck in my head.  While thinking through that, it seemed that most of the results I came up with were songs I would identify because of their vocal hook; basically, shower sing-a-long type songs.

Here are just a few examples of some of my favorite heavy metal sing-a-longs, then:

Judas Priest, “Heavy Duty/Defenders of the Faith (Live)”

Sure, I occasionally get the slow-motion blues-stomp of “Heavy Duty” in there, but it’s primarily the “Defenders of the Faith” sing-a-long that I find banging around in there all the time.
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Nile, “Black Seeds of Vengeance”

For whatever reason, the first line of this song has always stuck with me (“The scourge of Amalek is upon you…”), but other than that, it’s obviously just the crushing death/doom breakdown at the end, chanting the song title ad infinitum that gets me every time.
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Dark Angel, “Darkness Descends”

Again, it’s just the chorus here.  Watch your neighbors and coworkers recoil in disgust as you let loose your venomous saliva to the soothing sounds of “The city is guilty / The crime is life / The sentence is death / Darkness deSCEEEENDS!”
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Metallica, “Creeping Death (Live)”

The chorus on this classic track is a great one to shout along with, but everyone’s favorite participatory moment has got to be the breakdown – where else but at a metal show is it considered socially acceptable to scream “DIE!!! DIE!!! DIE!!!” at the vein-bulging, eye-popping top of one’s lungs?
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Bathory, “Woman of Dark Desires”

Probably with some effort I could figure out what Quorthon’s yelling in the verses, but for the most part, I’m happy enough to croak along to the chorus on this, one of my favorite Bathory tracks.
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Mayhem, “Funeral Fog”

Most black metal is total balls to sing along to, but Attila’s inimitable vocals are, nonetheless, fun to imitate.  “FYOOOOOO-NER-EEE-UHHHL……FUGH!!!”
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That’s obviously just a small cross-section of the metal songs that tend to get stuck in my head.  The interesting thing, though, is that it seems pretty clear that I gravitate much more toward vocal hooks than guitar riffs.  I mean, some of these songs have riffs that are extremely easy to recall to the mind (“Creeping Death,” especially, but even the minor tremelo blitz of “Funeral Fog”), but for the most part, these songs get stuck in my head because of the vocals.

I wonder, then, if it has something to do with the fact that I don’t play the guitar?  An interesting question to pose to metalheads, then, is: Are guitar players more likely to get riffs stuck in their heads, or are the songs in their heads there, like they are for me, as sing-a-longs?  It’s a bit more difficult to “sing” along with a guitar riff, but I wouldn’t be surprised if different people identify more closely with different parts of a song, in which case it would seem to have something to do with how we listen to a song.

For my part, it seems to be vocal melodies, catchy choruses, and so forth, that stick in the mind after I’m listening.  When I’m in the act of listening, though, I do often find myself concentrating more closely on the guitar, or following drum fills, or picking out the bass line – those things just don’t tend to stick to my gray matter as cloyingly as the human voice.

Yet another thing that I noticed from this brief stream-of-consciousness song list is that most of the these songs whose vocal tracks get lodged in my brain are in some way thrash-inspired.  Clearly, Metallica and Dark Angel are thrash, but that Bathory track is a very thrashy one, and the chorus of “Funeral Fog” switches between straight-on black metal blasting and a more thrash-paced break.

The odd thing is, I don’t necessarily consider thrash to be one of my favorite genres, so I wasn’t expecting to see such a thrash influence here.  The more I think about it, though, it makes sense that thrash-inspired songs might be more memorable, inasmuch as the genre has a heavy focus on jagged, intensely rhythmic delivery, whereas songs from death metal or black metal often truck along with less variation.

Or, at least, the vocals in thrash are often delivered in a sort of complimentarity to the riffs, whereas in certain other genres, the guitar work is meant to provide texture rather than clearly identifiable structure, so it may be more difficult to pluck the vocals out of that textural mass.

Guitar players out there: Do you ignore vocals and remember only riffs?  Drummers: Do you ever recall anything other than how tight some dude’s snare is?  Singers: Do you ever listen to Attila Csihar and despair, knowing that nothing you ever produce with your vocal cords will match that level of depravity?
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In some other random news:

– Red Harvest has broken up, and that just bums me the fuck out.  For my money, nobody out there did cold, antisocial industrial metal better, and they will be sorely missed.  See the band’s Myspace for details.  To help you through the grieving process, check out some official live clips from their 20th anniversary show last year.  Four songs from the show are available here.

– Neurosis has just put out an official live album, capturing their performance at Roadburn in 2007.  It is available from Neurot Recordings at this location.  Go, give yourself to the rising.

– Across Tundras have a new album out, and it’s cheap from their webstore.  I absolutely LOVE their first full-length, Dark Songs of the Prairie (probably the best replacement for the sorely-missed Gault), but I haven’t followed any of the intervening releases.  I’ve just ordered my copy, though, and will gladly report in due time.  Here’s to hoping for more doomed-out Americana.

– Devin Townsend finally announced more tour dates on his upcoming headlining tour, including a fervently hoped-for (by me, at least) stop in Chicago in November.  FUCK YES.  Ahem.  Check out the full list of tour dates here, and do not miss this heavy metal wizard if he’s swinging through your stomping grounds.

That’s all for now, friends.  Be good to each other, and please have a very heavy metal Wednesday.

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Devin Townsend, Physicist (2000)

Finally, some decent cover art

Released two years after the phenomenal Infinity album, Physicist may rank as one of the most Strapping Young Lad-ish albums in Devin’s solo career, which really shouldn’t be a surprise, given that this album has the EXACT SAME LINE-UP as Strapping Young Lad (Devin, Gene Hoglan, Byron Stroud, and Jed Simon).  If one were so inclined, one might even suggest that this is a bit like a hidden Strapping Young Lad record, given that SYL released no official album’s between 1997’s City and 2003’s SYL.  Fancy that.  Anyway, as a whole, this album does a nice job of walking a middle path between the spaciousness of Ocean Machine – Biomech, the general What-the-fuck?-ness of Infinity‘s genre-splicing approach, and the more straight-ahead industrial metal aggression of Strapping Young Lad.  Oh, and it’s also awesome.

“Namaste” kicks things off with a great burst of punky aggression, which is maintained through “Victim.”  These two tracks, plus the mid-album ripper “Death,” are some of the most intensely METAL moments in Devin’s solo career thus far.  The latter track, in particular, rather in keeping with its title, is the most face-shredding piece here, kicking off with the, ahem, soothing tones of Gene Hoglan blast-beating the shit out of your ears.  The weightier tone of some of these songs picks up in a slightly different fashion on “The Complex,” with its very martial ambient/industrial-sounding synths which sound most like tiny hammers striking a xylophone made entirely of anvils.

It’s not all sputtering rage here, however.  “Material” is the earliest stab at Devin’s fantastically pop-oriented songcraft on this album; this one especially nails its perfectly evocative chorus in such a way that I really want the track to go on forever, but it does its business and gets straight on with things.  Make sure you don’t miss the background vocal arpeggios on the second run-through of the chorus: pure bliss.

The track immediately following “Material,” “Kingdom,” is also absolutely dynamite, but in this case it works so well precisely because of its greater use of open space to contrast with the density and faster pace of most of the album’s shorter numbers.  “Kingdom” also features some of Devin’s most intense howling, fittingly over the lines “I’m fiiiiiiiine!

To these ears, “Irish Maiden” may be one of the only missteps on the album.  I think the rather jig-ish opening is somewhat annoying, but the track eventually redeems itself somewhat with some fantastic kick drum work from Hoglan and an excellent melodic bridge with some nice, thick riffing.

Devin Townsend is often discussed in terms of virtuosity, which I think is absolutely correct, but it’s important to note that much of the virtuosity on display here is not so much sheer instrumental prowess (you won’t find any brain-melting solos here, for example), but rather songwriting prowess.  This shows up generally in the fluidity of the arrangements, and the often complex (yet still straightforward-sounding) rhythms which are achieved through syncopation, or, in a few places (like “Victim” and “Jupter”), through a rhythm that relies on pick-up notes to give a quick, juddering attack to the start of the measure.  While we’re on the subject, “Jupiter” also has some really great rhythmic riffing on a 3/4 rhythm set against the slower 4/4 meter in the drums; instead of drawing attention to itself, though, this counterpoint technique comes across as extremely natural and smooth.

As many others have mentioned, the closing track “Planet Rain” is one of the most astounding songs on here.  While the rest of the album mostly trades in short, mostly compact pieces, this song is the lengthy and mostly melancholic counterpart to the pairing of “Life is All Dynamics” and “Unity” (from Infinity) or “Funeral”/”Bastard”/”Death of Music” (from Ocean Machine – Biomech).

The careful listener will have noticed, I imagine, the continuation of the rain motif from Ocean Machine’s “Death of Music” track here, and it functions as a really nice conceptual hinge.  This whole song is extremely evocative of a world completely wiped out and covered with never-ending rains.  This kind of apocalyptic imagery (even if it is largely self-conjured) matches up very nicely with Devin’s grandiose, highly theatrical and melodramatic (in the best way possible) style of songwriting.

When Devin sings,
“It’s quiet now, quiet now –
’cause it’s the end of world!
Quiet now, quiet now;
’cause it’s the end of the world!
,”
it really sounds like he’s having a conversation with himself: In the first two lines, he’s telling us the reason why it’s quiet now, but in the second two lines, because the “It’s” is dropped from the lyrics, it sounds like an invitation, or even a command, to be quiet now, at the end of the world.  I know this all sounds a bit goofy, picking apart these small aspects, but there’s something about this dude’s music that cries out for this level of emotional investment.  The whole track is fantastic, and needs to be heard in its entirety, but a favorite passage is right around the four-minute mark, where we finally get a simple, searing guitar lead to cut through the dense bundle of sounds and textures.

Eventually, the track fades out into the (rather appropriate) sound of rain falling, which transitions into the hidden track, called “Forgotten,” which is actually just a bizarre re-recording of “Bad Devil.”  This utterly strange new version of the Beatles-quoting (“She’s just 17, if you know what I mean…”) track from the Infinity album, closes things out in a rather odd manner, with its acoustic guitars draped in alienating drones and cymbal noise.

More than anything else, this actually sounds like some weird goth/blues/country tune, like you might find on a 16 Horsepower or mid-period Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album.  As is often the case with these hidden or bonus tracks on Devin’s solo albums, I usually listen to them all the way through, but since the album works so well as a holistic statement, I almost compartmentalize them in my mind, so that I don’t really think of this “Forgotten” song as belonging to the Physicist album.  Still, another brilliant entry into Devin’s solo discography, and a deeply emotive and powerful record.  Bang your head AND get the warm and fuzzies.

Overall rating: 93%.  Hear that truth again!

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Following quickly on the heels of the Ocean Machine – Biomech album of 1997, Infinity is the first album which was originally released by Devin Townsend as a solo project under his own name.  As remarkable as the Ocean Machine project was, it is really on this first ‘proper’ solo project that Devin’s twisted genius for epic, progressive metal bears full fruit.  Sure, we can all agree that Strapping Young Lad knew how to bring it in terms of utterly intense prog-tinged metal, but SYL always tilted towards the more aggressive and industrial side of things; it’s the solo Townsend, I think, which displays a much wider textural range and more varied songwriting.  Lest I deserve a swift bout of pummeling, I should hasten to add that Infinity features the monstrously-talented drumming of fellow Strapping Young Lad (har-har) Gene Hoglan, and thus has somewhat of a leg up on Ocean Machine from the start.

Not the handsomest man in metal

The album kicks off in fine form with “Truth,” a massively epic and overstuffed instrumental intro which, when it breaks the building tension at the end by jumping a fifth (I think) and holding that stringed synth tone over a cymbal roll, reminds me of nothing more than Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis.  Yeah, that’s right – fuckin’ Yanni, and it kicks ass, so step off (like I’m the only one who ever watched PBS in the 90s…).   The first proper song “Christeen” is quite a bit reminiscent of “Life” from the Ocean Machine album, in that it is one hundred percent a classically-structured pop song.  Both tracks also run perilously close to the cheesy (especially “Christeen”s Phantom of the Opera-quoting chorus), but “Christeen” redeems itself somewhat with that nice intense bridge and lead-in to the final go-around of the chorus.

Though the tendency was already somewhat evident in the Ocean Machine album, I find that it’s on Infinity where I really start to pick up on the duality of Devin’s musical personality.  On the one hand, the dude knows how to craft well-constructed songs – the old verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-etc-etc shtick – not all of which suffer from the overly pop-leaning sounds of the above-mentioned tracks.  On the other hand, he has a real knack for breaking up an album into more straightforward tracks and more experimental tracks – and moreover, that experimentation can just as easily take the form of ambient, gradually-building, and almost modal hymns (Devin Townsend’s Kind of Blue period, we could call it) as it can take the form of smashing as many disparate musical styles, instruments, and sounds into one rambunctious whole.

On the more straightforward tip, then, I’ve already mentioned “Christeen,” but “War” and “Soul-Driven Cadillac” fall somewhat into this camp as well.  The intro to “War” goes on far too long for my taste, but both tracks stomp along in this groove of modal suspension and form a solid backbone for some of the more experimental material that peppers the rest of the album – particularly “Bad Devil,” “Ants,” and “Wild Colonial Boy.”  I suspect that for many fans of Devin’s solo work, these extremely busy and chaotic songs are the primary draw, and I absolutely agree, except with the caveat that were it not for the counterpoint provided by some of the more straightforward (but no worse off for being so) songs, these insanely diverse tracks wouldn’t seem quite so batshit crazy.  As it is, though, “Bad Devil” picks up the slack dropped by “Christeen” in a MAJOR FUCKING WAY, featuring some awfully punchy riffing (in contrast to the diffused tone of a lot of the riffing on the rest of this album and many of Devy’s others) and some wicked horror theme synths (think The Munsters or The Addams Family).  Even better is when the track drops into a shuffling swing rhythm and highlights some jazz trombone and an almost rockabilly upright bass section.  Killer stuff.

“Ants” is another balls-out wacky song, which can only really be described as sounding like Dream Theater and Behold…The Arctopus jamming on a cover of “Hava Nagila,” so feel free to take that for what you will.  “Wild Colonial Boy” is another track somewhat in the model of “Bad Devil,” in that it oscillates between more straightforward metal components and distinctly non-metal genre sections.  In particular, “Wild Colonial Boy” careens between a quite catchy polka section and some of the most earnest-sounding vocal melodies of the entire record.  On this track, Devin’s vocals walk that absolutely perfect tightrope between soaring melodicism and winking melodrama, which will be one of the most winning features of his entire musical approach.

Regardless of what type of song he’s playing, part of the charm of Devy’s solo material is that, as is so often the case, these songs work so splendidly by manufacturing an overload – because Devin is an excellent producer, all of the individual layers of the sound remain distinguishable, but in most of these tracks, there is just so much going on that eventually the listener says, more or less, “Fuck it,” and decides to surrender to the waves upon waves of gorgeous noise.  The real trick, and one of the least replicable aspects of Townsend’s genius, is that this overload doesn’t feel confrontational (as in most actual noise music – Skullflower, I’m looking at you, you crazy fuck), but rather warm and inviting, like wandering into a thick forest in the middle of a thunderstorm – sure, you get a bit wet, but there’s shelter in there, and a real feeling of almost existential density.

For my money, the album peaks exactly where it should, with the final two tracks.  “Life is All Dynamics” is absolutely one of the best songs on here, and features some of Devin’s most heart-rendingly intense vocals.  I mean, seriously: Put on this song just about as loudly as you can handle, and I fucking dare you to not find yourself stomping around your house like a goddamned flesh-hungry velociraptor (or even a stegosaurus on a serious trip of plant withdrawal) in time to Devin’s hollering “LIFE! IS! ALL! DY-! -NAMICS!!!”  Science will soon prove it impossible.  The transition into the closing track, “Unity,” is also extremely classy; given the tension-building suspended outro of the preceding track (remember? You’ve just stopped thrashing [your dinosaur tail around] like a maniac [Jurassic Metallica – shit, I’ve just invented a crossover children’s cartoon & heavy metal hit]), the rich and mellow tones of this song are a perfect come-down.  Plus, I think there’s a nice bit of commentary done by book-ending the album with tracks called “Infinity” and “Unity,” which seems to be reflective of the type of worldview Devin often represents in his solo works (though here I’m especially thinking of “Triumph” from Synchestra, which, in the interest of full disclosure, is probably the best song that has ever been written).

The bonus tracks on the version of Infinity that I own, I don’t know, I could pretty much take them or leave them.  The track “Noisy Pink Bubbles” (which may or may not be Devin’s tribute to Helloween’s Pink Bubbles Go Ape – I prefer to think not…) is especially odd, with some child chorus vocals sounding straight out of Annie or some such musical, and clean electric guitar strumming over an almost “Lust for Life” drumbeat.  Also included are live acoustic versions of “Sister” and “Hide Nowhere” from the Ocean Machine album, which are nice for a change of pace, but although the latter especially features some nice vocals from a very closely-mic’ed Devin, it also drags a bit as an all-acoustic number.  There’s also an early band demo of a track called “Man” on here, which sounds, well, like a demo – decent enough, but kind of like an unfinished thought.  These bonus tracks, then, are mostly interesting curios for the true Townsend fanatic (which, truth be told, is me), but although this album thrives based on its disparate moods and sounds, I really think it is perfectly capped by “Unity,” so I typically end it there.

In comparing Infinity to Ocean Machine – Biomech, it seems pretty clear that Infinity explores a much broader range of sounds and moods, and does so in a much shorter running time.  Which one you prefer may just depend on what you’re looking for, although I find that Infinity edges out Ocean Machine by a non-trivial margin, and undoubtedly established Devin Townsend as one of metal’s most outstanding and relentlessly creative musicians.

Overall rating: 94%.  I STILL haven’t stopped crashing around my house to “Life is All Dynamics.”  Devin Townsend: Metal Genius Extraordinaire & Inducer of Perpetual Motion.  Take that, physics.

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This entry inaugurates my run through all the major releases of Devin Townsend’s solo career discography (though I am absenting myself from reviewing both Devlab and The Hummer, Townsend’s two completely ambient/drone releases).  Devin Townsend has long been one of the hardest working men in heavy metal, and absolutely one of the most talented, rating extremely highly in the categories of guitar playing, songwriting, singing, screaming, and producing; the fact that this, his first solo album (originally released under the name Ocean Machine with the album title Biomech), is so excellent is magnified approximately one million-fold when you stop to remember that 1997 was also the year in which Strapping Young Lad (Devin’s “proper” band, though now defunct) released their skullcrushing (and never topped, by themselves or any one else in industrial-tinged heavy fucking metal) beast of a sophomore album, City.  Dude’s pretty busy, I guess is what I’m saying.

Frankly shit cover art

As I already mentioned, although this eventually saw a reissue under Devin’s own name, it was originally released under the band name Ocean Machine.  This wouldn’t really matter much, except that the album actually sounds relatively different from most of Townsend’s other solo (or should we say solo-ish?) works.  To be fair, the differences are slight – it’s not like you’d throw this on and mistake it for Dream Theater, Malevolent Creation, or John Coltrane – but I think it’s still worth noting.  To my ears, the two biggest differences between Ocean Machine – Biomech and Devy’s other solo stuff are the songwriting and the placement of his vocals.  Though it doesn’t follow this outline perfectly, I’m going to suggest as a tentative argument that his solo works became gradually more intricate and complex over time, so that by the time we get to Synchestra, we’re hit with banjo breakdowns and tuba-led polka interludes.  Following this notion, then, it stands to reason that Ocean Machine – Biomech is among the simpler of Devin’s solo recordings; I will say that this is true, but that I don’t mean that by way of criticism.  This is, quite frankly, a tremendous album, and which I only hesitate to call astounding because it is exceeded in brilliance by a few of Townsend’s later solo albums (full discographic reviews to follow).

Much of this album is, as I’ve already suggested, relatively simple or straight-forward in comparison to later works; many of the songs (particularly from the album’s first two-thirds or so) are based around melodic yet rhythmic riff-figures (I wouldn’t quite call them “riffs,” per se) which are subsequently swathed in backing synths and multi-tracked choral vocals (most of which are provided by Devin himself).  One of the reasons this album stands apart from others by (or including) Townsend is that his vocals seem somewhat less upfront in the mix; they are still central, of course, but they blend in a bit more with the overall tone of the instrumentation than in other albums.  This tactic works extremely well in the context of this batch of songs, but because Devin’s vocals are one of the major attractions for me, I can’t help but prefer other albums in which the vocals are more centrally highlighted.

Of course it is a hopeless cliche when reviewing albums, but it really is true that the whole of Ocean Machine is much greater than the sum of its individual songs.  The effect that this music has, I would say, is less to impress with virtuosity or produce particular standout songs, and more to induce a particular mood of overwhelming calmness.  I know it seems counter-intuitive, because this IS a heavy metal album after all, but I think the overall tonal effect, which is furthermore amplified by the songwriting, is to induce a relatively sedate, nearly meditative state in the listener.  Because this is the case, I don’t feel that there are any tracks on here which absolutely jump out at the listener more than any others, although there are certainly moments that stand out.  I love the massively reverbed bass drum that carries the intro of album opener “Seventh Wave,” for example, and I particularly enjoy the overlapping of live drumming and programmed percussion on “Voices in the Fan,” which also features an outro featuring a choral chamber quartet singing what sounds like either sacred vespers or leftovers from some of Therion’s more recent studio shenanigans (Secret of the Runes – Lemuria/Sirius B, particularly).

The second track, “Life,” is a bit too bouncy, almost veering into a pop mawkishness, but this slight misstep soon fades from memory, given that the album’s first four tracks seem to function as a suite, each flowing smoothly into the next, and only really seeing closure with “Sister,” which surrounds its acoustic guitar in noisy harmonics and digital chatter.  In terms of notable songs, “Greetings” is really the first place to finally feature some truly epic, grandiose riffing and stirring chord progressions.  Think of these progressions as the polar opposite of the equally-stirring minor tri-tone riff which opens “Black Sabbath” (from Black Sabbath, by Black Sabbath – gotta love it); maybe these chords are Devin’s attempt to stretch back a helping hand to Ozzy in 1970, rescuing him from existential dread (“Oh no, no, please God help me!”).  “Regulator” is probably the heaviest song here, but it stays pretty midpaced throughout, and Devin’s highest-pitched screams are fairly muted in the overall texture of the piece.

I wouldn’t quite call this a concept album, but it definitely maintains some continuities throughout, both in the frequent use of samples and narration which hover just under the noise at the start and end of several tracks, as well (and especially) in the overall tonality.  It is, of course, another cliche to describe music in visual terms, but the fact that this album was originally recorded under the name Ocean Machine is no accident – the riffs employed, and the actual texture and wide-screen mixing of the guitar tone seem to mimic the rhythm and structure of waves and tides, and to evoke an extremely oceanic mood.  Sampling some actual waves and seagulls towards the end of “Funeral” doesn’t hurt this case, of course, but even penultimate (on the reissue, at least) track “The Death of Music,” which eschews metallic elements altogether, is for me extremely evocative of flight across the vast expanse of the sea.  Devin’s vocals begin with whispers and eventually gain in strength as the clear synth tones swell beneath him; by around the ten-minute mark, his clear wailing seems to channel his inner Bono, but honestly, I kept being reminded of Moby’s track “God Moving Across the Face of the Waters.”  The songs sound very little alike, but they both produced similar imagined landscapes for me.

If you’re looking to this album for individual songs, you will of course prefer the first one-half to two-thirds of the album (all the way up to “Regulator”).  Without meaning to downplay the strength of many of those songs, I actually prefer the second half of the album, and especially the eighteen-minute stretch of “Funeral” and “Bastard.”  Each song has its own notable components, but work in tandem to produce in a seemingly more intentional fashion the sort of meditative suspension and tonal calm that I have been arguing the album as a whole creates.  The bonus track, “Things Beyond Things” could be removed without damaging the whole, although I do think the instrumental opening of the track is a nice release from the somewhat anticlimactic ending of “The Death of Music,” which would be fine if it had restricted itself to just fading out with the soft, programmed percussion and spare sound effects (which were, actually, somewhat reminiscent of early 1990s ambient/IDM such as The Orb, or especially The Future Sound of London’s excellent Lifeforms album); instead, we get some more dialogue (which may be idle band chatter, or may be sampled from somewhere, I couldn’t quite tell) about a driving range on the sea or some such nonsense.  Kind of killed the mood for me at the end (speaking of which, the very end of the bonus track is not so quiet as it might seem as it fades out – goes to show that Devin maintains a healthy sense of humor even in this, which seems in many ways to be one of his more serious and straightforward solo endeavors).

Bottom line: Much of this review has probably sounded like damning with faint praise, which is really only the case because I think Devin’s later solo works got even better.  On its own terms, though, this is a very strong progressive/heavy metal record, and manages the quite impressive feat of being both busy and simple, complex and contemplative, heavy metal and (arguably) ambient.  This is hardly the first, and will definitely not be the last time I say this: Devin Townsend is my favorite musician in heavy metal, and you could do a lot worse for yourself than buying up every last damn thing he has done.

Overall rating: 92% (I was originally pegging it as an 85% or so, but listening again to those chord progressions in “Greetings” and “Funeral” [especially just after the “Jesus was a poor boy” lines] sends beautiful fucking chills down the spine.)

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