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Archive for the ‘Progressive Metal’ Category

Have you been flinching as much as I have on this trip into the time when words were small, and ambitions smaller, and opinions surprisingly timid?  Have you recalled the follies of your own former selves in the process, or has the calcifying march of time so blotted the stains of memory as to render them fuzzed and vaguely pleasant?

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Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)

Still some of the coolest fucking album art in, like, ever

Certainly among the most highly anticipated releases of 2004, Mastodon’s sophomore full-length Leviathan has already been subjected to endless hyperbole, so I will do my best not to add to the prattle.  As in any case where the expectations are so high, it is inevitable that many will be disappointed with Leviathan.  Those who are most likely to be disappointed, however, are those who were expecting Mastodon to release Remission – Pt. II, with little or no alteration to their already crushing and well-developed style.  Instead of treading water (pun only slightly intended), however, Mastodon has incorporated more melody, especially into the vocals – which are no longer hoarse barks, but rather tuneful bellows – and has polished the production up a bit.  Neither of these developments, though, has made their overall sound any less punishing.

Despite these modifications, Leviathan may be easily compared to Remission due to the fact that Mastodon has again written an incredibly strong group of songs, and simply plays the hell out of them.  Brann Dailor’s drumming is still the most easily recognizable and unique facet of their sound, as he whips through churning, chaotic rhythms with a subtlety and understated flair borrowed from jazz and progressive rock.  “Blood and Thunder” and “I Am Ahab” kick off the album furiously, while introducing the aquatic theme (much of it taken from Melville’s Moby Dick) of the record.  Far from being a mere pretentious bid for intellectual and musical depth, Mastodon’s sound is indeed massive enough to deserve the theme it claims, easily evoking visions of monstrous creatures rising from the watery deep to feed on the hearts and flesh of man.

Other album highlights include “Naked Burn,” in which Mastodon’s new found sense of melody is used to great effect; “Aqua Dementia,” which features throat-tearing guest vocals by Scott Kelly of Neurosis; and the positively epic “Hearts Alive,” which is able to suggest both crushing weight and transcendent beauty, as a ray of sunlight pierces the murky abyss.  Throughout Leviathan, Mastodon’s playing is fluid, inspired, and inspiring.  Although this attempt to avoid hyperbole has clearly failed, this is one band whose hype and acclaim is more than well-deserved, given that over the course of just two full-length albums they have managed to discover new ways for heavy metal to be heavy.

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Dry, right?  Although there’s probably something to be said in favor of this more straightforward writing style.  Generally folks aim to get less pretentious as they age, but I seem to by doing my utmost and damnedest to reverse that pernicious trend.  Don’t encourage me, then; I’m incorrigible.

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Nevermore, The Obsidian Conspiracy (2010)
— Reviewed in the style of Ernest Hemingway —

The man looked at the picture and looked away and ordered another drink.

The hotel was loud and there were already a lot of people there.  The man pulled out a chair and sat down at the hotel bar.  He found the barman and ordered a pink gin.  Like the sailors used to drink, he thought.  A band was playing already when he sat down.  Most of the tables in the lounge were full.  Couples talking, lots of men clapping each other on the back.  The man thought he didn’t need any of that.  There would be time for that.

He thought about “This Godless Endeavor.”  He looked out the window.  A train pulled slowly out of the station, and a table of well-dressed young people across the bar from the man talked loudly about skiing.  Five years is a long time, the man thought, and maybe those fond memories were all wrong anyway.

“Turn to the left, turn to the right.”  The man did not listen.  The band played a chorus, almost like it was played from another room.  It played major, dipped minor.  The man thought he heard something.  Then it was gone.  He ordered another drink.  “Is this soliloquy or psychosis, or self-hypnosis?”  The barman must have left the radio tuned to a motivational program.  The man finished his drink, and watched the ice slowly become water in the glass.  He breathed out.

The band at the bar only wanted to play some crowd-pleasers.  The musicians kept pushing the lounge singer out of the way, so he pushed back.  He seemed a little tight, the pusher.  Squinted his eyes to look serious.  Too many damned words, the man thought.  As if each additional syllable made the sloganeering more effective.  The man glanced out the window.  The train was gone, and a listless breeze swept across the plain.

He listened to the band play “The Termination Proclamation.”  He listened, and then remembered her:

“He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks.  He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.  Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking.  He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people.  They were all waiting reasonably for the train.  He went out through the bead curtain.  She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said.  ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.  I feel fine.’”***

How do you ‘abandon someone with scorn’, the man thought?  It’s all damned worthless anyway.  The barman dropped his mixing glass, and set his rag down to clean up the mess.  The lounge singer had recovered his poise, and was singing a slow song.  The man asked the bartender to turn down the radio.  The barman didn’t hear.

Most everyone had left the bar by now.  Empty tables weighed down with half-spilled glasses and uneaten food.  An older woman in evening-wear sat staring at the band.  She seemed to project a sense of feeling the music deeply, deeply.  The band’s set was only forty-five minutes, but they had lost some of their sheet music.  One of the players ran through some fast solos while the band sat back.  Maybe it was a saxophone?  The man was not interested.  The sparse crowd listened.  The man sat at the bar, thinking about lousy conversationalists who always steer a polite topic into ornate, self-serving directions.

The band played an encore, ‘Temptation.’  No one had requested it.  The man put down his drink.  It had soured.  The lounge singer bounced his voice around.  Even the well-dressed woman looked uncomfortable.  The rest of the band would not meet the others’ eyes.

The barman came back and tried to get the man another drink.  The man started to order another gin but then ordered a scotch.  “Say, this is some band,” said the barman.  “Yes, some band,” the man replied.  He balled a napkin in his hand.  “Don’t you like the music?” asked the barman, drying off some glasses with lime peels still stuck on them.  “Yes,” the man said.  He took another drink of the scotch.  It tasted like smoke and honey.  “No,” he added.  “It’s very nice music, but I don’t give a damn.  I just don’t like it at all.”  He paid the barman and pushed back his chair and walked out of the hotel and toward the train station.  He looked back.  The band inside was just finishing and those people still at the tables were still talking and laughing.  Maybe they were talking about snow and ski lifts and hot cider and good times but the man stopped looking back and put up his collar and his shoes echoed loudly on the ground.

There would be plenty of time to catch the next train at the station so the man thought about “This Godless Endeavor” again and shook his head and couldn’t remember what he meant to do.  The man hoped the band found the music they had lost.  He put his hands in his pockets and turned the corner and whistled a song he didn’t like.  He saw another train far in the hills and he closed his eyes and he kept walking and the train off in the distance went behind another hill and was gone.  He kept walking.

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*** Just in case the jarring contrast from my piss-poor imitation didn’t make it obvious enough, this passage in full quotation is taken directly from Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”  This quote taken from my copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigia Edition, 1987, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., p. 214.  Let’s just say, shall we, that the Hemingway story likely shares its subject matter with Nevermore’s “The Termination Proclamation.”  You tell me which source deals with its theme more deftly, yeah?

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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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Hello, friends.  Not too much is shaking ’round Spinal Tapdance HQ today, but I was thinking that maybe I’d like to send a mixtape to each and every one of you.  But then, of course, real life intrudes.  Logistics, &c.  The mind boggles.

So, please accept this poor substitute; namely, a “mixtape” in the form of a whole mess of YouTube links.  Still, these are some of the jams that have been helping me beat the heat around here.  Enjoy!

1. Amorphis – “The Castaway” (1994)

2. Dream Theater – “Stargazer” (Rainbow Cover) (2009, original 1976)

3. Sleep – “Dragonaut” (1993)

4. Unearthly Trance – “God Is A Beast” (2008)

5. Swans – “I Remember Who You Are” (1989)

6. Devin Townsend – “Material” (2000)

7. Madder Mortem – “Formaldehyde” (2009)

8. Anaal Nathrakh – “Do Not Speak” (2004)

9. Neurosis – “Locust Star” (1996)

10. Nick Drake – “Cello Song” (1970)

Please have a (mostly) 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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