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Posts Tagged ‘Progressive Metal’

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.

—————————-

*** 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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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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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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