Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Sleep’

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!!!!!!”
————————

Here’s the video for “Vampira”:

Pretty much speaks for itself.

– Dan / ST

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Friends, I’ve got a bit of a bone to pick with stoner metal.  Sort of.

You see, it’s not that I actually have a problem with the music itself.  In fact, lately I’ve been listening to tons of the stuff: Sleep, Electric Wizard, Om, Kyuss, Boris, YOB, (old) Monster Magnet, Orange Goblin, High On Fire, even the stoner/grind histrionics of Cephalic Carnage (getting pumped for their new album).  I fuckin’ LOVE me some fat, juicy riffs wearing concrete boots walking a tightrope made of my corpus callosum.

Riff my face off, please

Thing is, what drives me totally fucking bonkers is the frequent claim one hears when talking with ardent fans of these drug-addled noisemakers: “You’ve never really experienced Such And Such An Album unless you’ve heard it stoned.”

Oh really?  Well, let me tell you, friend, that you’ve never really gotten the obituaries page of the New York Times unless you’ve read it while tweezing out your leg hairs and listening to Tom Jones.  I mean, you totally start, like, reading between the newsprint lines and seeing Victorian-era portraits of all the other dead people whispering recipes for minestrone.

Granted, I know that part of the rationale here is that if the band was under the influence of certain mind-altering substances during the creation of the music, then perhaps the fullest appreciation of said music can only be gained through achieving a similar mental state.  Fuck that shit.

Obviously, a lot of this kind of music is shot through with healthy doses (har har) of psychedelia, which typically means densely layered production with lots of different buried textures and widdly sound effects.  Seems to me, then, that what these lit-up listening enthusiasts are likely experiencing is a monomaniacal attention to one particular detail which seems somehow to overwhelm the rest of the musical palette and offer them some new, strange vista of drugged-out bliss or paranoia.

Well, folks, do me a favor and try out the same thing with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.  Listen to that bad boy for a while, stoned or not, and try to follow just one instrument through those winding, righteously spooky jams.  Not too different, really, from that one time you saw the Virgin Mary in your Doritos while zoning out to “Sweet Leaf.”  Or, to be more direct: It’s not about the drugs, it’s about how you listen, and I’m not willing to admit that “listening stoned” is a mode of listening distinct from any other.

More seriously, I think this claim is incorrect from two directions: objectively and subjectively.  As I’ve just suggested, from an objective perspective, I think that a lot of what goes on with stoners claiming that the music “speaks” to them differently when they’re stoned is simply an artifact of listening more intently to the music.  In fact, it may well be the case that the biggest difference between listening stoned and listening sober is that if you’re stoned and listening to music, chances are, you’re not doing much else, whereas I think it can generally be agreed that most people’s listening (sober) habits have become but one aspect in a multi-tasking three-ring circus.  In that case, if we sober folks were just sitting down to really listen to something, without doing anything else, we might find that it’s the act of focusing that yields notably deeper results.

From the completely opposite end of the argumentative spectrum, though, I would respond to these stoned-music-is-better-music partisans with an argument for a completely subjective, relativistic approach to music.  That is, no one person’s listening experience can ever approximate any other person’s listening experience because of the multitude of prejudices, experiences, knowledge, preferences, and attitudes that inform and color our ability to hear certain things.

Which is to argue not that a sober person can experience the exact same depth of appreciation for music as the stoned person (which is what I’m calling the ‘objective’ argument), but rather that two people, stoned on the same herbs or buzzed on the same drinks, listening to the exact same music, will never hear that music the same way.  Neither will two sober people.  Listening to music is necessarily an intensely personal, interiorizing phenomenon which cannot be shared, no matter how socially it is pursued.

So, sure, friend, I will perhaps grudgingly admit that I will never hear Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone the same way you heard it, through a cloud of smoke or a labyrinth of acid dreams, so long as you admit that you will never hear Dopethrone the way I heard it, sitting on my couch reading a book, or driving in my car to get my tires rotated.  Either everyone can hear it the same, or no one can hear it the same; I’d like to think it’s both.

I should clarify: this is not coming from some puritanical anti-drug perspective.  Feel free to ingest, inject, or imbibe whatever you like; that’s not what this is about.  Rather, this is about a bunch of folks trying to fuck with my ability to appreciate music, and THAT’S what’s likely to get me feeling awfully witch-burny, awfully fast.

Read Full Post »