ATF Review: Devin Townsend Band – Synchestra

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal/Rock
Released: January 20, 2006
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – All Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik

This is the first of many “All time favorites (ATF)” reviews that I will release once a week, almost always on Mondays. What better way to beat Mondays into submission than by listening to a classic album, right?

In order to qualify into the ATF series, an album will have to have at least a 4.5 rating and therefore be a likely inclusion into a top 50 all-time list, which will be made once more of these reviews are done. This will not be Devin Townsend’s last appearance in this series; there’s still Accelerated EvolutionCityAlienTerria, and likely all-time No. 1 album Ocean Machine: Biomech. But out of all of Devin’s albums, I have recently been listening to Synchesta the most, so I figured I would start there.

There’s a few things to note before I begin breaking down this album: The prototypical Devin Townsend “wall of sound” is still there. I would have made a million references to this throughout the review, but it would have been both redundant and already implied based on the premise that it is, in fact, a Devin Townsend album. Secondly, unlike the later Devin Townsend Project albums or Ziltoid, there is no constant lyrical concept here. However, there are several lyrical and music references to the final two Strapping Young Lad albums, and aside from one particularly strange song, the lyrical content here is quite stellar. Lastly, this isn’t a straightforward metal album; like many Hevy Devy albums, there is no one definitive “genre” or “style” this album can be labeled as and often hops around the spectrum during each song.

“Let It Roll” and “Hypergeek” could best be described as a two-track intro. The former is a calm, acoustically-styled number with some interesting lyrics:

Because in time, it goes away/
Time proves nothing stays/
The time for change has ended/
It loves you still but I never will again.

I like these lyrics quite a bit; they represent moving on from something/one, realizing that time will not wait for them. Sure, there are breakup lyrics all over the Top 40 landscape, but they aren’t well-put together and are usually repetitive. That is far from the case here; Devin makes his point and moves on to the next thing. “Hypergeek” is an instrumental number that is more uptempo. The first “heavy” moment, a crushing burst of sound with pummeling drums leading the way, happens a little before the midway mark. As heavy as this section is, it never loses its positive energy.

“Triumph” takes a while to build up but is more than worth the wait; we get the first taste of Devin’s operatic vocals, as well as some of his lower register vocals, within the first two minutes. The “chorus,” if it can be called that, is short, but powerful: “One word: Collective. Mankind, collective.” There’s even a country breakdown and a long Steve Vai guest solo, and I still consider this to be the third-or-fourth best song on Synchestra.

The lyrics to “Babysong,” aside from being a reference to “Possessions” off of Alien, are completely hilarious:

Why don’t you have a baby/
Why don’t you have a child/
Babies are good/
And part of humanity’s charm.

And this is just the first verse. Silliness aside, I consider this song to be “lush pop” with a lot of great moments. The highlight comes later on in the form of a gorgeous piano triplets pattern that give way to one of the most brutal non-SYL bursts of sound in Devin’s discography.

“Vampolka” is exactly as one would expect: A silly, brief polka tune that sounds slightly like some kind of parody of a haunted house. It’s nothing special but is nonetheless a fun little track that serves as the intro to the most straightforward metal song on Synchestra in “Vampira.” Lyrically, it’s also silly; “Vampira” is apparently some kind of female vampire that feeds off of hatred. At any rate there’s still quite a bit going for it, most notably some amazing Devin screams and operatic clean vocals.

“Mental Tan” serves as an intro to “Gaia” and is an exercise into ambient landscaping. The best part of this intro is the series of electronic pulses that bounce around from channel to channel. “Gaia” is an all-around fantastic song that arguably features Ryan Van Poederooyen’s best drumming since joining the Devin Townsend Band in 2003 with ghost snares galore and a lot of unique drum patterns. The bass is also very prominent here, especially in the intro. The huge instrumental section that occupies much of the midsection is especially stellar from about 3:25 to 4:15, with a gorgeous guitar melody leading the way. Devin’s lower register vocals also shine here, layered off of each other with sterling results. If I had to pick one gripe about this song, the outro is a little bit too long, but it’s a minor nitpick.

My absolute favorite song on here is “Pixillate,” which I consider to be in a group of three consecutive songs with “Judgement” and “A Simple Lullaby.” All three songs are mostly in 3/4 time and are very exploratory. But what separates “Pixillate” apart from all the others on Synchestra,” aside from the slight Middle Eastern tinge in the intro, is the building tension that comes to a head in a big way towards the end before decompressing. It also features a stellar verse featuring a mystery female vocalist:

(Female) You are the rainbow/
You are the sun to my chameleon/
(Devin) We are the river/
We are the stone/
(Female) And you’re never alone, while you’re feeding the crux of the you/
You brave Arcadian!

If you’re looking for a comparison, I would say this track is similar to “Deadhead” off of Accelerated Evolution, but more vocal-oriented and with an amazing outro. The beginning riff to “Judgement” is nearly identical to “Polyphony” from The New Black. It starts relatively calmly before before this section crushes the listener:

(Screaming): I know you’re on the never-ending plane/
(Clean): Don’t you ever try to sever, or you’ll never try again/
(Screaming): Now shame on you, for nobody’s free from sin/
Now you burn, burn, burn; let the feeding time begin!

What follows is a nice instrumental section that eventually shifts back into 4/4 time without losing its flow before segueing into “A Simple Lullaby,” which is a rather misleading title for this quasi-instrumental. Returning to 3/4 time, it’s a continuation of “Judgement” with an brief redux of a riff from “Pixillate.” There are two “big rock ending” explosions at the end which could have just as easily been recorded at a concert instead of the studio. It’s not one of the best songs on here, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

“Sunset” is a short and upbeat instrumental with cross-sticking and more ghost snares, and some nice ambient vocals to go with it. “Notes From Africa” concludes the album proper with a driving rock groove with lyrical references to “Love” from Alien.  As you might have guessed, it has a slight African feel to it but is more of a complimentary factor than anything else. Reminiscent of “Planet Rain” from Physicist, it ends on a long, rainy outro.

“Sunshine And Happiness” is nothing more than a poppy Devin song. Most of the bonus tracks that ended Devin’s pre-DTP albums were goof sessions and this is no different, but it has a positive vibe to it with nice enough lyrics and isn’t too long to do any serious harm.

Overall: Filled with highlights and is extremely diverse.

Rating: 4.5*

Bonus Thoughts: The music video for Vampira is guaranteed to make you smile. If you’re looking to improve your dance moves, 1:48 and 2:48 is especially of interest to you.

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