ATF Review: Strapping Young Lad – Alien

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Extreme/Industrial Metal
Release: March 22, 2005
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: All Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik

Most fans of Devin Townsend know that he was diagnosed as bipolar, which is a plausible explanation for the drastic changes of sound in his music. On one side, there’s the mellow, introspective side that dabbles with flutes, electronic ambiance and even a banjo. And on the other side, there’s…well, this.

In order to prepare for Strapping Young Lad’s fourth album, Townsend went off his bipolar medication to create a crazier, more extreme sound. Well, he and his team of assassins in Gene Hoglan, Jed Simon and Byron Stroud, as well as DTP member Dave Young completely nailed it. From start to finish, this is pure insanity, even by Strapping Young Lad’s already-high standards. Alien contains the most over-the-top lyrics Townsend had recorded to that point (Ziltoid and Deconstruction may have a claim to the overall title, but they were both recorded after this). As for the wall of sound that one would expect to hear in a Devin Townsend album, it’s not only present and accounted for; it’s overwhelming at times in a good way, although it may not necessarily be a good thing for everyone. 

“Imperial” fits the bill as yet another short, bombastic SYL opener, on par with “Velvet Kevorkian.” It gets especially intense towards the end, following the first of many monstrous, piercing screams. “Skeksis” is the most “dense” track; following a long instrumental intro, I couldn’t even begin to guess how many layers there are. Vocals are layered on top of each other like an ice cream cake stacked with a gallon of (high quality) Neapolitan ice cream on top, with several different shades of hot fudge beneath multi-colored sprinkles. It is the longest track other than “Info Dump,” and there’s so much going on I’m surprised it didn’t burn past that song’s twelve-minute length. 

The insanity continues with “Shitstorm,” starting quickly with a monstrous “oh you bastard!” scream from Townsend. The lyrics just get more bizarre from there, basically detailing life as a bipolar individual on less-than-legal drugs in a completely over-the-top way. Towards the end is one of the few mellow moments on the album before kicking into the marching rhythms of “Love?” While I like this song as it stands, there’s an extended version that adds even more to this than the album version, and since the album is under 55 minutes in length, I’m not sure why this extended take wasn’t included on the album and just shortened for the single/video. 

While “Shine” would have been the second or third-best song on the self-titled album or The New Black, it goes down as an average song on this one, although the second half of this is exceptional. “We Ride” is by far the shortest song other than “Imperial,” with a quick and thrashy feel. It contains the only guitar solo, as well as this interesting exchange Devin has with himself (emphasis added):

What the fuck was that!?

I’m being completely rational.

I’m not yelling! 

In any relationship there has to be compromise, and God knows every one of them has baggage. I know I have my issues, and we know you have yours. 

Much like “Love?” and “Shitstorm,” the lyrics are completely over the top, but contain some surprisingly insightful passages. This isn’t material you would want to show your kids (if you’re looking for educational metal, try SabatonIron MaidenHail Of Bullets, or any number of bands that include lyrics about military history in their music), but there is some reflection-worthy material here nonetheless.

“Possessions” is a song which poses the dilemma of whether or not one should procreate. Again, completely over the top, and with a female choir in the chorus to boot. I rate this song similarly to “Shine” in that it would be an amazing song on most other SYL albums but is merely just okay on this one. “Two Weeks” is the only track without any heavy elements to it, and makes for a relaxing listen.

“Thalamus” erases that feeling of relaxation in short order with a towering riff and an explosion of sound. “Zen,” which I consider to be the album’s closing track, is similarly pummeling, but much faster. The scream Townsend delivers in the bridge would wake Walt Disney from his cryogenically frozen state if he heard it. Following these two amazing tracks comes a 12-minute “song” called “Info Dump.” It’s full of electronic noise and distortion with a few largely unintelligible samples thrown in. I guess the point of this track was to “purge” all of the internal noise out of Devin’s system and return to a healthier mental state. But purely from a listener’s standpoint, it’s a good thing this is at the end so that it can be easily skipped.

I’ve been asked before whether I think Alien or City is Strapping Young Lad’s best album, and I honestly can’t answer that. They’re two completely different releases that feel different from each other. I have to be in the right mood to enjoy this particular record, while City is easier to sit through on any given day. I would probably rate City higher by a slight margin, but at the end of the day, they’re both worthy inclusions into the All Time Favorites.

Overall: Not for everyone, but those who enjoy extremely heavy music with decadently produced layers will love this.

Rating: 4.5*

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