ATF Review: Devin Townsend – Terria

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: August 22, 2001
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: All-Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik 

I am going to refer to Devin Townsend’s commentary of Terria several times while dissecting this album, in part because it is incredibly insightful, and also because he just seems kind of downtrodden while talking about it. It’s clear that there is a lot of emotion put into this record, as the least amount of insight he provides on the commentary is towards the lyrics, which he did not want to talk about at all because they are “too personal.” He talks about the imminent loss of close family members, as well as his dog, Happy, who was not doing well, and leaves it at that. There are also several references on this record to Devin’s bipolar diagnosis and his adjustments to it in the years leading to this record.

Given its somewhat dark and emotive nature, Terria could be labeled as a “mood” album. For example, let’s say that you’re in your 20’s, and you one day have an epiphany that your job is a dead end. The only thing you want to do is quit and go as far away as humanly possible, doing just about anything else, but you can’t. As a result, you search for some fitting music to help you cope with it. And this album absolutely nails it. In spite of its “moody” label, many of these songs are fully capable of standing on their own, especially “Tiny Tears,” “Earth Day,” and “Deep Peace.”

The introduction, “Olives,” can only fit in the context of the full album. It is mostly ambient, as if it were set in a spooky old-time lounge. A creepy voice-over offers you a martini (stirred, not shaken) with an olive. There is a rather heavy but plodding buildup at the end that signifies the “official” start of the album. Again, this is entirely avoidable if you’re just looking for single songs, but in the context of the full album, it sets the stage for a bizarre journey, and “Olives” is a bizarre introduction that would be very difficult to pull off on other albums.

This segues into “Mountain,” which begins with an explosion and some surprisingly harsh growls. I consider this track to be among the most underrated tracks in Townsend’s discography; it’s every bit as heavy as “Spirituality” from City, with an absolutely sublime chorus that can be heard about a minute in, before we hear a lengthy instrumental passage that is relatively minimalistic in comparison to some of Devin’s other long jam sessions. In the midst of this, there is a vocal passage with no lyrics that grabs your attention, and a bunch of abstract samples in the mix that include Happy howling while begging for food in an attempt to “immortalize him on record.” The lines where Devin screams “It’s just another mountain” at the end are also excellent.

Following a brief interlude at the end of “Mountain” that includes some more samples, “Earth Day” comes in much like the former: Heavy as all get-out with a somewhat sinister feel to it. And yet I can’t really decide what to make of the lyrics; in the commentary, Devin says the lines “Eat your beets, recycle/Don’t eat your beets, recycle” are about making a choice and sticking with it. There’s also another rather puzzling lyric, sung with no instrumental accompaniment: “And music…well, it’s just entertainment, folks!” Make of that what you will. My interpretation, given his somber commentary, is that music is just an outlet of expression and shouldn’t be taken so seriously. And here’s me, doing the exact opposite. C’est la vie.

Clocking in at 9:35, “Earth Day” doesn’t let up for a second, as it is quite heavy from start to finish. Devin’s vocal performance on this entire track should go down as one of his best, as it gives one of the widest single-track examples of what he can do, ranging from calm, to operatic, to screaming. Meanwhile, the widely-renowned Gene Hoglan provides some of his finest drum work on this track.

“Deep Peace” has one of the more calm beginnings of this album. It eventually builds up, only to be interrupted by a lush instrumental section in which Townsend plays a relaxing melody over limited instrumental backing. In particular, the section at 3:30, which boasts a soaring melody and some supporting cymbals, is almost guaranteed to grab the listener’s attention. The lyrics in this track come across as saying that it is perfectly acceptable to retreat from everyone else and focus on you as a person for a while before trying to solve everyone else’s problems. Who can’t relate to that?

The next track, “Canada,” fits Devin’s description of this album being partially written as a result of taking a closer look at his home country during a recent tour, which would explain this intriguing line: “It’s oil, it’s wheat; it’s soil, it’s beef.” As a stand-alone song, it’s really good. Stack it up against the top tracks from recent albums such as Epicloud and this would easily be among the best on that album. Here, however, it feels only slightly out of place. What does fit in is the ending instrumental outro, along with the fifteen seconds of French samples at the very end.

Looking for a break from the not-so-uppity lyrics? Good news! “Down And Under” is a rather happy instrumental. It seems like it was slotted in as a bit of a break, and I’m fine with that because it’s a fun track. Cue “The Fluke,” with an intro that reminds me of “Closer To Free” by the Bodeans. The intro riff is where the similarities end; lyrically, they couldn’t be any more different:

I am a fluke in the world/
I haven’t spoken a single word/
I’ll have to wade through the bullshit/
Baby just to find my own vision of pearl…

Somehow, this feels more like a triumph against the world’s curveballs than a downer. The two minutes of ambient music following the main track are quite interesting, particularly the section with the pulsating bass beat with some guitars buried deep within the mix. “Nobody’s Here” is exactly as depressing as it sounds. Much like “Canada,” it’s more than adequate as a song, but is right up there with “Olives” as a song I almost always skip unless I am listening to the full album.

Terria‘s main triumph is “Tiny Tears,” a track that feels somber yet empowering at the same time. Essentially breaking down the anatomy of an existential crisis, everything about this track is a shining example of how music can be powerful without being “metal.” Especially of note is a complete wankfest of a solo played over the simplest drum beat in history and an even simpler bass line. There is also a part where Devin chants “Kyrie eleison” to himself before the outro that is quite poignant.

The closer, “Stagnant,” comes off as a purge of the negativity, as it is the most lyrically and musically upbeat tune on this album. It could easily be placed into Sky Blue and nobody would bat an eye. “Humble,” meanwhile, is a typical pre-DTP goof-off track that features an ambient loop. Relaxing, but nothing special.

As a whole, this is an absolutely massive record in terms of its production. It’s less “noisy” than Infinity and Deconstruction, but right about on par with Ocean Machine in the way it’s mixed. One of the reasons why this album resonates with me so much, as with most of Devin’s other albums, is because it reflects the experiences he was dealing with at the time. At one point, Devin says in the commentary:

“A lot of it was trying to teach myself patience, because I have none. With this one, I didn’t try to push it even though I was excited about getting the record finished. I was like ‘no. Just get it done on its own time. Be happy with the progressions that you make, but there’s always more to be made so just take it easy and let it flow.’ And I think it worked to a certain degree.”

He goes on to talk about how he escaped reality and entered a fantasy world from ages 19-27 (as “Tiny Tears” points out, Townsend was 29 during this album’s recording), and how this album was based around snapping out of that fantasy world and learning about the perils of the real world. There is no questioning the effort that was put into this, and it clearly shows in the end product. Is Terria Devin’s magnum opus? It depends on who you ask. I know some Devin Townsend fans who enjoy almost all of his discography but cannot get into this album. Others will claim that no other albums compare to Terria and the mood it creates. From my standpoint, there are four complete gems (Earth Day, Mountain, Deep Peace, and Tiny Tears), a bunch of good tracks (Olives and Humble are great ways to open and close this album; Canada, The Fluke and Down And Under are all great tracks on their own) and two that I feel mixed about (Nobody’s Here and Stagnant) that I still like from time to time. That’s a pretty good success rate.

Overall: While it doesn’t top Ocean Machine, it may leapfrog Accelerated Evolution depending on how I’m feeling that day. Ranking the All-Time Favorites should be interesting when the time comes.

Rating: 4.5*


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