ATF Review: Devin Townsend – Ocean Machine: Biomech

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Rock
Released: July 21, 1997
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: All-Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik

Casualties Of Cool has been something I’ve been working on for years, a real passion project. Not since Ocean Machine (my first record) have I had the opportunity to do music for the sheer sake of the love of it. It represents a fair bit to me.

-Devin Townsend

Canada’s cult hero has had one hell of a career. He has built a wall of sound over the course of the last 18 years, dating back to Strapping Young Lad’s debut album, Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing. This was Devin’s first actual solo album (no, the Punky Bruster parody punk album doesn’t count as a solo album, although it is pretty goddamn funny). Much like his Casualties of Cool project, as well as Ziltoid The Omniscient, he had virtually no outside interference in the direction of his work for this album. Not that external influences, as limited as they were, have stopped him from coming up with some great albums, but this one takes the cake.

This is not a “metal” album in the textbook sense. Hell, this is barely metal at all. The only thing this can adequately be called without coming across as more masturbatory than this review is probably going to sound to most of you is that this is a progressive work of art. It spans too many genres to try and break down on the basis of an entire album. Indeed, this is going to be another one of those song-by-song reviews that many blogging editors hate. But if there ever was an album that deserved a track-by-track review as if I were calling a football game from the press box, it is this one.

Some openers in Devin’s albums, especially on Terria and Epicloud, are quirky in some way or another, and the first eighteen seconds of “Seventh Wave” is no exception. You’ll here a digitalized recording of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” that fits in perfectly with the ocean metaphor that this album portrays. What follows is a riff that starts somewhat lightly but builds up over the next 80 seconds into a powerful groove that carries on for the rest of the track. What I really like about this song is the final chorus, with a meticulously recorded multi-layer mix of Devin’s vocals coming in loud and clear through the rest of the track. Using one of many samples spread out during the album, it fades into “Life,” the upbeat, poppy track that should have been on the Billboard charts of 1997.

In A Dose Of Buckley’s list for the worst songs of 2013, he commented that the “worst year of music” would always be 1997. And let’s be honest, that year was pretty damn terrible in the world of pop (Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” did not qualify for this list, but it was released in 1997). But while everyone was trying to gouge out their eardrums with a pickax, they could have been listening to this weirdly worded song about the struggles of life and how humanity needs to gain a new perspective on a finite measurement of time. My favorite line in this track is easily “Wouldn’t you rather live it on your own, even when it bends you over?” It makes me chuckle every time I hear it because it just makes so much sense to me.

I consider “Night” to be the most underrated song on this album; it stands as one of Devin’s more dynamic vocal performances. The loopy synth melody also adds an element of catchiness to it. This track really kicks into gear at around the 2:15 mark, with a powerful Devin scream and a heavier guitar-driven melody behind it. There’s a breakdown of sorts before picking up once again. I also like the lyrics of this song; they come off as a reflective piece about being in a relationship that is both rewarding and utterly exhausting.

While the first three tracks, along with “Regulator,” are among the more straightforward tracks on this disc. The rest have a bunch of quirky features that will either be endearing to you or just turn you off; it is an exploratory album, after all. “Hide Nowhere” continues the string of upbeat tracks; this one starts with a triumphant beat and a great vocal line in the verses, but contains a vocal line in the chorus and bridge that initially turned me off to this song. I would say this track took me far more listens to appreciate than the rest of the album. The difference between tracks like “Hide Nowhere” and other songs that don’t initially register with me, however, is that the music is so good that I want to give it multiple chances because of its complexity. Amaranthe’s Massive Addictive simply did not register with me at all because there was nothing special about it that separates it from the field.

“Sister” and “3 a.m.” are mainly an ambient interlude with airy vocal melodies. “Sister” is propelled by an acoustic riff, while the latter is exclusively ambient with some unidentified voice samples slotted in. These are not tracks I would usually listen to on their own unless I were attempting to put myself to sleep, but fit well within the grand scheme of the album. The lyrics to both tracks are simple, yet poignant, especially in “3 a.m.” This fades into “Voices In The Fan,” which is one of the better examples of using screaming vocals as a melody that I have ever come across. Like “Hide Nowhere,” this took me a while to appreciate but I really like this track now. You may recognize the lyrics from the first verse as the same lyrics from “Color Your World” from Ziltoid The Omniscient. Perhaps the most unique feature of this track isn’t the aforementioned melodies, or the electronic rhythms that back up the more lush-sounding clean vocals later on, but the sampling of a choir piece from Orlando di Lasso. As if that wasn’t strange enough for a “metal” album, anyone who is fluent in Morse code might be able to understand the feint clicking that goes on during this minute-long section.

The guitar melody for “Greetings” is simply enchanting; it is the kind of riff that I could listen to for hours and not get bored with it in the slightest. And that’s a good thing, because this melody occupies much of the first half of this song, complete with a key change. The second half is also great, and much heavier, with more stellar vocal lines from Devin. The lyrics in this section are among my favorites of the album:

I believe we’ll lose our world for them/
I believe we’d throw up arms before them/
And bore them/
So call it home…

What does that mean? That’s anyone’s guess, but I like to think of it as an internal metaphor for sticking to your own principles and making the best with what you have. Different interpretations for different folks, right? “Regulator” is the conventional headbanger of this album, if such a thing exists. It’s one of the most fun songs to listen to on its own right (that title goes to Seventh Wave, which I played nightly before going to bed for upwards of a year), but also among the least memorable. This song makes a lot of sense for Devin to play in the live shows that he doesn’t headline, as it can get a lot of people into his music with how fun this song is to listen to.

The next four tracks could have easily been placed on their own album and we’d have been none the wiser; three of them are eight minutes or longer, and the closer is a great conclusion to this album. It starts with “Funeral,” a track that some prefer to be heard acoustically instead of its electric version on this album because it feels more emotionally charged in an intimate setting. As it stands, it’s already an emotional track that carries a religious metaphor with it. I particularly gravitate to the guitars in this track; they’re not overly technical in any way whatsoever, but I cannot imagine hearing anything else in place of them. The ending of this track is quite memorable, with more sample loops placed over ambiance and a rather ghostly guitar sound that segues into “Bastard.”

Technically split into two movements, I consider “Bastard” to be the best track in this album. It’s also somber, much like “Funeral,” without being depressing. It’s a 10-minute song that feels like four minutes. The first movement, “Not One Of My Better Days,” lasts about six minutes, while “The Girl From Blue City,” which seems to be about a prostitute, is only a slight variation from the first movement. I know this song (and album) is already long, but I would have liked to see this part explored for longer than it was. Regardless, it’s a great track to listen to on most occasions, something that most 10-minute songs can’t claim.

I don’t even know how to begin describing “The Death Of Music.” For starters, this is an electronic ambient track that carries no traditional percussion (except for a vibraslap and some other minor instruments) and very feint guitars. Secondly, this behemoth of a track is twelve minutes long. And lastly, Devin belts out some utterly impressive vocal lines that nobody else, with the possible exception of Mike Patton, can deliver. This is especially noticeable in the sections where Devin sings “It’s like a death becomes musical.” There’s another section between 5:40 and 6:30 in which Devin manages to make an effective use of whispering, and the four minutes that follows this is a stunning piece of music driven almost entirely by Devin’s vocals. Considering the fact that this beat is essentially a jazzless bossa nova that drones on for almost the entire track, this song is a work of art. Other excursions into ambiance from Devin haven’t done much for me, but this one nails it.

Lastly, we have “Things Beyond Things,” a track that picks up where “The Death Of Music” left off; it feels like the immediate aftermath of that track. This fits in with a more somber Alice In Chains track instrumentally, with Devin delivering some more gorgeous vocal lines. Look out for the vicious scream that occurs about 15 seconds before the track ends; it is an ear killer. Perhaps he put that scream there to exercise some demons or something, but it scared the crap out of me.

Many people have an album in their library that hit them like a ton of bricks, and they can’t put that album down for more than a week or so without feeling some kind of withdrawal symptoms, begging them to come back for more. For me, this is that album. I don’t listen to this album every day, but several times a month, I have to listen to it to remember why I love this so much. There’s so much going on; so many different moods, so many sounds, and so many genres being cooked in a big pot. It all comes together to form one of the most uniquely coherent albums that has ever been released.

Overall: From start to finish, a masterpiece.

Rating: 5.0*

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s