Devin Townsend

Devin Dissection: Transcendence

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: September 9, 2016
Format Reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

“I really wanted to knock (Transcendence) out of the park in terms of, this is what I’m trying to do with DTP. It may not be as vital as Ocean Machine, because that’s not where my mind is at, but all those things that make it what it is are in place now. I was able, through a real conscious decision, to exercise and go do a bunch of things that are outside of my comfort zone. I was able to really get some great material, emotionally, to draw from. And the whole record, Transcendence, is about getting over it and moving past it. It’s still there. It’s great. But dude, what are you going to write about next? I’ve exhausted the whole alien-coffee-drinking-puppet angle.”

-Devin Townsend in an interview with Greg Hasbrouck, found in the ProgPower USA XVII festival magazine.

First of all, let me begin this review by saying that if you live in the US and did not see the greatness and/or hilarity that was Devin’s performance at ProgPower with Anneke van Giersbergen, you missed out. But you can look at some behind the scenes shenanigans thanks to the tour’s daily mini-documentaries.

I’ve been out of the album review scene for a few months while working on other stuff (read: actual work, unfortunately), but reviewing Devin’s music as an unabashed yet objective fanboy is something that I can always get out of bed for. I’ve been listening to the album in some capacity or another frequently for the last two weeks, and now that I have officially received the CD and put it in FLAC (and listened to it another six times), I think it’s time to break this thing down properly.

The super-short version of this review would be to say that Transcendence is an amalgamation of Epicloud and Sky Blue that results in a marked upgrade over both albums. The former has this bombastic element to it but occasionally fizzles out (like on Divine, for example), while the latter is a solid effort with a melancholic atmosphere that hasn’t held up over dozens of listens as well as other Devin albums have. I think Transcendence has the right blend of bombast and dreamscape atmosphere to go along with a master-craft production across the board.

That blend is exemplified on “Stormbending,” a track that I haven’t been able to go more than a few hours without listening to since I first got it. With the winding instrumental that carries the girth of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the delightful and soothing tones of Devin’s vocals on the verses, and his operatic vocals put on full display in the outro, I can say with full confidence that this would make the top twenty list of best Devin Townsend’s songs if it were drawn up today, an achievement that should not be taken lightly.

Not far behind that beautiful track in terms of quality is “Higher.” Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, it essentially starts off as “Grace” before turning into Devin’s proggiest track since the release of Deconstruction. A walking, talking highlight reel in its entirety, some of the best parts include:

  • The screamed “I, the destroyer!” section at about 4:15, as well as the directly contrasting “change direction” section starting at 4:55.
  • The breakdown starting at 6:05 that leaves the entire track hanging in suspense before Devin comes in with a lyrical callback to “Fallout.”
  • The instrumental section that comes in at 7:27 that sounds a bit like the end of the intro to “Love” by Strapping Young Lad. Am I the only person who hears it? Regardless, I love that sound.

And then there’s the chorus, where the drums and guitar get heavier with each progression. “Higher” is truly a stellar track for anyone that has the patience to invest ten minutes into a song (dozens of times).

The title track took a while to grow on me; it begins with a march beat and takes quite a while to build up with a male choir before Devin asks that poignant question: Who transcends this? Sung in an operatic voice slightly lower than the ending of “Stormbending,” the chorus is great, but that’s not what makes this song stand out; it’s the ending over the final 1:15 that is relentless and makes the prolonged buildup much more meaningful to me.

Anneke van Giersbergen is used much more sparingly in this album than she was on any of her previous three appearances with the Devin Townsend Project, as she is mostly relegated, albeit with great effect, to providing vocal fills and ambiance in songs like “Secret Sciences” and the ending to “Stars.” But she does get one song on lead vocals; “Offer Your Light” is the “Silent Militia” of the main disc. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about cheese; whereas Silent Militia was kind a revamping of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead Or Alive, Offer Your Light is more of a power metal number that, like Silent Militia, is extremely difficult to get out of my head. Anneke sounds excellent here, even with rather simplistic lyrics, but the production around her blends marvelously with her voice.

The final two tracks could be where the album falters for some people; they combine to take up 16:50 in length and nine of those minutes are ambient sections that close out each song. To top it off, one song is a cover and the other is essentially an 80’s ballad that borrows its structure from a Hindi meditation track by Krishna Das. And yet, both tracks still have some solid moments; the chorus and outro to “From The Heart” is sung in Hindi with a beautiful vocal line that is inescapable. What follows the prolonged final chorus is a luscious ambient jam that was apparently done in one take and is worth a few listens.

“Transdermal Celebration” is easily the least interesting track on the album, this in spite of the fact that I am quite partial to Ween. It’s a fun way to close off the main disc, but otherwise doesn’t do all that much for me. The best part of this track is the ambiance that comes after it, with Devin adding some soothing vocals and a small section of spoken words on top of it. Other tracks I’m not overly fond of include “Secret Sciences,” mainly because it takes too long to build up with only a modest payoff, and “Stars,” the ToonTrack demo that is gloriously poppy and is starting to grow on me, but has a limited ceiling. The distinction between “least interesting” and “most terrible” is important, as there are no bad tracks on this album, and many other fans have liked the aforementioned tracks. Tomato, potato, gazebo, am I right?

Much has been made about Devin’s decision to re-record Truth from Infinity and open Transcendence with it. While I would never have changed a thing from the original recording, the new version makes a lot of sense in the context of the album. The unrelenting grandeur of the “Hallelujah” section was replaced with more subtlety, but the overall production is airtight, and that new ending induces goosebumps. It was the first of several such moments, an effect that only a select few artists can achieve on me. Devin does it over and over again.

OVERALL: Perhaps the best DTP album to date in close competition with Addicted, as well as the best production from a Devin Townsend album since Ghost (or Casualties of Cool depending on whether you count the collaborative project with Che’ Aimee Dorval, who makes an appearance on the second disc, as a traditional Devin Townsend release).

Rating: 4.0*

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Who transcends this? The Devin Townsend Project, that’s who. The digipak and booklet were signed by all five members of the DTP at ProgPower USA in Atlanta on September 10, 2016. The show was the first to have Anneke van Giersbergen join the band on stage in the United States and, despite some technological hiccups, the set was a great way to cap off a stacked four-day lineup featuring Haken, Green Carnation, The Gentle Storm, Blind Guardian, Spock’s Beard, and Stream of Passion, among numerous other great acts.

Coming soon: a review of Holding Patterns, the second disc of this album.
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Buy the album at this link.
Listen to Stormbending, Failure, and Secret Sciences on YouTube courtesy of InsideOut Music
Featured image accessed via blabbermouth.net

 

 

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Review: Devin Townsend Project – Ghost

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: New-Age/Ambient
Released: June 20, 2011
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Devin Dissection

By: Kris Kotlarik

Here’s the thing. I am talking about the [pauses] internal workings of Deconstruction. Even in the name implies taking apart something; what I was taking apart was the process. Whether or not that’s engaging for others, again, is up to them. What I’ve found is that through my years of feeling the certain way that I did about myself, or my environment, or things that I thought I could change, I found that being vulnerable was a real fear. By vulnerable, it may mean “Hey, I fear things” or “Hey, I’ve always liked New Age stuff and I’ve got no real desire to have edge in my life.” After the purge that was Deconstruction, it was incredibly liberating for me not to have to impose any of that on people. Yeah, I’ve got a darkness in me, but darkness is not my defining characteristic. It’s when I choose to use it and for what reason. [pauses] Yeah, Ghost is on mute. [laughs]

Taken from an interview in 2011 with Anso DF from MetalSucks, this partially helps to explain why Devin Townsend decided to release the comparatively chaotic Deconstruction, and the light, largely fluffy Ghost, on the same day. Listening to the commentary for this album in particular is illuminating; there is a lot more to this album than flutes and brush-tip sticks. Even though this is the fourth album in the Devin Townsend Project chronology, it was actually recorded before Deconstruction because Devin anticipated that he wouldn’t be able to make this album the same way had he switched the order. He later goes on to list some influences that shaped his process for this album, which in and of itself is an interesting listen.

Let me preface this review by saying that this kind of ambient, Enya-like music (Devin specifically names her as an influence in the commentary) doesn’t really interest me; I won’t go out of my way to look for it. I can pretend to be as a chameleon, but I started this review on the same day that I finished Gojira’s From Mars to Sirius. That kind of stuff really gets me going. This, however, requires me to be in the mood for some easy listening before bed, or perhaps if I simply need a break from the various subgenres of heavy metal and other uptempo music.

Often, this draws comparisons to Ki, and I’m not really sure why. Although that is far less heavy than most of his albums, there are still plenty of metal moments to be had. Ghost’s heaviest moment is a draw between the country-tinged “Blackberry” and the thick ambiance of “Texada.” If we are going to make comparisons to Devin’s music using this album, the most likely description would be a hybrid of Casualties of Cool and The Hummer, an electronic album that I will one day get to if I ever fall into that kind of sleepy, dreary, peaceful feeling.

While there aren’t any songs that stand out the way that “Flight” and “The Bridge” do in Casualties, the two albums are similarly listenable from front-to-back and both are far superior to Ki. The vast majority of Ghost is soothing, and that starts with the two women he brought in for this project, both of whom are complete outsiders to the metal community. Kat Epple, a childhood influence on Devin according to his commentary, handles a wide array of flutes, including some that Devin can’t even remember the names of. Then there’s Katrina Natale, who allegedly works at a coffee shop in Canada (I vaguely remember somebody else in the Devin Townsend omniverse who has a keen interest in coffee…). She lays down the vocals, and she was the right choice for this album; her catalog is rather small and she couldn’t even make it to the By A Thread shows in London for some reason. She might as well be a ghost. But her performance is fantastic and I’m not sure it would have sounded better with anyone else doing the vocals.

Each part of the album has its own niche; the 4-5-6 streak of “Kawaii,” “Ghost,” and “Blackberry” are the three best and most engaging tracks; the former is a surprisingly pleasing acoustic ballad, while the title track is a peaceful duet with a melody inspired by two people playing in a Vancouver park. The closing three tracks, meanwhile, are meditative to the core. “Dark Matters,” which I’m assuming is unrelated to what would eventually be the title of Ziltoid’s second adventure, has shades of “Perspective” in it from the second Casualties disc. The beginning three tracks are good, as well; the opening notes to “Fly” are as memorable as most of Devin’s other openers. As one has come to expect from Devin, the production is masterful. The lyrics, which were largely improvised (Devin said he wrote them on autopilot), loosely follow the album’s intent on positivity and letting go of anxiety. But given its calm vibe, I can only listen to this album after midnight. You know what they say: To everything, there is a season.

Overall: If your yoga instructor isn’t playing this album in class, then that instructor needs to be fired.

Rating: 3.0*

Review: Devin Townsend – Physicist

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive/Thrash Metal
Released:
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Devin Dissection

By: Kris Kotlarik

Steven Rosen: Were you happy with the “Physicist” album?

Devin Townsend: When I was doing “Physicist,” I had come off of that “Infinity” period where I had made so many f–kups in terms of my personal life that I was just really depressed. Because I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m so arrogant through all this sh-t.” You know? It was a really grey period. But in that frame of mind unlike “Z2,” I didn’t hammer it home. I gave up. So “Physicist” remains a record for me that as much as I think again it was done accurately for the frame of mind I was in, I’m not proud of that frame of mind. And the main thing I’m not proud of is the fact I phoned it in at the end and the record sounds unlike the vision.

First of all, Rosen deserves a Pulitzer Prize for this interview, which has more information about Devin Townsend’s mindset for most of his albums than you can find on any number of other interviews put together. Secondly, this could have been an album that sent him into the mainstream, as it originally entailed Metallica’s Jason Newsted working with Devin on something that would have been “heavier than Strapping Young Lad.”

Instead, Physicist is often looked at as either the black sheep in Devin Townsend’s discography or the hidden Strapping Young Lad album, depending on who you ask. After all, this album did feature the entire sex contingent of everyone’s favorite pissed off extreme metal band. And on the basis of Strapping Young Lad albums, while this would be incredibly inferior to City and Alien, it easily beats out the self-titled album (unofficially known as Chickenfeather) and might be a shade better than The New Black and/or Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing.

Like those two albums, Physicist has some truly fantastic material along with a bunch of thoroughly mediocre (at least by Devin’s standards) material. What stands in this album’s way more than anything else, however, is the production. It’s the sonic equivalent of soggy Cheerios. I want the crispy Cheerios, dammit!

And yet I still can’t say I dislike this album. I don’t love it; this cannot be understated. But it’s decent enough. At the top of the crop are several songs that rank among Devin’s best, starting with “Namaste,” a lyrically uplifting thrasher of a song with some outstanding riffs. Then there’s “Planet Rain,” an 11-minute downtempo tidal wave that is memorable for its often apocalyptic feel, with some low range notes from Devin adding to the destruction. The instrumental section starting at 4:00 is fantastic, as is Devin’s screams that follow. When you think it’s going to end, it takes another go to finish you off; whether or not this over two-minute section (or the minute of rain to end the track) are necessary doesn’t even matter; I’d handily put this in my top ten list for Devin Townsend’s best tracks.

There’s also “Kingdom,” which I would talk about lengthily had it not been improved in almost every way imaginable on a rerecorded version from Epicloud. “The Complex” sneaks into your ears after a few listens; the synth layering is quite noticeable and adds a certain element to this track that might not otherwise have made it stand out much.

There are other good tracks here that could have been even better if the mix were to be reworked. Among them is “Material,” which has a highly catchy chorus. “Death” and “Devoid” work as a thrash tandem, but the former has some vocal effects that sound like a ghost trying to haunt the living which doesn’t really work. “Irish Maiden” is really good with the exception of the intro riff and the return of those haunted ghost vocal effects, both of which unfortunately go on for far too long. The start of “Victim” is promising, but the verses are really annoying. “Jupiter” has a similar problem to a lesser extent, but the chorus is also catchy. “Humble” is a haunted rework of “Bad Devil” from Infinity and holds minimal interest beyond its mild entertainment value.

I shouldn’t be this much of an asshole when it comes to production, but it really does make a difference. Listen to Terria, then listen to Physicist, and tell me that the production doesn’t at least somewhat impact your opinion on the overall quality of the album’s sound. Some people like soggy cheerios. I am not one of those people.

Overall: The standouts of “Namaste” and “Planet Rain” are as good as any song you’ll hear on Devin’s better albums. The rest is generally quite average.

Rating: 3.0*

ATF Review: Devin Townsend – Infinity

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Rock
Released: October 21, 1998
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Devin Dissection

Carl King: Briefly describe the contents of the Infinity project.

Devin Townsend: 80 tracks of vocals, chaos, tip o’ the hat to JCSuperstar, 8 tracks o’ guitar, Gene (Hoglan) on drums, 1 yam, 1 trip to fun-ville hospital, 400 happy pills, 8000 strands of hair — in toilet, 300 cups of high-grade jasmine tea, 15,000 Canadian dollars ($174.63 American).

From a hilarious 1998 interview with Carl King, it encapsulates the project so effectively that a review is almost unnecessary. I mean, we’ve all been there: you’re trying to write a big paper, but there is so much fog in your head, or you’re just mentally drained, and nothing seems to be working. But all of a sudden, everything clicks and you turn in something stellar and unique.

This is basically what happened to Devin Townsend; after checking into a mental institution (voluntarily), he received a bipolar disorder diagnosis and everything made sense to him. That led to the creation of Infinity, an album containing many elements while never being completely “metal.” Whatever the fuck that means, right? One of those elements includes Broadway (as mentioned in the above quote), so if that offends you for some reason, run to the hills (and run for your life).

What this record is, as one could guess from the aforementioned vocal and guitar tracks, is a wall of sound. To some, this might be considered overwhelming. As a standing rule of thumb, I tend to like “overwhelming” music; it makes you think and gives you more things to focus on. And Infinity is overwhelming in a remarkable way.

The best track? “War.” It has some great lyrics (“We can see the enemy; they say, ‘Hey! We don’t want your war!'” I take that as a metaphor for your own internal struggles and facing them. The line “You can’t fight a war without losing blood” also points to this), Devin doo-wopping with himself, a burst of sound, and some excellent solo vocals to close out the song. The other absolute standouts are “Christeen” with its hard rocking pop goodness, and “Dynamics” for being the epitome of a wall of sound.

Weak songs? There aren’t any. “Wild Colonial Boy” is the closest thing I can find to a weak song, but it also fits that Broadway motif that works so well on “War” and “Bad Devil,” a demented jazz number complete with brass instruments and a choir. “Unity” is a bit long, but is a good way to decompress following “Dynamics.”

The others range from heavy instrumentals (“Truth”) to short wankfests (“Ants”) to one of Devin’s better goof-off album closers (“Noisy Pinkbubbles”). The main obstacle for people when it comes to this album will probably be its heavy production. If you can get past or even embrace it (like I do), there will be a lot to enjoy here.

Overall: Arguably Devin’s 2nd-best album ever released, making it a candidate for the top 10 albums of all time.

Rating: 4.5*

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*

Review: Devin Townsend Project – Z2 (Special Edition)

Disclaimer: There are two discs to this album: The pop-oriented Sky Blue, and the Ziltoid-themed Dark Matters. The two disks will be reviewed separately, as they are completely different from each other and could have easily been packaged separately, a la Deconstruction and Ghost, which were released individually on the same day. There is a bonus disk to Z2 which contains the music of Dark Matters without the dialogue, which I believe raises the overall profile of Dark Matters.

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal, Alternative Metal, Pop Metal
Released: October 27, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

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Sky Blue

“Sky Blue started life as a compromise, and I thought I’d be able to phone it in, just shit out another Epicloud so that I could do my Ziltoid thing. After I’d committed to it I realized it was just not resonating, but it ended up being something I’m incredibly proud of; even more so perhaps than Dark Matters. The process forced me to really think about where I was in life. …

Amidst its writing, a bunch of people I knew died – It’s life, right? Everybody has that. It can be grim, but amidst that I’m trying to write a follow-up to something as positive-sounding as Epicloud, and I hated it. That’s why Sky Blue ended up about being depressed. The whole point of the record is that you get through it, don’t you?”

This, via Devin Townsend in an interview with The Quietus, explains everything you should know about this record going into it. If you’re expecting an Epicloud clone, you won’t find it here. Make no mistake, there are clearly some pervasive pop influences on this record, much like Epicloud, but the lyrical themes are completely different and show far more emotion than what felt like a forced effort on the first disc from that album. Also, Anneke van Giersbergen is back, but takes much less of a lead role on this record than on Addicted and Epicloud. She is still used effectively and shines when given the lead.

The best example of Anneke’s subtle use, and quite possibly the best overall track on both discs, is “Rain City,” which could give any DTP track a run for its money. Remember the theme from House written by Massive Attack? Picture something like that but with stunning vocal melodies by Devin and Anneke, and a lyrical reference to “Bastard” off of Ocean Machine for good measure. It eventually drifts off into ambiance, segueing into “Forever,” a more mellow continuation of “Rain City.” This track could have fit on Casualties Of Cool (it has a similar vibe to “Broken,” but the choir has been replaced by a mob of Devin Townsend vocals) and even has some subtle flute in the mix.

Similarly emotional, and significantly heavier, is “A New Reign.” It starts with some lush Townsend vocals before becoming gradually heavier. At about the 1:55 mark, Devin brutally growls “Where did you go?” For the next minute or so, it takes on a similar feel to Star One‘s “It All Ends Here,” which I raved about because of its emotional relatability. In this case, Devin, with stellar backing vocals by Anneke, sings about the loss of someone who I can only assume was close to him. I liked it on first listen, but it didn’t fully hit me until a few listens later.

In contrast, “Silent Militia” is on the short list of the catchiest tracks in Townsend’s discography. The chorus, with a layered army of Anneke’s vocal takes, is crafted around “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” by Dead Or Alive. And I don’t mean that it has a vague resemblance to that track; Devin has stated this outright. Add some blatant pop elements in a metal disguise that include a snare drum pattern that makes you wonder when the bass will drop, and a Lady Gaga-sounding post-chorus (sung by Devin, no less), and I have have absolutely no idea why I like this song so much. But I can’t stop listening to it.

While we’re mentioning the lifting of song structures, the title track seems to be a product of Devin having listened to “DJ Got Us Falling In Love” by Usher a bunch of times and feels even poppier than “Silent Militia.” Surprisingly, I don’t hate this track, mostly because the lyrics aren’t themed around trying to get girls at a club. Plus there’s the fact that the music was crafted by talented musicians instead of a team of hack writers.

The remaining tracks, while not as stellar and/or catchy as the aforementioned tracks, are still pretty good with only a couple minor gripes here and there. Anneke’s “Ya Yi Ya” vocals in “Rejoice” grow old pretty quickly; unfortunately, they continue throughout the track. Because of that, I consider “Rejoice” to be the weakest track on this disc by a considerable margin. “Universal Flame” is almost as catchy as “Sky Blue” and would have been considered as a standout track if not for an out-of-place bridge section that is unnecessarily poppy and doesn’t contribute much to the track.

There was some controversy surrounding “Fallout,” one of the more uptempo tracks on this disc. Devin sang on the original take, but replaced his vocals in the verses with Anneke’s because he “didn’t want to hear [him]self there” and is “sick of [him]self lately.” Personally, I believe he made the right call in swapping out the vocals, not because his voice sounded terrible on the original take (it doesn’t), but because Anneke’s take fits so much better with the tone the album sets. Whereas Devin’s take is bombastic, Anneke’s is more subdued and does a better job of blending in with the music. At any rate, I like the balance it creates between Anneke and Devin, who feed off each other in a big way here.

“Midnight Sun” has a similar but more melancholic feel to “Where We Belong” off of Epicloud and is a solid track, with its highlight coming in the bridge section, led by a soaring, yet simple, guitar lead. I thought I would hate “Warrior,” which starts with what sounds like a child saying “I’m a warrior!” But I am quite fond of this Anneke-heavy track, with the only issue being some funky sounds coming from the hi-hat. It sounds a bit distorted, and that bothers me a little bit.

“Before We Die” is a fitting climax to this album, as it lyrically revolves around overcoming the difficulties of life, including loss. It is one of the tracks that the “Universal Choir” was asked to participate on in advance of this album, and it works really well here. It feels bouncy and celebratory, as it should, before mellowing out drastically. The closer, “The Ones Who Love,” shows a mellow Anneke and some light ambient layering. These two tracks, like “Rain City” and “Forever,” are an air-tight pair, but I would pick Rain City/Forever as a better representation of this album.

Overall (revised): Sky Blue hasn’t held up as well I expected it to, as only a handful of songs get consistent play two years after its release. It’s still a solid album, but doesn’t provide the punch that normally comes with Devin Townsend releases. 

Rating: 3.5*

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Dark Matters

This album is a lot harder for me to digest than Sky Blue, partially because it’s much harder for me to sit through the entire album in one go thanks in large part to the incredible amount of dialogue. It’s also worth noting that Chris Jericho, voicing the role of Captain Spectacular, sounds like Numbuh 1 from Codename: Kids Next Door. And I’m not really sure what to make of that, because it sounds even campier than it is probably supposed to sound.

On the bright side, Dominique Lenore Persi of Stolen Babies is an absolute force in the role of the War Princess, which is why “War Princess” is my favorite track on this disc. Her vocals are stellar, and the dialogue here feeds well with those vocals. The War Princess is the mother of the cute but kind of dumb poozers, and she only sees them as pawns in a giant army. Following Ziltoid’s abduction of one of the poozers with the intent on taking it to Earth, the War Princess and one of the poozer generals engage in the following spoken exchange:

Poozer: But your majesty, if we attack the humans now, we’ll surely lose more than half of our forces.
War Princess: I’m sorry, there must be some sort of misunderstanding. Let me try and explain this again: You see, we are going to invade the earth, and you will follow.
Poozer army, as a choir: We shall follow!
War Princess, in a brutal scream: For I’m your queen!

The track itself is a marching plodder, but everything Persi does on this track, paired with the fitting musical vibe that Townsend creates, is pure gold. I would love to see an album in which Devin Townsend collaborates with Persi in a similar way that he has worked with Anneke van Giersbergen over several albums. As much as I love Anneke, Persi’s screams, paired with her solid clean vocals, make for an even more dynamic listening experience. There are only a handful of women in the metal multiverse that can scream as well as Persi does, and none of them have the clean vocal skills she does.

The more I listen to “Ziltoid Goes Home,” the more I like it. I originally wrote that it was the best track on this disc (“best” and “favorite” are mutually exclusive in this case), which is pretty significant given how this album has grown on me over time. With its blazing start, angelic choir arrangement and airy sections that remind me of Infinity, this stands out as a must-listen for this album, especially since there is no dialogue to speak of. For that reason, this could have (should have?) been the single from this disc.

“Ziltoidian Empire,” the track before “War Princess,” is the most proggy track here and also features some of the heaviest music on either disc. Especially of note is another stellar line by Persi when she realizes her poozer is missing. The plot thickens, and a brief explosion of blast beats accompanied with Devin chanting “I am nowhere; I am no one” is one of the truly mind-blowing parts on this disc. Alas, it only lasts ten seconds! The rest of the track has a bunch of dialogue with some interesting music to go with it.

“Deathray” and “March Of The Poozers,” the two tracks detailing earth’s invasion, both work on their right without much dialogue interference. The former is a scaled-back rendition of “Ziltoidia Attaxx!!” off the original Ziltoid and has a nice, simple guitar solo to go with it, while “March Of The Poozers” is really catchy and significantly slower than most of the other tracks on Dark Matters. The vocal melodies here are surprisingly crafty. I shouldn’t be surprised at this point, but the poozers come off as one-dimensional characters so it was nice to see what Devin could do with a track dedicated to them. “Earth” is also a good track, somewhat evoking the vibe of “Solar Winds” in that it becomes increasingly heavier as it progresses while using a repeating pattern.

I have mixed feelings about the rest of the album, especially the end. “Through The Wormhole” is almost four minutes of the cheesiest dialogue ever conceived (and nothing else), and “Dimension Z” is merely okay as a closer, especially in comparison to “The Greys.” Again, like “Before We Die,” the universal choir was a nice touch, but it doesn’t pack the kind of punch that “The Greys” did. Unlike the farce ending of the first Ziltoid, though, there is some continuity in the story that ties into Casualties of Cool and gives hope for a future album with Townsend and Persi.

The first two tracks feel somewhat drawn out and a tad slow, but work well together. “From Sleep Awake” is a grandiose display of cheese, with some Anneke fluff added for good measure. “Wandering Eye” also has way too much dialogue and grates on me at times, with a brief section of music that sounds like “The Mighty Masturbator” from Deconstruction that makes it bearable.

I figure the best way to look at it is by comparing it to the first Ziltoid album. It’s hard to tell whether or not this holds up to the original, and at this point I’m not sure it even matters. There are some great moments on here, but aside from “War Princess” and “Ziltoid Goes Home,” none of these tracks stand out nearly as much as the music from the first album, which was far less concerned with dialogue than this one. And the dialogue isn’t nearly as funny this time around. What this album has going for it that ZTO doesn’t is its near-pristine production value and the use of just about everything and everyone under the sun, complete with orchestration and choirs, to create a powerhouse of sound that is best enjoyed at obscenely loud or super-soft volumes.

As for the special edition bonus disc, which contains the music of Dark Matters without the dialogue, I think its inclusion was a brilliant move. It cuts the album down by almost eight minutes, and the entirety of “Ziltoidian Empire” becomes a gem without the dialogue because the proggier sections become much more clear. The essential dialogue, such as the narration on “Deathray” and the aforementioned exchange on “War Princess,” is left intact, but most of what could be considered unnecessary has been cut.

One minor gripe is that there is far less silliness in the booklet’s liner notes than on the first Ziltoid album. But that third disc alone is worth the price of admission.

Overall: Both discs have their merits. I’m sure some people will take the tracks from the two discs and customize their own Dark Matters as they see fit. And if arranged the right way, it rivals the original. 

Rating: 3.5*