Groove Metal

Review: Strapping Young Lad – The New Black

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Groove Metal, Hard Rock
Released: July 11, 2006
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Devin Dissection

By: Kris Kotlarik

Imperiumi: Is the the gap between SYL and your solo material becoming closer?

Devin: “It feels like I’m less and less angry all the time. Even THE DEVIN TOWNSEND BAND will put out softer stuff in the future, so the SYL material feels even harder now compared to my solo material. My next recordings will probably be something like this (points out the beautiful nature of Finland’s Provinssirock festival), something [representing] beautiful scenery. Beautiful things. I don’t have to be hard/tough (heavy) anymore. I’m 34 years old, I’m already old.”

This is actually pretty mild in comparison to some of the other things that Devin said about Strapping Young Lad in this interview with Finnish publication Imperiumi; he further explains that he no longer has the motivation or emotion that Strapping Young Lad relied upon to continue the project, and that he no longer had anything to say through this band.

Contractually obligated to release a fifth SYL album, The New Black was released during a time when Devin was reevaluating his priorities after his wife became pregnant with their first child. As a result, this album sounds little like the albums that SYL was known for, namely City and Alien.

But that raises the question: Did Strapping Young Lad’s fan base really want to see Devin try to top those two albums? If they did, they’re delusional. Alien is the kind of album that can only happen in the most extreme mental conditions (going off one’s bipolar disorder medication, for example), which proved to be very unhealthy for Devin. City, meanwhile, fits the mold of his other solo albums in that it perfectly captured his mood at the time: Pissed off and existential.

The New Black fits the latter condition; as he was no longer massively pissed off, Devin’s material began shifting into a more positive direction that would culminate in 2012’s Epicloud release. This release feels like the wedge in between Synchestra, which was released six months before this album, and Addicted, released in 2009. While there are some explosive moments, they are overshadowed by excursions into utter silliness.

That silliness is best captured on the track “You Suck,” a self-deprecating number in which Devin yells “Hell yeah, we fuckin’ suck!” while also saying that your band, girlfriend, and a number of other people just fucking suck. It’s utter nonsense, and it’s hilarious, but it’s hard to take this album seriously with tracks like that and “Far Beyond Metal,” a long-time live staple that was adapted into a studio recording. The lyrics to this track are basically “The Metal” by Tenacious D with a nonsensical chorus that doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the song. It also features a fun cameo appearance from Oderus Urungus (GWAR). Then there’s “Fucker,” a bouncy pop-rock type of track that has a fun instrumental that was later released on Devin Townsend’s “Contain Us” box set but doesn’t have much else going for it.

Those three tracks are on one extreme; on the other end are some of Strapping Young Lad’s best songs, most notably “Almost Again,” a song that showcases the band’s dynamic range in a flawless fashion. The closing two tracks, “Polyphony” and the title track, combine to form a marching metal anthem that works on a far better level than “Far Beyond Metal.” The former track, in particular, feels quite emotional while building into “The New Black,” which maintains its intensity throughout and commands you to turn up the volume. But it eventually collapses on itself towards the end.

Meanwhile, “Wrong Side,” released as the album’s lead single, is probably the closest to being a traditional Strapping Young Lad song in terms of its heaviness and boasts some remarkable high clean notes from Devin in the chorus.

The rest of the songs are even more inconsistent than the highlights and lowlights of this release. “Hope,” for instance, starts as a slow and uninteresting plodder that morphs into a chaotic blaster, a la “Critic” from Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing. That section is utterly fantastic, and there’s nothing else like it on this album, but I’ll stick with “Critic,” which is strong from start to finish.

I can’t help but think that the lyrics to “Monument” were at least partially inspired by Weezer’s pop-rock gem, “My Name Is Jonas.” Unlike that song, however, “Monument” doesn’t really go anywhere. “Decimator” is decent enough but pales in comparison to every single Strapping Young Lad album opener by a considerable margin. And then there’s “Antiproduct,” a song that fancies itself as something more interesting than it is by featuring spoken word samples and a brass interlude to cover up repetitive lyrics.

The short version of this review is that there’s some good material on here, but it’s inconsistent and generally just average. What confounds my feelings about this album even more is the existence of the C:enter:### EP which contains two amazing songs: The title track instrumental that slots in with their best tracks, and a fucking perfect cover of The Melvins’ “Zodiac.” This EP was recorded at around the same time as The New Black, and it beats down anything on the actual album.

To call this album bad would be an overreaction, but it’s uneven and lacks the elements that comprise the best Strapping Young Lad releases (pure, unadulterated rage) and Devin Townsend’s best solo work (cohesiveness and auditory aesthetics). One could also argue that this album is among his most important works; what looks like a throwaway release on the surface helped spawn better releases down the line.

Overall: The New Black is to Devin’s solo work as Physicist is to Strapping Young Lad. Make of that what you will.

Rating: 2.0*

Buy the album here.

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Review: Xerath – III

Location: Basingstoke, England, UK
Genre: Extreme/Progressive Metal
Released: September 15, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

I find that a lot of double albums are overwhelming in nature. Most Ayreon albums, especially The Human Equation, are perfect examples of this, no matter how great the music is. Xerath’s III is among rare company in that it ranks among the few one-disk albums that is just too long for its own good.

Musically, the only flaw I can point to in Xerath’s sound is the mind-numbingly cheesy intro in the opener, “I Hold Dominion.” As I have said many times before, this sort of thing has been done thousands of times before. It comes across as grandstanding and is a blatant cliche in the metal genre. Otherwise, the music sounds great. Angry Metal Guy took the words out of my mouth in saying that this is what a modernized Strapping Young Lad would have sounded like if they were attempting to compose an epic movie soundtrack. Their Wikipedia page basically confirms this. You know what? Sign me up. That sounds awesome. I only regret taking way too long to listen to this album, with it sitting in my inbox for way too long, so that I could claim I said it first.

But there’s one glaring problem. Let’s pretend that the intro in “I Hold Dominion,” which serves no purpose, no longer exists. This would mean every song except for two clocks in between four and five minutes in length. The other two are 5:17 and 5:40 in length, which does not represent a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. And frankly, I cannot tell most of these songs apart. They’re all good, but fourteen tracks of what really does come off as an incredibly long-winded film score makes for an unsustainable listening experience.

If the only thing I cared about was the music on this album, this would be one of the easiest 4.5* ratings I would have given out to this point. The music is certainly unique, and every song is fun to listen to. But I focus on reviewing full albums for their listenability in one sitting. The fact is, I can’t listen to more than five or six tracks from this album without being completely overwhelmed and wanting to listen to something else. Before you accuse me of having a short attention span, save your breath: I had ADHD as a kid and it is entirely possible that I still have it now. If anything, that should further bolster my claims, as the albums that I truly love, from start to finish, are packed with variety. III simply lacks that cohesive, assorted feel that keeps me hooked for the entire album.

I will say, however, that the closing two tracks, a two-part piece called “Veil,” are a true showcase of what Xerath is capable of in terms of this band’s ability to compose brilliant music. If you’re going to set out and create metal with film score stylings, put a concept behind it and run with it. It worked for Ne Obliviscaris, and it can work for Xerath, too.

Overall: A lot to like, but is almost impossible to listen to in one sitting. 

Rating: 3.5* 

Review: Machine Head – Bloodstone & Diamonds

Location: Oakland, California
Genre: Groove/Thrash Metal
Released: November 7, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: National Uprising – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

In July of this year, an interesting tour through North America was announced: Machine HeadChildren Of Bodom, Epica, and Battlecross would have combined a number of mainstream metal acts from different genres, and all of these bands had something different (and good) to offer. But Machine Head went and cancelled the tour because they couldn’t record the album in time. Bodom frontman Alexi Laiho was naturally pissed off, and Machine Head frontman Rob Flynn responded with a series of petty insults directed at Children Of Bodom fans, many of whom already listened to Machine Head. Of all the bands on that touring bill, Machine Head and Children Of Bodom are the most similar to each other, with the latter essentially being a Finnish rehash of the former. This kind of argument is just bound to piss people off even further.

I’m not a huge fan of any of these bands. I used to really like Epica before I got tired of their cheese. Bodom has been completely mediocre for about ten years, but I still want to see them live (I missed a shot at seeing them in Finland by six days). Machine Head has a few songs that I like, and their live show is okay, but I already had my fill of them during the 2012 European festival season. I would have gone to this tour to see Bodom, but I have no qualms about not having to spend a shitload of money to get to Cleveland.

Nonetheless, with the album taking so long to record, I had some expectations that it would be pretty good. I was wrong. Simply put, it sucks.

The most annoying aspect of Machine Head’s sound is any time Flynn does this thing with his vocals in which he breathes in with his mouth open, and that occurs too many times on this album to mention in detail. The songwriting is basically terrible; “Game Over” is the most generic hard rock track I have come across in recent memory, and songs such as “Eyes Of The Dead,” “Take Me Through The Fire,” “Damage Inside,” and “Ghosts Will Haunt My Bones” are boring beyond reproach. Then there’s “Imaginal Cells,” an utterly pointless instrumental with political samples from an audio book. So with half the album already receiving some blanket criticism for being just plain boring, let’s look at what’s wrong with the other tracks.

“In Comes The Flood” has boring music, but interesting lyrics. Essentially, this is an anarcho-left wing anthem (“I want to burn down Wall Street, baby/And fan the flames of discontent like Hades.”) There are several good lyrics here:
-“Saints of Red, White and Blue/Pass bonds of junk to you/Our flag has all but bled to green.”
-“Moneytheistic religion”
-“We’re fighting for the scraps/We’ve let our conscience lapse/By turning cash into a god.”

And then there are some really stupid lyrics like “I don’t give a fuck if I’m rich, motherfucker.” The rest is somewhere in between and could just as easily have been ripped directly from any political discussion: A few interesting bits but a whole bunch of generic talking points that you would expect to hear on MSNBC.

“Now We Die” tries way too hard to be an epic opener and comes up well short. “Killers & Kings” has some potential, but Flynn is basically screaming in your face for the entire track without any regard for dynamics. “Sail Into The Black” has a cool introduction which features some low vocal chanting. The problem is that the introduction goes on for almost four minutes and doesn’t really go anywhere after that. And “Beneath The Silt” is another boring song musically, but Flynn shows that he is capable of doing something other than shouting at you or doing that annoying breathing thing he always does. This is his best vocal display on this album.

If I were to pick a track that I like on this album, I would choose “Night Of Long Knives.” It has a solid introduction that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and there are some cool moments, especially in the prechorus. I also like the “prophet/profit” wordplay. The chorus itself is nothing special, but I like the rest of the track. This song is based on Charles Manson, his “family,” and their murders. This has a solid premise, except I have one key issue with the lyrics: None of this has anything to do with the actual Night of the Long KnivesWhat in the world was this band thinking when they came up with this title? If they wrote a song about the original event, it would have fit well with the introductory lyrics:

“You won’t see us come/In the night/With these knives/And these bloodstains on our hands/Paint the walls/Taste the blade/On the night of long knives…”

And then Flynn starts rambling about the “summer of ’69” in Hollywood. The history nerd in me screamed in agony as I listened to these lyrics unfold. Why do you do this to me, Machine Head?

Is this the worst album of the year? Absolutely not. For starters, I was able to listen to it all the way through, which is a lot more than I can say for other albums I nearly reviewed (looking at you, Megaherz). But there are so many things wrong here that it does get the worst rating I have given an album to this point.

Overall: Forget the Bodom fans; even Machine Head fans should be angry with this one.

Rating: 0.5*