Anneke van Giersbergen

Devin Dissection: Holding Patterns

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive metal
Released: September 9, 2016
Format reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

Holding Patterns is the bonus disc to Transcendence. It has no continuity, which doesn’t really make it an album, but it’s still worthy of a review. Let’s go track by track, bolding some of the best ones. All claims I make about the tracks can be fact-checked by reading the album liner notes unless otherwise stated.

Gump: Apparently, this song was quite contentious among the band members, as many of them thought it was one of the best songs on the record, but Devin couldn’t crowbar it into the main disc. The riffs on this midtempo track are infectious and this track could have easily found a home on the back end of Synchestra. The instrumental riffage midway through is this track’s highlight.

Celestial Signals: Grandiose layered vocals throughout the track give it an epic feel, but the song doesn’t really go anywhere.

Support the Cause: I’m not exactly sure what the cause is, but this is similar to the title track of the main disc in that it has a march beat vibe going on. The notes from Devin say it has a Scorpions vibe, which I kind of get (same rhythm and tempo as The Zoo). I really like the section starting at 1:48, and the song ends with a slightly heavier version of this. I disliked the track when I first heard it and still don’t care for the vocal intro, but it has grown on me somewhat over several spins.

Into the Sun: This is an interesting thought: Devin Townsend re-imagines Dethklok. Just picture a bunch of murder and mayhem while listening to this and you’ll see what I mean if you give it a couple of spins. The song is alright, but hasn’t done much for me so far.

Time Overload: A relatively straightforward hard rock song with some industrial tinges to it, it’s rather repetitive and holds little to no replay value.

Lexus: More than anything else, I love the chorus. Che’ Aimee Dorval appears to throw down the most rock-based vocals I’ve heard from her to date in the pre-chorus, and it works surprisingly well. But that chorus just resonates with me in this strange way that constantly makes me want to listen to it. I’m pretty sure it’s Devin’s self-harmonization that is doing it for me. The rest of the track is fine and on the heavy metal end of the spectrum; with a smoother touch it could have gone onto Epicloud after “More.”

Farther On: A short track that sounds like it could have evolved into something if it were expanded upon a little further in production or collaborative writing. Not sure if it could find a home on any of Devin’s recent albums, but this song is fine.

Victim: Originally recorded on Physicist, this was among my least favorite tracks on that album. I’m not sure what the appeal is to this one over any number of other tracks that could have been remade; “Namaste” and “Material” are significantly better candidates. I will say that this version sounds better than the original; the verses were the biggest problem in the original, and are still a problem here, but it sounds less grating.

Monkeymind: Heavy metal instrumental! It features some interesting riffs and a couple of solos, notably at 2:00 when it goes full Willy Wanka. Yes, I said Wanka. Get with the program.

Canucklehead: Strictly a joke song in the vein of Punky Bruster. It’s also very similar to “Sunshine and Happiness” from Synchestra, but with funny lyrics.

Loud: Deliciously soothing. Devin says this could have been on Sky Blue but couldn’t find a home for it; I get where he’s coming from and I’m glad this song sees the light here. It shows Anneke van Giersbergen’s softer side while showing off Devin’s ability to replicate a vibe similar to the softer parts of “Where We Belong,” one of the best songs off of Epicloud.

OVERALL: Holding Patterns is an oddball collection of assorted (or ass-sordid) demos from different eras of the DTP. It’s worth getting if you’re a Devin fan, especially since the double-disc edition costs about $3 more, but don’t expect across-the-board greatness.

Rating: 2.5*

Advertisements

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*

14222107_10207060395180414_4459222951373475078_n

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.
_____________________________________

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

 

 

Review: Amadeus Awad – Death Is Just A Feeling

Location: Beirut, Lebanon
Genre: Progressive Rock
Released: August 20, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

I needed this.

It’s been a long summer; my writing pursuits have been hindered by a series of internal and external tribulations combined with standard 20-something existential malaise. It’s hard to feel inspired when life bears down on you.

Few people know this better than Amadeus Awad, who has repeatedly been dubbed as “the Arjen Lucassen of the Middle East.” I don’t buy that; I think Awad’s music better resembles that of Steven Wilson, and Death Is Just A Feeling draws a direct comparison to the latter’s most recent album, Hand. Cannot. Erase.

The lyrical concept for Death revolves around Awad’s personal experiences with attempted suicide and the death of several loved ones. This might be the best-executed example of using personal experiences as a concept for an album I have ever come across. Lyrically, this works in a way that few concept albums can claim.

Awad brings with him a marquee lineup that brings together a number of Awad’s influences; the most important (and best) guest contribution is Anneke van Giersbergen delivering another powerful vocal performance. It’s not quite the powerhouse display she put on The Diary by The Gentle Storm, as well as on Devin Townsend’s recent albums, but it doesn’t have to be; Anneke’s vocals are still quite evocative here.

Not far behind her is drummer Marco Minneman (The Aristocrats; Necrophagist; Steven Wilson), who particularly shines during the instrumental sections of “Monday Morning.” Arjen Lucassen also jumps on board as a cameo vocalist in the closing track. Elia Monsef, meanwhile, takes the male lead vocals on “Tomorrow Lies.” His vocal delivery reminds me of a combination of Pain Of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlow and Katatonia’s Jonas Renske, and his performance here makes me want to look into more of his own music.

Now, back to my original point of comparing Death to Hand. Both albums deal with death and life’s hardships, although Wilson tells his story through the lens of another real person. Both artists use expositional narration to fill in story gaps (whereas Arjen has his characters sing in dialogue). And although they go about it in different ways, both artists effectively make their point, with Wilson opting for a more nuanced approach as opposed to the direct shelling dealt by Awad. So how do these two albums stack up against each other?

The short answer is that Steven Wilson wins by a slight margin, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. I reviewed Hand. Cannot. Erase. when it first came out and gave it a lukewarm 3.5 stars because it came across as robotic to me. I took some flak for this and I stood by it at the time, but Awad’s work inspired me to revisit it. I can now say that I was wrong, and Hand deserves all the praise it has been given by fans and critics alike. Consider this an official revision to 4.0 stars.

In reality, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a slow builder that took about ten additional listens after that review to really grow on me. To Awad’s credit, the fact that his work made me want to revisit Steven Wilson should put him in high regard. Lyrically, I would rank the two albums in a dead heat with each other, with the exception of a section of album opener “Opia,” in which Awad has Anneke break the fourth wall by singing:

You might be wondering why I wrote this song/
It’s not a lullaby for the broken/
It’s a breathless gasp from the depth of the weakest lung/
My nightmares, unspoken.

I get the approach that he was trying to make here, as this album is autobiographical in nature, but there is something about people writing themselves into their own lyrics in this way that drives me nuts whenever I come across it. With that said, Anneke sounds fantastic, her vocal delivery soaring over the melancholy melody.

The main reason I award this fictitious battle of the bands to Wilson is his superior use of dynamics. It’s hard to fault Awad here; Wilson was doing this before I was even born, and put out the first Porcupine Tree album when I was just a wee toddler. However, In “Lonesome Clown” (which is an amazing song title, by the way; Awad could have easily made this the title track, but didn’t, and I appreciate that), which serves as the album’s climax, there is a particularly beautifully-written bridge that builds tension. The way the bridge picks up steam, it should explode into the final chorus, but it’s a bit of a letdown. It could have benefited from a heavier production mix or a different drum pattern. Whereas in Hand, “Ancestral” serves as that album’s climax and nails it in every way imaginable. It’s only 50 seconds longer than “Lonesome Clown” but packs a dynamic range that should knock anyone out on the first punch.

“Temporary” closes out Death with a slightly more upbeat anthem about the temporary pains of existence than I would have expected, but with Arjen Lucassen on the vocals it wouldn’t have worked if he tried to do it in an overly serious way. I like the way the ending dialogue loops together with the beginning of “Opia.” The ending to Hand leaves you with tears in your eyes (that is, assuming that you’re not a robotic critic who doesn’t get it), sticking to the album’s overall tone, which is something I would have preferred to see here as well. But the ending loop is a nice touch as it also lines up with Lucassen’s portrayed character.

At this point, however, I’m just nitpicking. Death Is Just A Feeling is a powerful album with solid songwriting and a series of great performances from amazing musicians. At roughly 46 minutes in length, it’s nearly perfectly timed and doesn’t overburden the listener, giving it higher replay value than Hand. Cannot. Erase., which is significantly longer in addition to being an emotionally draining album. Awad also included two bonus tracks from a prior EP. And while both of those songs, especially “Poetry of Time,” are good, they serve as a reminder of how much of a leap Awad has taken in his songwriting prowess with this release.

Overall: A must-own for prog enthusiasts and fans of Anneke van Giersbergen.

Rating: 4.0*

Buy the album here

Behind the scenes clip

Video for “Monday Morning”

Review: The Gentle Storm – The Diary

Location: Waalwijk, Netherlands
Genre: Progressive Rock, Acoustic, Folk
Released: March 23, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Arjen Lucassen is at it again! To which I say, “thank goodness.”

This is a unique album, even for Arjen, a man who has written many a rock opera about everything from space sci-fi to a story about a scientist that was later made into a movie.* The closest comparison that can be offered is to Ayreon’s Universal Migrator albums; it is widely known that he believed that his fans were divided into two camps: The light, progressive rock camp, and the metalheads. So he put out The Dream Sequencer for the former, and Flight of the Migrator for the latter, releasing both albums at the same time. Although fans, myself included, generally liked both albums, he did figure correctly that some people would prefer one album to the other. I’ve had a draft typed up for a while for my review of Flight of the Migrator, which might make my Top 50 all-time list. The Dream Sequencer would probably rate in the 3.5 range if I were to review it today.

My rambling about these albums is important because The Diary is the same album done twice in two different styles. The Gentle version is very folk-oriented and should be regarded as a treat for those who enjoy modern folk rock bands. There are even some lounge jazz elements in “Heart of Amsterdam” and “Brightest Light.” Meanwhile, in “Shores of India,” Arjen makes use of traditional Indian instruments, making them sound authentic in the process.

The Storm version, in contrast, is significantly heavier and makes use of a choir, as seen in “Endless Sea.” The title track, if it can be called that, is full of symphonic metal goodness mixed with the occasional electronic effect (as seen in “Age of Shadows” from 01011001), and is probably the heaviest track here, like an Epica track written by someone with a significantly better ear for melodies. And yet, this isn’t a “metal” album. It’s a fun listen, but (and this is going to sound strange coming from me) I believe the “Gentle” version is the better disc.

The concept is also unique by Arjen’s already-lofty standards; the (based on a true) story revolves around a couple, Joseph and Suzanne, that is torn apart during the peak of The Netherlands’ golden age of exploration. Joseph is called away to visit India, and while he is gone, the two exchange letters to each other, as narrated by the illustrious Anneke van Giersbergen. This is not the first time the two have worked together; she also had parts on Into The Electric Castle and 01011001. But this is a direct collaboration between the two.

And that’s why I consider the Gentle disc to be the better one. The concept, which has a diverse setting, lends itself better to the array of acoustic instruments that Arjen uses in this project. Furthermore, Arjen, who has a reputation for bringing out the best in the musicians he works with, did a great job utilizing Anneke both discs, especially on the Gentle side. While her voice is powerful in nature, she dials it down considerably, and to great effect. Despite that, the Storm version is also a great listen.

Overall: An ambitious project that should wind up on many year-end album lists.

Rating: 4.0*

P.S.: Anneke, if you ever read this and happen to bring The Gentle Storm to the United States, please play “Strange Machines” like you and Arjen did during the European acoustic tour. Or perhaps “Probably Built In The Fifties?” Oh who am I kidding, any song from The Gathering. Actually, I really just want to see this band play live. Otherwise I’m just going to have to move to Europe, and I don’t think Europe is ready for me yet.

*Wait, you mean Ayreon released The Theory Of Everything a full year before the movie of the same name? I smell a lawsuit! All joking aside, that album is also a good one, albeit even more over the top than usual, occasionally to its detriment.

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

_________________________________________________________________

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*

_______________________________________________________________________

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*

Review: Devin Townsend Project – Epicloud/er

Disclaimer: I am reviewing the main album and its bonus disc as two separate entities since the latter could be constituted as a full-length album.

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive/Alternative Metal
Released: September 18, 2012
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Z2 preview

By: Kris Kotlarik

I could make another long-winded statement about Devin Townsend’s lengthy discography and all the stuff he’s done, but I’ve already done that a number of times. As promised in my review of Ziltoid The Omniscient, I decided to review Epicloud and its bonus disk, which is known as Epiclouder. This album was purported to be a smattering of the previous Devin Townsend Project albums, and it definitely delivers on that aspect; there’s the poppy stylings of Addicted (“Liberation” is a solid example of this); the softness of Ghost as seen on “Divine” and “Lessons; the heaviness of Deconstruction, with “Grace” leading the charge; and some Ki-esque material with songs like “Where We Belong.”

In many ways, both disks feel like a purge of the brain. There were so many ideas, and it made sense to try and put them all on an album and see if it works. Does it? Kind of. The production is larger than life, there’s a gospel choir, the structures are generally simplistic and occasionally repetitive (a rarity for Townsend), and Anneke van Giersbergen returns to grace (no pun intended) the world with her beautiful voice once again.

The best tracks here are the heaviest ones, which means “Kingdom,” “Grace,” and “Angel” win the prize. You may remember “Kingdom” from the wildly underrated Physicist, which is basically a hidden Strapping Young Lad album with some muffled production. “Kingdom” took on a life of its own in live shows, and that essence is captured on this remake. The vocals are what make this track come alive; Devin’s operatic singing soars above the rest of the music, and the drum sound has clearly improved from the original “Kingdom.” With that said, I’m planning on writing a review of Physicist because there are several stellar tracks on it that rank among Devin’s best, and “Kingdom” wouldn’t have made the top three for that album.

“Grace” and “Angel” show what Anneke is capable of, especially on the latter. “Grace” is a solid track with a positive message that kind of gets lost in the chugga-chugga riffing, but the song is almost impossibly catchy. Anneke’s parts in the beginning and end are stellar, but her roll on the hook of “Angel,” a midtempo wall of sound, is this album’s highlight. The gospel choir, which has memorable parts elsewhere on this album, is also used effectively on both tracks. You would think that a gospel choir being put onto a metal album is just plain wrong, but it actually works really well if it is used correctly, and it is.

I mostly feel indifference towards the remaining tracks, including “Lucky Animals,” which most people hate for its banal lyrics. If we’re looking at banal lyrics, I direct your attention to the ultra cheese ballad, “Divine.”

Loving you is the best thing and the worst thing in my life.
Loving you is entire.
And loving you is the one thing that I need right now…

Loving you is the best thing and the worst thing in my life.
Loving you is entire.
Loving you in the morning is a warning…

That is how two of the verses begin. It’s kind of cringe-worthy; if I want to listen to a Devin Townsend love song with a dual message, I’ll stick with “Storm” off of Accelerated Evolution or “Night” from Ocean Machine, or even “Love?” off of Strapping Young Lad’s Alien. In all three cases, there is clear emotion poured into the song by Devin, which just feels absent here. I also don’t care for “Save Our Now,” which Devin Townsend has admitted to being almost an exact replica of “The Island” by a club group called Pendulum. It’s an okay song, but is too dance-poppy for my taste and lacks the originality I crave from Devin. “Lessons,” meanwhile, is a minute-long interlude that could have fit on Ghost or maybe Casualties Of Cool that simply goes nowhere.

Highlights from the rest of the album include the ending section of “True North,” which helps overcome the rest of the stagnant track. “Liberation” and “Where We Belong” are both solid listens, and I like the throwback that “Hold On” provides to “Slow Me Down” from Accelerated Evolution. Meanwhile, “More” is solid musically but the lyrics are also a tad trite.

Overall: As harsh as I have been on parts of this album, even the worst parts are still pretty good in Devin’s capable hands. Except for “Divine,” which is irrevocably bad. 

Rating: 3.0*

______________________________________________________________________________________

As for Epiclouder, the good moments come in more consistent bunches, and there are no truly bad tracks here. The cheesiest track, “Love And Marriage,” is at least another solid attempt at music comedy. “Happy Birthday,” “Believe,” and “Little Pig” sound like Devin Townsend attempting to make a foray into the indie rock guild. All three have some redeeming qualities to them; “Happy Birthday” has some nice vocals from Anneke; “Believe” is a nice little acoustic number, and for such a low-key tune, Devin absolutely belts it on “Little Pig,” which at times could be mistaken for a revamped version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone.” I’m on the fence about “Love Tonight,” but I like the layering in this mix and that puts it in favorable, if unspectacular, territory.

I really like the rest of the songs on the bonus disk, starting with “Quietus,” which comes across as a significantly better attempt at “Save Our Now.” It has a slight dance pop feel to it once the intro passes, but everything clicks so much better here. Anneke and Devin roll off of each other very well, and there’s much more structural complexity to this track than just about anything the first disc threw at the listener. “Heatwave” is another attempt at rockabilly similar to “Trainfire” off of Ki, but the chorus is lush.

“The Mind Wasp” has a beautiful bass riff and feels like a truly experimental track unlike anything Devin has attempted before this. It works well here and has some stellar vocal work. “Woah No!” has the makings of a Shining (NO) with its use of a saxophone in the beginning, but turns into a powerful number with some pummeling drums leading the charge. The chorus and post-chorus (hell, all of the final 150 seconds) are solid examples of what an effective wall of sound style of production can bring to the table.

And then there’s “Socialization,” which can best be described as a happier version of “Color Your World.” In fact, it follows almost the exact same structure, with some minor nuances. It feels more like a self-parody, but it’s a good one. There’s even a mega-wank solo before Devin screams “Tonight, we dine at Denny’s!”

No, seriously, I can’t even make that up. Following the 300 spinoff, there’s a drop and a wall of Devin Townsend’s vocals layered in, before we get another four minutes of calm, soothing keyboards and ambient vocals. As a whole, the second disc, despite its lack of flow, feels more complete to me than the first disk. The good moments are more memorable, it is much more exploratory, and there is nothing anywhere near as bad as “Divine” on here.

Overall: If you’re still looking for some exploratory Devin Townsend sounds, this is the disc to listen to. Its only major flaw is the aforementioned lack of flow, and some parts (such as the rockabilly sections of “Heatwave”) might be a little too self-indulgent. 

Rating: 3.5*

Review: Devin Townsend Project – Addicted

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Alternative Metal/Rock
Released: November 17, 2009
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Devy Chronicles

By: Kris Kotlarik

I’m not quite sure who had the brilliant idea to have Devin Townsend and Anneke van Giersbergen work together, but whoever is behind it should be rewarded with all the money. 

Addicted is the first of three albums (the last one, Z2, comes out in October) to feature Anneke. With the exception of a few tracks, Anneke is essentially an extremely talented backup vocalist; she is featured far more prominently on Epicloud. If you’re listening to this and it sounds oddly like Nickelback to you, that’s because it was supposed to. Apparently, Devin really liked the sound of what was their newest album at the time, Dark Horse, but noted that every single song was about “Chad Kroeger’s penis.” So what happens when you take Nickelback’s production style and write actual lyrics? In short, it’s pretty damn catchy. 

There’s a fairly even split of great songs and good songs. And then there’s one of the worst songs Townsend has ever written, “Ih-Ah.” I really don’t understand how so many fans love this track. It’s as poppy and cheesy as it gets, and while I generally like the more poppy stuff Devin has written (I actually don’t mind “Lucky Animals” off of Epicloud, and that song was lambasted to hell and back), this one doesn’t do it for me.

Although most of my favorite tracks on Addicted heavily feature Anneke, my vote for best track goes to “The Way Home,” which features some ridiculous clean vocals from Townsend. If you’re familiar with the live/Epicloud version of “Kingdom,” this will most likely appeal to you. Finishing in a close second is “Hyperdrive,” a cover from the original Ziltoid album with Anneke taking the lead vocal duties. 

The two closing tracks, “Numbered” and “Awake,” both feature well-executed hooks from Anneke. Numbered is a more progressive number, while the latter track is more pop-oriented and upbeat but extremely effective, and boasts a solid, calm ending. Out of the five Devin Townsend Project albums, the final three tracks rank as the best consecutive slate of songs you’ll find. 

“Resolve” and “Universe In A Ball” are both merely OK; the former is led by Anneke but the structure of the song is almost an exact replica of “Vanilla Radio” by The Wildhearts. Luckily, Devin was cool enough to give the band credit for the song. “Bend It Like Bender,” while largely uneventful, has the catchiest chorus of all. The title track and and “Supercrush” both fit into the “great songs” category. “Supercrush” was a deserving pick for a single, although I would prefer to hear almost any other song from Addicted, “Ih-Ah” notwithstanding, in a live setting.

If Devin Townsend really was trying to sound like Nickelback on this record, he nailed it. Although it may not be easily noticeable on the opener, as soon as “Universe In A Ball” comes in, there’s no escaping it. Unlike Nickelback, however, Devin and company are immensely talented and are capable of writing lyrics that actually mean something. 

…just as long as you ignore “Ih-Ah.”

Overall: A simple album with a complex feel. While slightly uneven, the closing three tracks end the album on a high note. And while I generally don’t critique cover art, this is easily the worst album cover in Devin Townsend’s lengthy history. 

Rating: 3.5*