Casualties Of Cool

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 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*