Dead Or Alive

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

 

 

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*