Devin Townsend

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

 

 

Live Show Review: Ne Obliviscaris

Location: Columbus, Ohio
Venue: O’Shecky’s LIVE
Date: February 6, 2016

Ticket cost: $10/$12 door

By: Kris Kotlarik

This show represented a number of firsts for me. The most important of those firsts, by a wide margin, was seeing Ne Obliviscaris live. Following their release of Citadel, anticipation was at a fever pitch, so my reaction to them performing a 90-minute set in my city included a dropped jaw followed by a bunch of overly excited obscenities.

This is also the first time I have ever been to O’Shecky’s, a relatively small venue off the highway on the north side of Columbus. After last night’s show, I have mixed feelings about the venue; I was tempted to deduct a half a point from each band because all of them had to deal with crackling vocal mics (and I believe Ne Obliviscaris was also having a crackling snare mic, in addition to the drummer constantly asking for lighting). But beverage prices are very reasonable, and they have two stages that otherwise sounded great and expedited tonight’s five-band lineup.

As always, I’ll be going down the line from the opening band to the headliner to discuss their performances. Let’s begin!
___________________________________________

Kyrmzon (Mansfield, Ohio)
Rating: 2.0*

This being my first exposure to Krymzon, I didn’t come away from this show with a particularly favorable (or unfavorable) impression of them. Their blend of thrash and death metal wore me out fairly quickly, due in large part to vocalist Ron Wise’s constant screaming and the band’s gratuitous use of breakdowns towards the end of their set. Wise was constantly urging the crowd to come closer and to fuck shit up with little to no success. Also, Ryan Arter was remarkably stoic for a man laying down some heavy blast beats on the drums; he would go several minutes at a time without changing his facial expression, which appeared to look like either boredom or annoyance (my guess between the two options is the latter given the occasional technical difficulties, although for all I know, that’s just his game face).

That’s not to say that I hated their performance; Wise, along with guitarist Joey VanDine and bassist Adam Anderson, all played with a lot of energy. Perhaps Krymzon just isn’t my style. And that’s okay.

IMG_20160206_201547149
___________________________________________

Others By No One (Dayton, Ohio)
Rating: 3.5*

These guys surprised me. This is a very young progressive metal band with touches of avant-garde (and the occasional splash of Maximum The Hormone). Just about the only technical flaw I can point out in their performance came from lead vocalist Max Mobarry, who frequently sang away from the microphone and was occasionally inaudible as a result.

With that out of the way…wow. I can’t think of any other opening act, save for some droning black metal band or something like that, to play a 15+ minute song when they are allotted just 30 minutes. That kind of behavior has the potential to piss off approximately 90% of the audience. It only makes sense, then, that Others By No One is undoubtedly influenced by Devin Townsend (as evidenced by drummer Sam Ruff wearing a Z2 shirt). The opening lick of that marathon track featured a riff that was eerily similar to the melodic part of Devin’s “Color Your World” (or the title track of Ki, if you prefer that album). Later on, they slowed down the track so that Mobarry could sing the lyrics “let’s go down to the beach,” similar to “Two Weeks” by Strapping Young Lad or “Disruptr” from Ki.

The most unique attribute about this band, however, is that this is not just a Devin Townsend worship band (that already exists in the form of The Omega Experiment); they played “Gravity of the Bulls,” a track that has elements of modern hardcore. Their music also contents elements from other prog acts like Animals As Leaders or Scale The Summit. As an added bonus, there is no question that out of all the bands that were playing tonight, Others By No One was having the most fun. Bassist Quique Bocio, in particular, reminded me of the performance For The Imperium put on at the 2012 Finnish Metal Meeting; he was all over the place and jumping around the stage as if nobody was watching, and that was extremely fun to watch.

Make no mistake: Others By No One is still raw to the bone, but they are dripping with potential and will make Ohio proud in short order. Please bring merch the next time you come here.

IMG_20160206_205300519
__________________________________________

The Conquering (Columbus, Ohio)
Rating: 3.0*

I’ve seen The Conquering more than enough times to know that their brand of black metal will most likely never appeal to me. But this performance was immensely better than the last time I saw them perform; they got their drummer back after he was forced to ride the pine due to a fractured foot, and the band was markedly better as a result. Plus, Dan Rivera is still rocking that big jug of water in addition to his bass. Needless to say, their chemistry is back.

Completely unrelated to the music of this band, Christopher Wiford on the vocals is starting to pull off the Devin Townsend skullet circa 2004. My advice? Keep it.

IMG_20160206_212720013
__________________________________________

Mithridium (Columbus, Ohio)
Rating: 2.5*

Like The Conquering, I’ve seen Mithridium a number of times opening for other touring acts. They’ve got a fun deathrash style that makes for solid entertainment, although arguably the most entertaining aspect of this band’s performance was the band’s banter with the sound guy. Out of these first four bands, there is little question that Mithridium was the most polished group. They put on a good performance, albeit not necessarily one that stands out on a nightly basis.

IMG_20160206_220609676_HDR.jpg
__________________________________________

Ne Obliviscaris (Melbourne, Australia)
Rating: 4.5*

My advice for anyone seeing another show at O’Shecky’s would be to get to about the third row. I started off right up in front and quickly took note of just how engaging all six members of Ne Obliviscaris is with the audience, but from up front I couldn’t hear the violin worth salt and the guitars were virtually buried. So I had to move back a little bit and the sound quality was significantly better, and I didn’t miss any of the band’s craziness. Of course, I got greedy, grabbed a chair, and parked it right next to the sound booth for the rest of the show. What I got was exactly what I wanted: One thousand ounces of pure audio gold.

It will never cease to amaze me how talented this progressive death metal group is. Tim Charles is a wizard on the violin and even jumped off the stage to get better acquainted with the crowd while playing. Xenoyr’s growled vocals were relentless through the duration of the set, and Daniel Presland was an absolute monster on the drums. But this review isn’t about individual performances; this is about a band coming all the way from Australia to play in a bar with a maximum capacity of 400 people and playing as if they were back at home playing at the Soundwave Festival (rest in peace, Soundwave!).

The fact that they were able to put together an 80-minute set with just two full albums, and only for a handful of headlining shows, is a stunning feat. They also stayed after the show to talk to fans without dealing with any VIP nonsense. It’s quite clear that not only is Ne Obliviscaris passionate about their music; they also take great pride in their fans. This ranks just behind Devin Townsend’s 2011 show at the House of Rock in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on the list of best small-venue shows I have ever seen.

Ne Obliviscaris is easily among the best modern metal bands going today and they were overdue for some recognition in the United States. With any luck, we will be seeing a lot more of them in the future.

IMG_20160206_230610319

Black To The Future Tour: Ghost w/ Purson

Location: Columbus, Ohio
Date: September 23, 2015
Ticket cost: $27.60 ($40.30 with Ticketmaster’s asshole-ish convenience fees)
Merch purchased: None

By: Kris Kotlarik

I think it’s about time for a pre-review rant about concert ticket prices. Shows that are at Alrosa Villa or Ace of Cups and/or promoted by Columbus Events Group are very reasonable in terms of cost with minimal advance fees. But then there’s Promowest Live and Ticketmaster. How do they think that adding a 50% markup on ticket fees is acceptable? Why even bother working with the evil empire that is Ticket[ass]master in the first place? There are plenty of good shows both at the Newport and the LC Pavillion, but these fees price me (and probably others) out of their shows.

That didn’t stop the Newport from nearly selling out last night, easily eclipsing the Decibel Magazine 2014 tour stop for the largest crowd I have seen at this venue, approaching upwards of 1,700 strong. With more than a handful of audience members dressing up in their Papa Emeritus garb, Ghost put on a stellar show that engaged the entire crowd. But was their performance worthy of an all-time favorite designation? What about Purson? Read on, together as one.

Purson: 3.0*
Set length: 40 minutes

This might be one of the few occasions where I can say with a straight face that the opening band sounded better than the headliner. …why are you chasing me with pitchforks? At least give me a chance to explain.

Perhaps it was because they had one less member to work with; they had pretty much the same makeup as Ghost, running two guitars (with founder Rosalie Cunningham handling the lead vocals), one bass, the drums, and a set of keys. Having even one less person to mix can make all the difference in terms of sound quality; I took my usual perch on the balcony towards the center of the venue*, and their take on 70’s style psychedelic progressive rock sounded pristine. It was like I was watching them play in their practice space. The only issue I had with their sound was with the somewhat soft backing vocals, and half the time, it just looked like the person who would be singing backing vocals just had their mouth up towards the mic while playing his instrument, which brings me to my next point:

While that kind of intimate feeling in a large venue can be a good thing, the drawback here is that Purson lacked any semblance of stage presence, spending less than a minute talking to the audience over the length of their set. The band didn’t move around on stage and, with a few exceptions, showed little visible energy. The lighting was consistently dark and brooding, and their song selection was also puzzling; their last song, even with a brief uptempo section, was easily their slowest of the night. All of that adds to listener fatigue, at least from my perspective.

Two audience members who were more familiar with Purson than I was told me that they heard the band’s full studio releases and felt indifferently about them, but said they sounded significantly better live than on tape. After taking another whack at their music, I can’t help but agree. Their latest EP, In The Meantime, is solid, but the sound on stage is vastly superior. Even so, I’ll be looking forward to their next release, Desire’s Magic Theatre, when it drops in the near future.

They could also stand to lower t-shirt prices. I have a hard time paying $35 for a t-shirt for any reason, but that goes double for a band that I’m not especially blown away by. They’re good, but not “$35 for a t-shirt” good.

All that said, Ghost picked an ideal touring mate for their jaunt around North America, as Purson is a great complementary counterpart to Ghost.

Ghost: 4.0*
Set length: 110 minutes

Ghost has the art of stage presence down to a science. With Papa Emeritus leading the five Nameless Ghouls, the band’s performance took on a life of its own. Even before the set started, anyone who was, for whatever reason, unfamiliar with Ghost quickly got their answer as to what they got themselves into; with a large satanic alternate cover art banner in full display and church choir music blasting on the speakers, everyone knew they were in for a night of occult counter-culture shenanigans. And for those still confused, the crowd was chanting “Satan! Satan! Satan” shortly before they started.

Once the band took the stage and roared into the spooky “Spirit,” it was all smiles from the audience, and rightfully so. And while I greatly enjoyed their set, I had a few nitpicks with it. The obvious first complaint is that the band was a little bit too loud across the board. One of my favorite features of Ghost’s studio albums is the subtle mix of the drums, but that is nixed here in favor of a straightforward drum blasting. This was especially noticeable on “Con Clavi Con Dio,” arguably my favorite Ghost song.

Papa Emeritus III, meanwhile, was somewhat flat on his lower notes on occasion. And while all of the new tracks they played (the only one that wasn’t played was “Deus In Absentia”) sounded great, I was shocked at the largely ignored Kansas-esque keyboard riff in “Absolution,” and further puzzled by the use of a keytar on “Mummy Dust” instead of the former.

There was also the small issue of Papa Emeritus taking off his anti-papal cloak during “Cirice” midway through the show and leaving it off for the rest of the show. I’m not sure if that’s normal, as this was my first time seeing Ghost live, but it was baffling to see him perform without that garb. But that doesn’t take away from how great of a live song “Cirice” is.

Minor shortcomings and/or question marks aside, this was a pretty special show; most notable was the debut acoustic performance of “Jigolo Har Migiddo,” adeptly showing off the skills of the Nameless Ghouls. Papa Emeritus III also gave several small percussion instruments to fans for them to play during this song.

Watching “Year Zero” was a spectacle in and of itself, and I was thoroughly pleased with “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen,” a song that I was already highly fond of and is currently stuck in my head. “Ritual,” “He Is,” “Stand By Him,” “Per Aspera Ad Inferi,” and “Mummy Dust” also stood out among their best songs as tracks that translate extremely well into a live setting.

Closing out the show with “Monstrance Clock” was simply masterful; it seems like an odd choice until you realize that there are few things better in a concert setting than having a huge crowd singing along with a backing track choir as the band exits the stage: “Come together; together as one. Come together, for Lucifer’s son.” Fucking genius.

Above all else, Ghost is right up there with Devin Townsend in terms of personally engaging with fans during the set. I counted at least ten instances where Papa Emeritus singled out a specific fan who said something to him, and there were nothing but smiles coming from those fans. It was a high-energy set that should be considered a must-see for any metal fan.

IMG_20150923_212907

*If you go to the Newport and are looking for the best possible sound quality, stand as close to the sound booth as possible, located behind the main concert floor and next to the bar. 

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.

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: 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*