Shining

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*

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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*

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Review: Casualties Of Cool – Casualties Of Cool

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Country/Blues Rock
Released: May 14, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Recent Releases – Off The Grid

By: Kris Kotlarik

Disclaimer: This review only covers the main disc of Casualties Of Cool. Given the length of the second disc, I would consider that to be a separate release were I to review it, much like Epiclouder or the “Stuff That Was Almost Stuff” CD from the Contain Us box set. My review of the second disc would have largely been negative anyway, since there is almost nothing on it that gains my attention except for “Dig For Gold” and “Dead Eyes,” both of which are okay but not stellar, and “Perspective,” which is pretty good and reminds me of a slightly slower version of “Unity” off of Infinity. “Ghost Wives” is just awful, and “Fight” is a stripped-down rework of the brilliant “Flight,” serving no real purpose. Luckily, this disc has no bearing on the main album’s score. 

“You’re reviewing a country album? What the hell is wrong with you!?” -Meathead metal elitists.

Don’t get me wrong, I think modern FM country music is total crap that strayed away from its musical roots into poppy territory quite a while ago. Except this isn’t one of those albums. This is more of a callback to country’s earlier days, further bolstered by a highly talented lineup and a nice, innovative concept.

Casualties Of Cool is a project headed by Devin Townsend and Ché Aimee Dorval (henceforth referred to as Dorval). The latter also appeared in a more limited role on the Devin Townsend Project album Ki and had some stellar parts, most notably the ending section of “Trainfire,” which has now become one of my favorite words to say in daily conversation. Other guests on this album include, among others, legendary drummer Morgan Ågren, Shining (NOR) saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby, and Kat Epple, the flautist from Ghost.

With a lineup like this, one would expect some pretty nice results to emerge. And for the most part, it is. At times, however, the overindulgence on Devin’s part is palpable. We’re talking about Devlab-esque indulgence here (Devlab is an electronic ambient album by Devin that isn’t anything special; if you’re looking for electronic stuff, however, The Hummer may be of interest to you).

The best songs on here, by a long shot, are “Flight” and “The Bridge.” The former features a nice riff and a relaxing vibe, with Dorval providing some highly memorable vocals. The second half has Devin’s trademark wall of sound, and the ending has a gorgeous Devin vocal line. Perhaps my favorite part, though, is the nice bass fill at the 5:00 mark. With that said, one of those moments of overindulgence rears its head when Dorval sings “Feed the pigeons with my collision,” with the last word being distorted by design. It makes sense, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Even so, “Flight” is in the running for song of the year.

“The Bridge” serves as the album’s climax and is the most “typical” Devin song here. He managed to get a Swedish choir to sing “Yolo” with straight faces (apparently, it just made sense to him at the time). That aside, it boasts two absolutely massive buildups with a brilliant mellow bridge section in between.

The other songs are rather mixed. Some, such as “Mountaintop” and “The Code,” are over the top when it comes to lyrical cheese. Others, including most of “Hejda” and all of “Pure” and “Pier,” can best be described as meditative music. “Deathscope” is a weird song to say the least; it starts with a straightforward rockabilly beat, but also has all kinds of crazy electronic distortion effects and also includes the only moments of heavy vocals (other than “The Bridge”). Munkeby does some wanking on the saxophone before it drifts off into ambient territory. “Deathscope” ranks as my third-favorite track.

“Moon” is Munkeby’s chance to shine, and his work is a major contribution to that track. “Broken” features the male contingent of the Swedish choir and provides a fantastic vocal delivery, but it doesn’t last nearly long enough. “Bones” is just an average song music-wise with more stellar Dorval vocals, but this track stands out as the one that progresses the album’s lyrical concept (a man lands on a planet and is attracted to a woman’s voice. That woman is trapped beneath the planet’s surface. The man tries to get both of them off the planet. Like many before him, the man dies but manages to free the woman). The concept in and of itself is fantastic and overall, it’s well-executed within the music.

The other tracks I haven’t mentioned (“Daddy,” “The Field,” “Forgive Me,” and “Ether”) are all solid and there isn’t much to be said about them that hasn’t already been said about the rest of the album: Some ambient stuff, amazing vocals by Dorval, and some calm, soothing melodies. There is far too much ambient indulgence on here for my taste, and yet I still keep going back to this album whenever I need a break from the heavier albums more than most others that would otherwise fit the bill in my library.

Overall: Taking out much of the ambient layering would have put this close to “Album of the Year” territory.

Rating: 3.5*

Additional Thoughts: Casualties Of Cool will be playing live shows in London and Helsinki. London gets just about every special Devin gig, including By A Thread and The Retinal Circus, while Helsinki had the privilege of hearing the entire Ziltoid The Omniscient album live. And it makes sense, since Devin has a huge fan base in both places and Helsinki is perhaps the best city on the planet. If I ever win the lottery, you know where to find me.