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 – Ziltoid The Omniscient

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: May 21, 2007
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest

By: Kris Kotlarik

With Z2 set to be released later this month, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the original Ziltoid. In the coming days I will also look at Epicloud and its bonus disk, known as Epiclouder, since it bears a resemblance to the first disk of the Z2 album.

If you’re well-versed in Devin Townsend’s material, the best comparison I can make with respect to this album would be the parody punk album Punky Bruster: Cooked On Phonics. And if you know Cooked Oh Phonics, then the odds are that you already know (and love) this album. If you’re not familiar with Devin at all, I probably wouldn’t recommend starting with this album, since there’s a lot of quirks to it. Like the alien that is obsessed with taking the Earth’s coffee, or the cheeseball narration that occupies a considerable chunk of the album. While this is a good album, it’s right up there with Deconstruction for albums I would least recommend to beginning listeners. It is also worth noting that this album is entirely a solo effort. Devin took it upon himself to play all the instruments, including the “drums,” or in this case a computerized kit.

The shorthand-titled introduction is a gallant, quick number, with Ziltoid quickly demanding the universe’s ultimate coffee. The lyric liners in the booklet are absolutely hilarious, and this is how the album is introduced in the booklet:

Ziltoid is currently hovering 5 miles above Qatar. His fourth dimensional status gives him control of time (he can’t alter it, but he can participate in it for fun). But in order to bend it, he requires the perfect fuel for time travel: Black coffee – found in only one place in the universe, Earth. … He descends on the earth in a ferocious hail of aggression (a facade), but he wants to come off as a bad ass, so he wails and caterwauls and threatens the Earth’s governments that if he doesn’t receive the perfect cup of coffee, he will invade the earth.

I can’t make this up. I wonder if this album has been banned in Qatar yet.

“By Your Command” is a complex number spanning over eight minutes and has a lot of different stuff going on throughout, building upon itself in the back end as the earth’s soldiers prepare to make a stand against ZIltoid’s retaliation for the fetid coffee the humans gave him. The next track, “Ziltoidia Attaxx!!!,” is widely considered to be the weakest proper track on this album, but I quite enjoy it. It’s heavy as all get-out, and the wanking guitar solo, featuring some Ziltoid taunts of how easy it is to play, is one of the better attempts at legitimate musical comedy I can recall coming across.

At this point, Captain Spectacular and his crew of remaining humans go on an interstellar chase that consumes most of the remaining tracks. “Solar Winds” features one of those lengthy passages of dialogue, but it eventually gives way to some fantastic calm vocals from Devin. This is another lengthy track that builds up as it goes along. Unlike “By Your Command,” however, I find myself skipping this track on occasion because I feel that it could have been cut to five minutes (instead of nine) and it would have been a better fit for this album. “Hyperdrive” is a great, mellow track that I would probably say is the easiest entrance to the Ziltoid multiverse, although I could also just as easily suggest the version from Addicted, which I consider to be slightly better than this one. And I do mean slightly; this is one of the tracks where having the drum machine account for your percussion can take a bit of a negative toll.

The same can be said for “N9,” which is another underrated track. It is about on par with “Ziltoidia Attaxx” in terms of heaviness, but the vocals are cleaner. The following track, “Planet Smasher,” is one of the slower tracks on the album but also packs a strong punch once you get past the introductory dialogue. The chorus is top-notch, and this is one of the better tracks in terms of conveying the story. Basically, Ziltoid decides to be a dick and feels like destroying a planet for no real reason, so he attempts to summon Herman, the sixth-dimensional planet smasher, who essentially tells Ziltoid to fuck off.

Which brings us to “Color Your World” (following another segment of dialogue, which got its own track). The first half is Strapping Young Lad-esque in terms of its energy. And it only gets heavier, as per the story in the booklet:

Here, Ziltoid is so confused, that he gives one last violent attempt at power, screaming his insecure proclamation to the creator and the universe.

And holy shit, the section that follows this is among the most aggressive sections in Devin Townsend’s discography. But what happens after that is equally remarkable: Everything calms down (Ziltoid reverts to his inner child, per the story), with some more beautiful clean vocals a la “Solar Winds.” But the Creator interrupts everything with a shocking revelation: Ziltoid, the Creator, and everyone else is nothing more than a puppet. What follows is “The Greys,” which I am not even sure is actually part of the story. If it is, my best interpretation is that Ziltoid takes some time to reflect on all the things he has learned, completely ignoring the fact that the following track, “Tall Latte,” reveals that this whole album was just a daydream by some guy who was bored out of his damn mind as a result of serving a bunch of morons at some hipster coffee shop. Which should take away nothing from how awesome “The Greys” is, as unlike “Hyperdrive,” it stands alone. Anneke van Giersbergen can’t make this track any better than it already is, as it would change the entire vibe of the track.

If I have to take away points from this album, it comes from the drum machine (which is rectified on the live performance in Finland several years later) and the ultimate copout of an ending. Also, the bonus tracks are kind of a waste of time, and “Ziltoid” even calls  it “terrible, terrible bonus material.” The last track, “Another Road,” is actually a decent song, but the click track can be heard during the entire song, taking away from what could have been.

Overall: Zany, fun, and a little tacky, perhaps by design. Not a masterpiece as some might claim, but would it have been a top 30 album of 2007? Easily.

Rating: 4.0*