Strapping Young Lad – City (1997)
DISCLAIMER: This post is particularly comparative in its approach! If you’re not familiar with the references I make… there’s a reason I put links to previous posts in these. It also has the side effect of potentially stimulating backreading and addictions. Isn’t that great?
City is not the codifier for Strapping Young Lad’s sound, despite basically being a refined, polished variant of ideas explored on their debut, Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing. On the other hand, this is only because SYL’s post-reformation albums in the 2000s are heavily influenced by Devin Townsend’s solo work in the interrim, so they’re a lot more bombastic and theatrical than their predecessors, which are basically improved versions of Demanufacture by Fear Factory. It hits most of the same aesthetic and technique ideas, with lots of percussive riffs, alternating screams and clean vocals, massive production values, and so forth. Shrewd readers might be wondering why to listen to this over the ‘original’ at this point – or for that matter, the original over this.
One major difference is that SYL incorporates a much greater amount of intentional humor into their work. City is generally claimed to be a general parody of ’90s metal, which seems to have some merit from both a musical and lyrical perspective. The lyrics are more obviously silly – while there is some content that appears to be meaningful by design (due to Devy’s then-untreated bipolar disorder), there are a bunch of neurotic, aggressive choruses and a clusterfuck worth of f-bombs. The rest of the musical elements are more subtle, but the main idea here is that while the aggression, distortion, and “brutality” levels are aesthetically similar to thrash and death metal, the riffs often take more influence from the sort of proto nu-metal that Fear Factory also dabbled in; occasionally for the same reasons, they get very bouncy and funk flavored (see “AAA” for a prime example).
Furthermore, even here, SYL plays up the melodic elements of their sound more than Fear Factory ever did. Devin Townsend’s “harsh” vocals, which mostly take the form of shouts and some distorted screams often have an element of melody to them. There are more background keyboards in some of these songs than there was on the entirety of Demanufacture. As a result, City is a much denser sounding album than my chosen point of reference, which occasionally had some space in its mix. The “wall of sound” approach we see on many Devin Townsend-flavored albums is in full force here, and my opinion on it remains clear as ever – neophytes might want to approach it for the first time on a less aggressive album. To be fair, City is not one of Devin Townsend’s more complex works – mostly consonant, and with verse-chorus songs, but in terms of pure aggression, he hasn’t really made any attempts to match it (although parts of Deconstruction come close).
It really comes down to what I consider better songwriting than its inspiration. City, for all it’s hamfistedness, is more creative and passionate than a lot of industrial metal, although it doesn’t really break any songwriting barriers. It may be an album created from mental illness, since Devin Townsend didn’t apparently get diagnosed until after writing Ocean Machine (which has been rebranded his first solo album). On the other hand, the humor/parody angle is something he’s never really decided to break away from, and it does keep City from devolving into mindless, testosterone laden aggression.
Highlights: “All Hail The New Flesh”, “Detox”, “Underneath The Waves”, “Spirituality”