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Devin Townsend – Terria (2001)

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I’m beginning to think Terria is the archetypal Devin Townsend album from which all future works spring forth; at the very least, all of his solo content (well, maybe not the “heavy” stuff like the Ziltoids or Deconstruction) can be compared to something on here at some level. With that in mind, it might be best to try and understand Terria in isolation, analyzing it as if it were my first exposure to the stereotypical Devin Townsend sound, but given that such is far from the case, that sounds intimidating and needlessly difficult. I can’t guarantee it’ll happen, but if I play my cards right, you should at least be able to understand the what and why of Terria

Terria walks a fine line between ambient acoustic pop and heavy “progressive” metal (those times that I wrote for DMU makes it hard for me to use “progressive” as anything other than a marketing term), using its lengthy duration to explore all the ways you could combine these ideas or keep them separate. We get a series of extended songs and reliably sedate pacing, with occasional excursions into more aggressive, driving content. The mixing and production unites all of the content here, which is understandable given Devin’s instantly recognizable style of composition. Ultimately, there’s a good deal of structural variety, but the long length and occasional extended compositional asides will make a deep delve into Terria‘s depths an intense undertaking.

It’s immediately ironic that I use that phrasing – as far as I’m concerned, Terria has a lot of filler, but its peaks are huge. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the more driving and up-tempo parts of this album that keep it in my collection. For instance, “Olives” and “Mountain” make for a very drawn out and contemplative introduction, but when the pay off is “Earth Day”, a 9.5 minute epic that encapsulates every style Devin has done right over his career, it’s easier to give even the less immediately gripping tracks a chance. One benefit of listening to this album in one go (as opposed to going the singles route with the highlights) is that it really nails the laid back, contemplative, possibly pot-hazed atmosphere it appears to be going for. Whether that’s something you want in your life is something you have to decide for yourself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that if I want to listen to Devin Townsend, I usually favor the heavier, more SYL flavored side of his discography. If that ever changes, though, there’s always Terria. Not to be confused with Terraria under any circumstances.

Highlights: “Earth Day”, “Canada”, “The Fluke”

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Devin Townsend – Transcendence (2016)

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This review is only for Transcendence proper. I might give Holding Patterns a feature of its own someday, though.

Devin Townsend is, as previously established, a musician of many styles. Transcendence isn’t without precedent, but its approach is markedly different from anything else of his that I’ve covered on Invisible Blog. My writing on this subject has mostly focused on his more aggressive material (with a few diversions into other stuff, like the straight up pop-metal of Sky Blue). Transcendence, though, is generally pretty laid back and chill, at least by comparison. Buzzwords of choice aside, Devin’s latest isn’t entirely free of intense moments, but the more interesting dichotomy here isn’t quiet vs loud, but instead how it walks a thin line between Sky Blue style pop and extended progressive rock style compositions.

The closest analogy you could make without heading out of Devyspace is that Transcendence develops some of the ideas we saw on Devin’s early solo albums, up to about 2001’s Terria or so. This album even starts with a remake of “Truth”; while it hews fairly close to the original, this new arrangement is slower, cleaner, arguably less chaotic than the initial 1998 version. Make no mistake of it – even though the amount of layered instruments is similar to your average DT album, the production style threw off my initial appraisal.

The other major gimmick on this album is that it contains significantly more songwriting collaboration from other members of the Devin Townsend Project. Devin remains the lead songwriter, though, so nothing here sounds completely alien. Maybe if his compositional range was narrower, this would pass with more commentary. Between that and the prog-styled songwriting, though, even the obviously pop structured songs seem to go through more distinct sections and otherwise unexpected transitions than usual. Other than that, I can’t say that this has as significant an effect on the songwriting as I was initially expecting, and that Devin most likely still plays the leading role. Guess we don’t have to worry about strange coups in Vancouver.

I digress – yet again this is an album I accept without second thought because it’s by Devin Townsend, and it isn’t completely outside the realm of what I expected. Transcendence has all the amenities you’d expect from his recent work – multiple styles of songwriting (sometimes even within the same song), quality vox from Anneke van Giersbergen, and a high level of instrumental to go alongside everything else. Sometimes, more of the same-but-slightly-different is a good thing.

Highlights: “Secret Sciences”, “Higher”, “Transcendence”, “Offer Your Light”

Devin Townsend – Dark Matters (2014)

folderIf you ask me, Dark Matters is a big budget re-imagining of its illustrious predecessor. It’s probably musically closer to Deconstruction than the first Ziltoid album, and within the context of Devin Townsend’s musical approach, it has a stronger narrative. I’d say that in these various regards it’s a pretty typical sequel. We’d still best take a look at what this means for Dark Matters, because otherwise all those optimistic people who read about Ziltoid #1, or even just Sky Blue (the other half of Z²) would end up somewhere else, somewhere distinctively not written by me. We can’t have that, can we?

Like Deconstruction before it, Z² is an album of guests held together by its main creative personality. It contains a couple of guest vocalists, although none of them seem to have the fame of Anneke van Giersbergen. Devin Townsend still acts as our main vocalist, using a variety of techniques to perform all sorts of characters. His narrations, in particular, are particularly useful in this regard, perhaps too useful! Remove them (as the alternate dialogue free version of Dark Matters does), and you lose a lot of the conceptual unity that makes this a Ziltoid album. Given that this is more story driven than any of its predecessors… well, let’s hope you don’t find the dialogue interludes annoying. I personally didn’t, but anyone who does is getting their experience gutted.

Perhaps the only thing we haven’t heard on prior Devin Townsend albums is the “Universal Choir” – mass fan vocal participation that appears on a couple of these tracks. Otherwise, this is a formula we’ve heard before, even if the actual recombinations are different. Tracks here are more compact than they were in the past, although there’s a few outliers – “War Princess” and “Earth” come to mind pretty quickly if you look at the tracklist. I suppose nobody involved in the project really wanted to change up the formula too much. Personally, I can’t complain, because Devin does this sort of thing pretty well, and massive genre shifts are not without their potential pitfalls.

Given what I thought about the other half of Z², it might be reasonable to say the entirety of it is a “safe” album, suitable for anyone who enjoyed previous efforts by its creator. As a reimagining, Dark Matters is unique enough to stand on its own, and without the sheer aggression at all costs of other aspects of the Devyverse (like Strapping Young Lad), it’s certainly easier to acclimate to. Anything else on this subject is redundant at best.

Highlights: “Ziltoidian Empire”, “War Princess”, “Ziltoid Goes Home”

 

Devin Townsend – Sky Blue (2014)

foldersmallI’ve decided that Devin Townsend’s recent double album () is too disjointed to talk about as anything but its two constituents. Thusly, Sky Blue!

A lot of this album is pretty far outside my usual listening habits, but within Devy’s massive discography I can already draw a lot of clear comparisons – Biomech and Terria come to mind if I scan what I’ve listened to, and I’m told Ki, Addicted, Epicloud, and a whole slew of his other recent works share some similarities too. “Fallout, in particular, sounds like it could’ve been written for Biomech and easily fit in with a production shift. Needless to say, this is far from undiscovered territory for Devin and his various companions. One major difference, though, is the huge emphasis on vocals, especially those of main female vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. This isn’t even her first time working inside the Project; but the types of vocals she uses seem pretty similar to those of Devin; lots of clean earnest singing at various dynamic levels, although she doesn’t seem to bother with screams.

Now, there are some people who aren’t into artists using the pop side of their repertoire/musical language. I used to think I was such a person, but I’ve found some degree of serenity since then. I don’t know about the rest of Devin’s discography, but apparently has a lot of content that tributes or pastiches other artists, including a few you are very unlikely to read about on this blog. Considering that I never even thought this might be a possibility until researching the duology AFTER listening to it, I’d say it’s nothing more skeevish (or normal) listeners need to worry about. On the other hand, it also probably means the members here have been doing as they please for a while. It’s a good way to keep your music from being too neurotic.

Oddly enough, when you get to the dynamic levels that you see on Sky Blue, I begin to prefer the straighter ahead pop material to the more ambient material; Tangerine Dream this is not, and it doesn’t want to be either. Comparing again to other Devin Townsend works, I tend to get more out of Biomech and Infinity than let’s say Terria, and I’m probably not going to end up acquiring Ghost unless I end up listening to a sample of it and getting particularly gripped/possessed by its content. I don’t know if I would’ve listened to Sky Blue if it didn’t come with the successor to Ziltoid the Omniscient, but it succeeded in further interesting me in that side of Devin Townsend’s music. In other words, it’s a success.

Highlights: “Fallout”, “Universal Flame”, “Warrior”

 

Devin Townsend – Ziltoid the Omniscient (2007)

folderQuite possibly the most epic piece of music to be written about a barista. Ziltoid the Omniscient was my first exposure to Devin Townsend, and as it occupies a place of what (for him) is middling intensity – not nearly as straight up aggressive as Strapping Young Lad, much more so than the rest of his solo work, and generally a lot more theatrical and melodramatic than normal. In case the cover didn’t clue you in, it also emphasizes the humorous aspects of his music. Like Deconstruction some years after it, this qualifies as a musical, albeit a more focused and narrative-oriented one.

Ziltoid the Omniscient also has the honor of being more of a one man show than even the rest of Devin’s discography. While he had a few people helping him out with mastering, he handled the entirety of composition, performance, recording, etc. It remains one of Devin’s more diverse works, moving between the ‘narrative’ songs I implied in the intro (lengthy stuff), straight up pop rock songs like “Hyperdrive”, and a few skits for good measure. The variety of musical styles combined with the continuous narrative does make for an interesting juxtaposition, and luckily for us listeners, Devin is able to keep everything coherent and interesting despite the constant changes in style.

With all this in mind, this is still pretty standard fare for Devin Townsend, although because it draws upon so many of the techniques he’s used in the past… actually, that doesn’t make it any less so. Because this is a musical, the vocals deserve special mention – Devin portrays a multitude of characters, each with a distinct voice – from Ziltoid’s theatrics to Herman’s deep growl, creating an effect of multiple vocalists even though there’s just one. It’s… obviously rather versatile. The album’s heavy synthesizer presence also comes to mind – while it’s generally leveled as a background element, it provides a constant presence and arsenal of sounds to a degree that I think at the time of release was unsurpassed in DT’s discography. Given how much layering Devin Townsend’s styles rely on, it’s hard to judge, but it definitely fits Ziltoid more than SYL (Hint: I am not a big fan of 2004’s Alien).

In retrospect, trying to compare this album to the rest of Devin Townsend’s discography may have been a bit of a writing mistake. Ziltoid really does have a bit of a “the same, yet different” feel to it that satisfies fans of Devin Townsend (like yours truly) but makes finding the words for a comparison harder than it ought to be.  Then again, I have written a bit on his other albums, so you might very well be able to use those in tandem with this review to get more information if you need it.

Highlights: “By Your Command”, “Solar Winds”, “Planet Smasher”

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”

Susumu Hirasawa – Blue Limbo (2003)

Blue Limbo is a sci-fi book by Terrence M. Green. I haven’t read it, but I get the feeling that this album is entirely unrelated. Not that I can tell, since I’ve made no attempt to actually learn the Japanese language. Even then, I’d have trouble interpreting, since Susumu Hirasawa likes using archaic Japanese. Anyways, outside of its musical merits, Blue Limbo has a lot of odd events framing it. For example, the song “High-Minded Castle” (a better translation is apparently “Royal Castle”) was released for free as a protest against the Iraq War. The title track has a music video which showcases Hirasawa riding around on a recumbent bicycle (when he’s not being a CGI-empowered spaceship), which is slightly more unusual than the usual subject matter of his promotional videos. I could go on in this vein for a while.
On the other hand, the music basically relies on the same songwriting formulas as it has from Aurora onwards. Susumu Hirasawa has generally been content to write in a pop flavored verse-chorus vein, and this album isn’t an exception. Blue Limbo still shows the continued evolution of Hirasawa’s aesthetics. Since P-MODEL had disbanded by the time this came out, it makes sense that he would transfer the urge to make electronic music over to his solo projects. As a result, between 1999 and 2003, we got Philosopher’s Propeller, which had more obvious synthesizers than most previous work, and Solar Ray, which was a compilation of electronics heavy rerecordings of earlier work. This isn’t as overtly synthy as Solar Ray, or some of Hirasawa’s mid-90s work, but the electronics are often used in more complex ways – there’s more loops and more complex parts in general.

Also of note are the vocals, which continue a trend that showed up on the 1995 album Sim City (Which, oddly, has more to do with Thai culture than Maxis). From that point onwards, Hirasawa started using significant amounts of background ‘guest’ vocals – often using techniques associated with various forms of Asian music, and offering him a way to incorporate his apparent interest in those cultures. Blue Limbo represents a partial reversal of that trend, as it, and the album after (Byakkoya) it show off more “Western” vocals, mainly taking the form of massed choirs. As you can see, it’s very hard to talk about any of S.H’s albums without mentioning the others. The guy has a very large body of work, and he tends to change fairly gradually from album to album, so it’s interesting to compare albums and helps one think about them. On the other hand, such an approach makes it harder for any of the albums to show off their individuality. One thing I think Blue Limbo does particularly well is use of guitar – Susumu Hirasawa has this interesting improvisational style as a guitarist that doesn’t really manifest except as occasional guitar solos. This album has more and better guitar work than anything else he’s released in the last few years that I’ve listened to. Whether you should obtain it or not depends mainly on whether you’re into the style of music he’s been developing over his career.

 

Highlights: “Grandfatherly Wind”, “Ride the Blue Limbo”, “The Sniper”, “Limbo-54”
Incidentally, at this point, what I would be interested in seeing from Susumu Hirasawa is more collaborations, possibly even with someone like Devin Townsend, who has a surprisingly similar approach at times. Obviously, DT plays up the humor aspects of his work a lot more, and has been known to work at the ‘balls-crushingly heavy’ end of extreme metal. A combination of the two definitely has potential.