Getting Into: Devin Townsend: Part I: The 1990s
The articles in this series are designed to give a brief overview of a band's entire discography, so as to provide a clear point of entry for the uninitiated. It offers a different approach from the typical review format, for the curious newcomer to a well-traveled band.
Progressive metal, progressive rock, industrial metal, thrash metal, heavy metal, alternative rock, ambient, drone, noise, new-age, punk, country, blues rock, folk, New Wave of Coffee-Themed Canada-core
PART II: THE 2000s
PART III: THE 2010s
There are few artists in metal circles more synonymous with progressive music than the mercurial Devin Townsend. A plethora of other words, such as "longevity," "diversity," "virtuosity," and "baldness," comes to mind when discussing this prolific powerhouse, but like many musicians who could be labeled sui generis, Devin has often defied description; he has produced as many calling cards as he has albums. Fans revere him as much for his absurd sense of humor, charismatic stage presence, and waggish antics as for his bare-faced, personal themes and facility in genre-hopping. Devin's Stakhanovite production and diffuse array of influences have led to a sizable, varied, and yet highly consistent discography that has brought a great deal of acclaim and made him one of metal's most recognizable personalities even as he crosses freely in and out of the genre. It is this capacity for stylistic variety, as well as his instantly recognizable and quasi-undefinable sonic signature, that lands him in the sights of prog fans, despite the fact that his music is rarely as technical or theoretically unorthodox as that of typical progressive metal artists. His earlier works also exhibit a stark tonal divide attributable to his bipolar disorder, with the serene, exuberant, melodic atmospheres of his solo and Devin Townsend Band releases said to represent the "manic" side and the raw, industrial brutality of Strapping Young Lad to reflect the "depressive" side. The sharpness of this contrast has lessened over the years as Devin's work has taken on new forms and his relationship with himself has evolved, but his capacity for opposite musical extremes remains undiminished.
Efficiently organizing such a sizable discography (under so many different names, no less) presents certain challenges. Formatting, for starters, as we have recently discovered that Metal Storm does actually have a character limit on articles, and if there is one person out there with enough character to test the very limits of it, it is Devin Townsend. To avoid running into that barrier, and also to pare my assessments into readable segments, I have elected to divide Devin's career chronologically, with one article for each decade of his work thus far. Within each segment, I will take his albums by release date rather than by project. Furthermore, once more in the interest of preserving readability as well as out of mercy for myself, this particular "Getting Into" series will focus on the major projects helmed by Devin, omitting releases with Steve Vai, Front Line Assembly, Bent Sea, and other artists. Those odds and ends that are less germane to the topic may surface later on in some kind of addendum, but for now we are sticking to the main points; the substantial quantities of informally released, demo, and bonus material, often appended to studio releases or compilations in album-length chunks, will also be set aside and left to the imagination of those wishing to pursue Devin's endless proliferation of music even further.
Thus we begin with the 1990s, the decade that saw Devin attain his first foothold in the professional music world. He began with various local bands in the Vancouver scene and produced several home-brewed demos, eventually parlaying his talents into a gig as the vocalist in Steve Vai's band. After appearing on Vai's 1993 album Sex & Religion, accompanying Vai on a world tour, and landing a few stints with other projects, Devin was finally able to focus his efforts on creating his own music, beginning with Strapping Young Lad. During the 1990s, Devin experimented with various sounds and guises, distancing himself from the impersonal nature of his journeyman work and attempting to settle on a voice of his own. The diagnosis of his bipolar disorder in 1997 sparked a new creative awareness that first manifested in 1998's Infinity and has since played a role in much of Devin's work, due to the personal nature of his art. This and other obstacles made the first years a rough time for Devin, but he came out of the '90s with some sizable achievements.
|Strapping Young Lad - Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing (1995)
Devin's first foray into the musical slaughterhouse of Strapping Young Lad came after several years of grunt work with other artists, and Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing bristles with the enmity towards the music industry accumulated during that time. Combining mordant humor, uncontrolled fury, mechanically flavored production a la Front Line Assembly, and a ragtag assortment of extreme metal influences, Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing devotes itself first and foremost to the creation of noise and chaos, with blunt force and volume taking precedence over melody in most places. Based largely in thrash, with elements of death, industrial, and even groove surfacing throughout (as on the Pantera-style lurch of "Goat"), this album is so abrasive that it can hardly handle itself; the guitars are distorted into muddy bricks of fuzz, the piston-like percussion is enhanced by programmed effects and samples, and Devin's low-pitched, over-articulated snarling gives the album an exaggerated swagger that sells the rage. It lacks the finesse and consistent songwriting that blessed subsequent SYL releases, and the feeling of a first attempt pervades in retrospect, but Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing remains one of Devin's rawest and most extreme records to date (see "Happy Camper" for an example of a vocal performance nearly killing him).
Standout Tracks: "S.Y.L.", "Happy Camper," "Critic," "Skin Me"
|Punky Brüster - Cooked On Phonics (1996)
Still finding the industry's society distasteful, Devin took another swing at corporatized entertainment, this time in the form of a parodic concept album chronicling the rise and fall of a pop-punk band named Punky Brüster (formerly the Polish death metal band Cryptic Coroner). The music sends up the pop-punk explosion of the 1990s, intentionally recycling riffs and imitating the more obnoxious trends propagated by bands like Green Day, blink-182, and The Offspring, while the lyrics and intermittent narration tell a ludicrous tale and occasionally take harsher jabs at the scene. While on its face a farcical adventure manifested largely as a story that overshadows the music, Cooked On Phonics contains a number of songs that are as fun and memorable for their performances as for their comedic content - a few keepsakes from a one-off experiment that reflect Devin's versatile songwriting expertise - and his voice is in absolutely prime shape. The last track, "Metalheads Are Punk Rockers," is even a half-cover, half-send-up of the Ramones' iconic "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker." It is perhaps the most inelegant of Devin's attempts to coax a full narrative out of an album, which makes Punky Brüster somewhat unapproachable for those not in the know, but in between skits lie some punk "classics."
Standout Tracks: "EZ$$," "Fake Punk," "Recipe For Bait"
|Strapping Young Lad - City (1997)
Generally regarded as Strapping Young Lad's high water mark (and sometimes as Devin's), City harnesses the indiscriminate envelope-pushing of Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing and channels that anarchic turmoil into a series of well-defined songs that cut across extreme metal genres. City plays out like a blistering physical assault, armed with a cannonade of thunderous thrash riffs, a conscious injection of melody, and a massive wall of sound that has since become one of Devin's trademarks. The formidable trio of Jed Simon, Gene Hoglan, and Byron Stroud joined Strapping to solidify a permanent lineup and add an essential focus to Devin's hitherto-unchecked extremity. In terms of songwriting, City improves on Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing, but doesn't stray terribly far from its ideas - the most noticeable difference is in the production, now smooth and professional, and the performances, now tight and efficient. Devin's vocals range higher and louder, capitalizing on trenchant lyricism and bringing these explosive tales of depression, self-hatred, isolation, and sardonic reflection to life. City contains no wasted effort and no unnecessary digression; in this album, Devin had created his first coherent, consistent work, with some of the most memorable songwriting and some of the most impassioned deliveries in his entire discography. It remains a benchmark of heavy music and a fairly unique convergence of styles.
Standout Tracks: "Detox," "All Hail The New Flesh," "Oh My Fucking God," "Home Nucleonics"
|Devin Townsend - Ocean Machine: Biomech (1997)
Originally advertised as an album called Biomech by the project Ocean Machine, Devin soon amended the title of this album, wanting to preserve a sense of continuity with his own identity in all of his material; thus Ocean Machine: Biomech became the first album released under the name Devin Townsend. The aquatic-themed Ocean Machine leaves behind the spastic rabidity of SYL, if not all the thematic tumult, for much more tranquil waters; Devin trades the vicious industrial thrash for tender, calming melodies, uplifting rock tunes, and clean singing layered and harmonized to affect a shred of pop accessibility. Palpable ambient influence can be felt in the oft-employed synthesizers and the frequently reserved, minimalist arrangements. Ocean Machine functions in many ways as the "anti-City," comparatively demulcent and easy-going, with big chords and cool, pacific soundscapes; with the oceanic imagery, however, comes another dose of introspective melancholy. The album's relative lightness hardly precludes complexity, particularly in the epic trilogy that closes the record out, and as City may be called the magnum opus of Strapping Young Lad, so Ocean Machine is frequently held up as Devin's greatest solo achievement.
Standout Tracks: "The Death Of Music," "Bastard," "Seventh Wave," "Regulator"
|Devin Townsend - Infinity (1998)
Another piece of Devin's identity burst to life with Infinity, an eclectic stage show filled with infectious numbers inspired by musical theater. As the opener, "Truth," reveals, Infinity is filled with bombast and overblown gaiety; whether it's the gruesome Broadway swing of "Bad Devil," the manic swarming of "Ants," the indulgent sing-along of "Wild Colonial Boy," or the bouncing throwback to Ocean Machine that is "War," this album provides Devin with a great venue to show off just how hammy a showman he is. Incorporating some shuffling rhythms, multi-layered backgrounds, and meandering vocal exercises, Infinity retains many of Devin's progressive tendencies while it incorporates the bold posturing of theater. Where City exuded vitriol and Ocean Machine contented itself with horizon-gazing, Infinity is the unifying force that Devin describes as the "parent project" to both, roughly equidistant in terms of heaviness and taking a much broader view in terms of mood and subject matter.
Standout Tracks: "Bad Devil," "Wild Colonial Boy," "War," "Noisy Pink Bubbles"
With Devin's career, as with all things, there is a sizable amount of background to push through before getting to the crux of the matter, so please excuse the skewed context-to-review ratio. Fortunately, our starting place, the 1990s, was also Devin's least productive decade (by one interpretation, anyway), so we shall consider the amplitude of the introduction and the paucity of the analytical content to have balanced each other out. The 1990s were when Devin's musical career began in earnest, a very formative time that saw the incipience of his tent-pole projects and his introduction to the musical world at large, first as a hired talent and later with personal credibility. There is very little (some would say nothing) worth overlooking in Devin's discography, so the next installments in this series will be more involved by a good amount; please look forward to the incoming Part II: The 2000s.
|Written on 05.08.2020 by I'm the reviewer, and that means my opinion is correct.
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