Devin Townsend: Metal Detector

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A rabidly enthusiastic guitarist and singer from a young age, British Columbia-born multi-instrumentalist and all-round genius Devin Townsend first became known to the wider world when, at the age of 19, he was asked by six-string wizard Steve Vai to provide vocals on his 1993 album Sex And Religion. A brief stint with UK rock warriors The Wildhearts followed, but it wasn’t until Devin rebelled against the mindless, money-grabbing American music scene and formed Strapping Young Lad that he really caught the attention of metalheads around the world. A furiously intense and futuristic-sounding metal band – like Fear Factory on MDMA – that provided a showcase for Devin’s vocal talents and gift for penning skull-flattening riffs, SYL – who also featured Dark Angel/Death drummer Gene Hoglan and fellow Canadians Byron Stroud and Jed Simon – released their debut album, Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing, in 1995, and its superior follow-up, City, in 1997, becoming widely lauded underground heroes in the process. Meanwhile, Devin’s irrepressible creativity enabled him to embark on an entirely separate solo career, beginning with the lush, prog-tinged soundscapes and colossal, emotion-packed melodies of Ocean Machine: Biomech. Utterly distinct from the all-out onslaught of SYL, this solo material cemented its creator’s reputation as one of the most ingenious and original artists operating in rock music, and as the 21st century began it became clear that Devin was also extremely prolific and, perhaps more remarkably, extremely consistent. Since the turn of the decade, he has released a further eight solo albums – some under his own name, others with The Devin Townsend Band – and three more SYL records. After several years of intensive touring, Devin called a halt to SYL’s activities after the release of 2006’s The New Black. Currently a much sought-after producer – past credits include Soilwork, Lamb Of God, Himsa, Darkest Hour and, most recently, Bleeding Through – the happily reclusive Devin is always beavering away making music in one form or another. His next move, whatever it is, is guaranteed to be fascinating.

MUST HAVE

Alien Century Media, 2005

The lads finally achieved enormo-riff perfection. ‘Now is the time we deliver!’ howls Devin Townsend as Imperial, the opening track on the fourth Strapping Young Lad album, erupts like a planet-sized glitter-bomb and instantly reminds the listener that this band were in a class of one. Bizarrely, Alien was originally intended to be an EP comprising four new songs and four cover versions, including a deranged rendition of Welsh crooner Tom Jones’ What’s New Pussycat? that still languishes on Devin’s cutting room floor. That plan was swiftly ditched, thank fuck, and so the follow-up to the largely disappointing S.Y.L. album became a bona fide full- length, and the band’s most accomplished opus to date. Emboldened and sharpened up by several years of extensive touring, the fearsome foursome of Devin Townsend, Gene Hoglan, Jed Simon and Byron Stroud were a ruthlessly precise and devastating unit by this point, and with their leader churning out some of the heaviest and most insane material of his career, this was destined to be a masterpiece from the very start. One of rock’s best known sufferers of bipolar disorder, Devin was blatantly playing up to his image as extreme metal’s mad professor at this point too, as the increasingly frantic and unhinged lyrics to songs like Shitstorm (‘I can’t even eat!/And I can’t even fucking piss!/All I’ve been doing is thinking about God and death infinity!’) and Skeksis (‘Om! _Om! Om!/Be careful with polynomial colors!’) pointed towards a man very much at the end of his intellectual tether, trying to get as much rage and frustration out of his system before his head explodes. However, underneath all that unfettered craziness lay a fiercely focused metal record. Many critics and fans continue to cite City as the ultimate Strapping Young Lad album, but Alien is by far the superior record, even if it doesn’t quite surpass City’s frenzied intensity. When Devin pulled the plug on Strapping Young Lad in 2006, he did it knowing that he had already said all that he wanted to say with this most confrontational of metal bands. In fact, he’d said the vast majority of it – both musically and lyrically – on Alien. Best track: Shitstorm

Terria HevyDevy Records, 2001

An Earth-sized progressive metal masterpiece.

It’s not often that heavy music can bring a tear to the eye, but there’s something so overpowering about Terria that for those with an ear for a dash of beauty amid the general bludgeon of metal, this is an experience that effortlessly outstrips 99 per cent of everything else they’ll ever hear. With its shimmering wall of six-string resonance, dense clouds of spiralling vocal harmonies and numerous fluid and swoon-inducing twists and turns, the nine-minute Earth Day sums up the album’s euphoric enormity with jaw-dropping grace and dexterity. A truly progressive work of art that takes many repeat listens before its multi-faceted treasures can be fully absorbed, Terria shames the paucity of ambition that plagues most modern rock music. Timeless, unique and life-affirming, it should be available on prescription.

Best track: Earth Day

City Century Media, 1997

The future sound of insanity. When the computers finally evolve to the point where they start to think for themselves and decide to give mankind a good hiding, the soundtrack to our violent, state-of-the-art demise will probably just be a lot of explosions and terrified screeching. Luckily, Strapping Young Lad have already recorded City, a much more appropriate glimpse into the devastating sounds of the future that sounded light years ahead of its time a decade ago and that still sounds phenomenal today. Typified by the juddering, paranoid sci-fi fury of Oh My Fucking God – ‘All I want is my mommy!’ – this was what happened when Devin took Fear Factory’s groundbreaking blueprint and sent it screaming into orbit with its arse in flaming tatters. Easily the most extreme record of his career, City raised the metallic bar beyond the reach of mere mortals. Best track: Oh My Fucking God

WILD CARD

Ocean Machine: Biomech HevyDevy Records, 1997

A grand metallic hymn to Mother Nature

Having grown up in mountainous British Columbia, DT clearly has a well-developed relationship with the great outdoors. That he was able to so brilliantly evoke the essence of wild, windswept grandeur on his first solo album is testament to his preternatural creative instincts. Drenched in reverb and layered with sonic fairy dust and guitars the size of blue whales, Ocean Machine: Biomech sounds huge. Even better, Devin had the songs to match the gobsmacking ambition of his knob- twiddling exploits. From the surging Seventh Wave and the insanely catchy Life through to the overwhelming melodic deluge of The Death Of Music, this was a simply stunning introduction to the great man’s widescreen imagination; a richly rewarding album designed to be savoured at house-levelling volume.

Best track: Seventh Wave

** **

FANS ONLY!

Physicist HevyDevy Records, 2000

The best of both musical worlds.

Originally planned as a collaboration between DT and ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted – the pair had worked together previously on their short-lived IR8 project six years earlier – Physicist ended up as the Canadian’s third solo album. Confusion reigned for many fans, however, since the album featured all four members of Strapping Young Lad. In a sense, this is the closest Devin has come to combining the brutality of SYL with the beauty of his solo work, as exquisite melodies and heavenly vocal harmonies sit prettily atop some deceptively aggressive riffs and rhythms, most successfully on the ferocious Death and epic closer Planet Rain. Significantly, however, the lyrics on Physicist are much more introspective than any found on an SYL record, suggesting that, despite its occasionally savage undertones, this was a very personal statement. Either way, it’s fucking great.

Best track: Namaste

AVOID!

Ziltoid The Omniscient HevyDevy Records, 2007

Time to go easy on the caffeine, Dev…

Released last year, shortly after Devin Townsend had brought SYL to a sudden, grinding halt, Ziltoid The Omniscient is the sound of a very talented but somewhat jaded man dicking about in his own studio, primarily for his own entertainment. A concept album about an all-powerful alien with a major coffee habit – and it really doesn’t get any deeper than that – it’s a moderately amusing space metal romp the first time round, but despite a few decent tunes and plenty of Devin’s trademark invention, an air of forced goofiness hangs heavy over the whole enterprise, and when held up against the mighty likes of Terria, Alien and City, this vanishes in a puff of fatuous arse-gas. When Devin Townsend’s life and career are appraised and dissected in a few decades’ time, this will barely register as a footnote.

Best track: Planet Smasher

THE STUFF

One of the most frantically prolific men ever to pick up a stringed instrument, Devin Townsend simply can’t stop making music. As a result, he was compelled to found his own record label, HevyDevy Records, and it’s through this cottage industry that he has released a few more obscure efforts, all of which are available via the label’s website at www.hevydevy.com. Particularly worthy of your pennies are the excellent Devlab and Hummer albums, which both showcase Devin’s penchant for powerful, ambient music. You can also buy Official Bootleg, a superb live album recorded in Japan and Vancouver in 1999, and two collections of demos, known as Ass-Sordid Demos, volumes 1 and 2.

If you’d rather watch the man in action on your telly, then Strapping Young Lad’s live DVD, For Those Aboot To Rock, is an essential purchase. Recorded at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom in January 2004, it features the band tearing through a lengthy set of brutish classics, including particularly deranged versions of Oh My Fucking God and Far Beyond Metal. For more SYL live footage and a compelling overview of the band’s recorded works, you are strongly advised to pick up a copy of the 1994-2006 Chaos Years retrospective DVD/CD, which includes their entire set from Download in 2006, numerous other live clips and no less than seven promo videos, including Detox, Love? and Wrong Side. More tight-fisted Devin devotees can almost certainly watch all the same clips on YouTube, but we didn’t tell you that. Meanwhile, for anyone wishing to proclaim their love of Canada’s finest, there are several very stylish t-shirts available from new.merchnow.com, including a uniquely classy-looking Physicist shirt and, if you’re a sci-fi nerd, an eye-popping Ziltoid The Omniscient shirt.

Finally, true completists are obliged to hunt down a copy of IR8 Vs. Sexoturica, an album that features two side-projects instigated by ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted. IR8 features Devin Townsend on guitar and Exodus drummer Tom Hunting, while Sexoturica comprises Newsted, Hunting (again) and Sepultura’s Andreas Kisser. If that doesn’t whet your appetite, then you may be reading the wrong magazine.

This was published in Metal Hammer issue 183