Friday, November 7, 2014

album review: 'z²: dark matters' by the devin townsend project

And now we come to the second round of our Devin Townsend discussion, of the second disc and the one that definitely gripped more of the fans coming from Ziltoid The Omniscient. It was the sequel that so many of them had been asking for, the glorious return of Ziltoid and the madcap space insanity that had defined that album.

And yet, if I'm being completely honest, the more I thought about it the more I wasn't sure a sequel to that 2007 record was a great idea. Sure, there was undoubtedly more space to be tapped in the gloriously epic and epically silly saga of Ziltoid, but that album also ended in a way that didn't exactly leave itself open for sequels in the same way. It's similar to the sense of annoyance I had when I saw Disney's live action Alice In Wonderland directed by Tim Burton that actually turned out to be a sequel, couldn't be bothered to call itself Through The Looking Glass, and was a total piece of shit. Not spoiling anything, but when you transform what was designed as a pure flight of fantasy or madness into something grounded in a more concrete reality - you run the risk of breaking the joke.

And it seemed like Devin Townsend was running into problems too. A followup to Ziltoid was announced in 2009, and yet it took him five years to fully get the project to coalesce. He utilized the character on a satirical radio show in 2013 and bandied around the idea of a visual project, but this year he finally managed to pull things together for , and to placate the label he had to bundle it with a Devin Townsend Project album that actually managed to be pretty damn awesome. And even despite my serious misgivings going into this record, I have to admit I was still pretty damn excited for a new Ziltoid adventure - did we get it?

Well, in a way. It's definitely a new Ziltoid adventure that has plenty of callbacks to the first album seven years ago. It's bigger, heavier, more gloriously exaggerated than ever - and I'm not sure it works at all. Speaking as a fan who is really trying to like this and as a fan of progressive metal and musicals, I wanted Dark Matters to click with me in the same way the first Ziltoid story - and it just doesn't. Where the first Ziltoid story was a flight of fantasy, a daydream that nimbly balanced comedy with epic power, Dark Matters is a cartoon, and not a great one. I'm not saying it's bad by any stretch, but I am underwhelmed and a little disappointed that this was the direction that Townsend took the story. On that note, I'm going to throw up a spoiler warning here - I'll avoid talking about the big twists, but the overall arc will need to be discussed. You have been warned.

So appropriately, let's start with the lyrics and themes. Townsend has described the overall theme as 'Ziltoid against the world', and he's not far off, originally being revered as an alien unlike any other on Earth before his bumbling triggers an invasion from the War Princess of Titan and her army of poozers to crush humanity and take their coffee. And of course he is scapegoated until he makes an uneasy truce with the humans and their leader Captain Spectacular to take her down through the utilization of his Planet Smasher except for his own sinister motives. And if this sounds cliched as all hell, it's because it is - and to be fair, the album knows it. The album is firmly tongue-in-cheek, the fourth wall is broken frequently, and with the exception of Captain Spectacular played in hilarious fashion by Chris Jericho, everyone seems to be treating any attempt at drama with outright derision. The closest we get to a serious theme overlaps with the individualist flavour of Sky Blue and the first Ziltoid album and the general contempt it has for pack mentality and people not thinking for themselves, and to be fair it's well-articulated between the fart noises and toilet humour.

Yeah, remember how I mentioned this album was cartoonish? This is probably the biggest change in tone since Ziltoid The Omniscient, and I'd argue it's not for the better. It mostly comes down to a sense of contrast - Ziltoid's original quest for coffee and the supposed enlightenment it would bring was definitely absurd, but it was an absurdity played mostly straight by everyone involved. Yeah, it was hilarious, but it also allowed a greater breadth of tone - you could have straight out serious moments like 'Solar Winds' and they'd land impressively well. But Dark Matters opts to go for broad comedy across the board, with the only elements of gravitas coming through in the heavier music, not the actual content - where the concept was the original joke, now it's the entire narrative and it renders chunks of the album overpoweringly silly. It doesn't help matters that Dark Matters only bothers to take breathers for melodramatic narration that's also more concerned with landing jokes than building gravitas. Well, either that or exposition dumps - for as great as Townsend is at setting a scene through instrumentation, especially surrounding the Poozers and their War Princess, the latter played for glorious effect from Dominique Lenore Persi of Stolen Babies, the choice to have the narrator tell us how these characters supposedly behave rather than let them show us gets distracting. 

Now you're probably noticing at this point that I'm not really talking about the music. Well, here's the thing: for as gloriously decadent and symphonic as it is, a titanic wall of sound filled to the brim with crunching guitars, cacophonous drums, horns, spacey keyboards, and a full backing choir, it doesn't modulate or show a lot of contrast. Most of this is an issue with production - just like on Sky Blue, many of the sounds bleed a little too long across the mix which smothers more distinctive textures or simply overloads the mix with more sounds than it knows what to do with - but here it's even more distracting because it actively makes the backing choral vocals that much more difficult to make out. Now let's be fair, even though there isn't a lot of contrast we're still dealing with powerfully melodic, incredibly heavy, and a ton of explosive swell and power, and there are some exceptions to the rule. I dug the explosive howls of 'Deathray', the heavy groove of 'March Of The Poozers' that seemed to blend industrial flavoured guitars with a pulpy circus vibe, the gleaming guitar melody that drove 'Earth', and of course the heavy crowd chorus of 'Dimension Z', but beyond that, this album rarely stops to take a breath, and the album's titanic momentum means the fairly thin story feels inconsequential - until, of course, we hit tracks like 'Wandering Eye' and 'Through The Wormhole' that are overloaded with plot. And very little of any of it is supported by the backing lyrics, most of which drift into much of the hyperbolic platitudes of which I have no idea how serious Townsend was intending them to be taken.

And all of this circles back to this record's purpose - because of course it's a comedy, a pulpy sci-fi alien cartoon that works in broad wacky tones with the biggest joke being the juxtaposition between cosmic exaggerated horrors and what they really are. But here's the thing: that's really the biggest actual joke, and it's one that gets hammered into the ground by the album's end. Ziltoid is initially considered by humanity to be a wonder beyond all others until it's revealed he's a bumbling schemer with delusions of grandeur who wouldn't be out of place next to Starscream. The War Princess brings some gravitas until you realize she's really just a vain, petty monarch who goes after Earth effectively out of boredom and spite. The Poozers are Borg-like monsters that also fart across the stars and sound like Beaker from the Muppets, and the Planet Smasher, held up as a power even Ziltoid fears, is a fuzzy, adorable creature the size of a football. And maybe it's telling that even despite all of this, humanity is totally clueless and is way too quick to lionize and demonize said figures - and if the album gave any weight to that satire, Dark Matters might have had more impact with me. But as it is, beyond that we don't get a lot of real jokes beyond cheap toilet humor, and to me, that comes across as lazy. 

Look, I know musicals are usually broad, and on a certain level, Z²: Dark Matters does exactly what it's designed to do: be a broad, wacky space opera that doesn't remotely take itself seriously. But this sort of album lives and dies on good jokes, a well-told story that can balance the tone, and performers who are game for it - and really, I think Townsend only really nailed the last perfectly. Yeah, he's appropriating cliches and bringing some satire to the table, but the record is so flagrantly broad in narrative and execution that it feels thin, especially in comparison with its predecessor. That said, if I completely ignore the first Ziltoid release and the companion disc Sky Blue, does Dark Matters hold up? Well, yeah - as harsh as I've been, it's still a fun record that's going to get a very light 7/10, but as a step in the Ziltoid Saga I'll hoped for more. And as for the possibility of a third entry... it's Devin Townsend. Whatever we're going to get, it's going to be interesting.

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