Thursday, November 6, 2014

album review: 'z²: sky blue' by the devin townsend project

I've mentioned in the past that there are certain musical acts that have an insane work ethic, acts that will pump out distinctive, potent material that somehow manages to maintain a standard of real quality. Now from my observations, these acts tend to fall into two distinctive camps: acts that have a formula that allows them to subtly augment it with each release; and acts that simply have so many ideas that they have to let them all explode forth on project after project, with some of the ideas inspired genius, some merely inspired, and some that inspire headaches for all involved. In other words, there's a little less consistency in their output. And no, I'm not talking about Lil Wayne and his album/mixtape releases, today I'm going to talk about one of the more eclectic figures in metal, a Canadian musician who already dropped a country and blues flavoured record earlier this year and now has a full double album of progressive and extreme metal.

Yes, we're talking about Devin Townsend, formerly of the extreme metal act Strapping Young Lad and the frontman of the Devin Townsend project. He's a musician with a gift for versatility, a ton of explosive presence, and sheer oddball weirdness in his lyrics that can send many of his projects spiraling into madness, or at least be difficult to take them somewhat seriously. And to be fair, I get the feeling that Townsend recognizes this to some extent, as he's made some truly hilarious metal records that still manage to kick ass. I was first introduced to him through his 2007 album Ziltoid The Omniscient, a record about a power-mad galactic overlord searching for the universe for the perfect cup of coffee and with an ending twist that really shouldn't be as much of a fun surprise as it is. 

Now in terms of pure Devin Townsend albums, it was his last until now, but that didn't mean he wasn't active. Instead, after quitting booze and drugs, he embarked on the Devin Townsend Project, a series of five albums that showcased five different sides of Townsend's experimentation to varied amounts of success, the last being the more pop- and hard rock-flavoured Epicloud in 2012. So when I heard that he was coming back with a double album this year, a sequel to Ziltoid The Omniscient, I honestly didn't have the slightest clue what was coming. So I took several deep breaths and plunged in - what did I get?

Well, to begin, I think I'm going to be taking a page from fellow YouTube reviewers and splitting this review into two parts - not just because it's a double album, but because conceptually and in execution the two sides of this double album are wildly different. So today I'm going to be talking about the first disc Sky Blue, and tomorrow I'll be discussing what many people were expecting, the second disc Dark Matters and the true sequel to Ziltoid. But for those of you just looking for a straight answer whether this is good - it's The Devin Townsend Project, do I need to say more?

So, to start, Sky Blue. The first thing to make apparent is that this is a Devin Townsend Project album, both in instrumentation and themes, gloriously symphonic with full walls of roaring guitars, gleaming keyboard lines, and pounding drums - and in the first definitely positive step, most of the drum triggers that irked me on Deconstruction are completely gone. And just like on Epicloud, one of Devin Townsend's greatest hidden strengths shines through: his pop sensibility. In an alternate universe, his powerfully melodic hooks and killer choruses would dominate radio, but here it lends Townsend's material a powerful feeling of euphoria even as the riffs crunch with explosive power and he howls into the microphone. Hell, as with previous albums, there are songs where he interpolates the melodies of existing pop songs into entirely new compositions, the most notable being on the title track that is very recognizable as being strikingly similar to one of my favourite Usher songs 'DJ's Got Us Falling In Love'. And I have to admit, it doesn't quite unseat Usher here, if only because I feel the heavier, darker vibe of Townsend's take strips away some of the killer tightness that characterized Usher's version - then again, he doesn't have a verse from Pitbull, so it's give and take. The other significant interpolation is on 'Silent Militia' and is of Dead Or Alive's 'You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)', which according to Townsend was done in the style of And I'd honestly like to know what songs beyond 'Scream & Shout' that Townsend heard from, because Townsend took the catchy beat progression and some of the textures from that song and fused it with a great melody line, a phenomenally heavy groove, and some of his most explosive vocals on the entire album. 

It's one of the reasons why I consider Townsend's material such a good introduction to more extreme progressive metal, and coupled with Anneke van Giersbergen's gorgeous voice often getting equal time with Townsend's in several beautiful harmonies, the symphonic side of Sky Blue is definitely impressive. If I were to criticize Townsend's brand of production, it'd be a similar criticism that I'd give to Epicloud - he can occasionally let the sounds linger a little too long in the mix to intensify that wall of sound, and that can drown out some of the better textures that come through. In fact, this album's tendency to linger, particularly on its back end, does get a little distracting - most of this is tied to the ambient tendencies that were present on 'Ghost', and yet on a record with such sticky, memorable hooks, brevity can be a real bonus. And let me stress this, when this album has that tighter focus, you get some stellar moments: I already mentioned 'Silent Militia', but there's also the guitar and keyboard interplay and fantastic melody on 'Fallout', the acoustic edge on 'Midnight Sun', the surging symphonic power of 'Universal Flame', the ghostly vocals and bells on 'Forever', and I'd be remiss not to mention the crowd-driven vocals of 'Before We Die'  that bleeds into a haze of flute-punctuated ambiance that shows how Townsend never forgets musical dynamics in the best possible way. 

Now at this point we need to talk about lyrics and themes - and at first glance, this record doesn't seem to be that far removed from many of the uplifting anthems Townsend wrote on previous albums. Now granted, he's one of the best damn writers in the industry for making said songs, but by necessity most of the poetry in those types of songs have to go broad, and it can make the songs ring as a little thinly sketched, especially considering he's hit these themes plenty of times over the past five years. And coupled with the fact that at first listen there didn't seem to be a cohesive theme, it made the album feel a little weightless, potent concepts but lacking that human element to anchor them.

But then I dug up an interview with Townsend, where he said that many people in his life had passed away while he was writing the album - and suddenly the album snaps into focus. Much like the last record from Flying Lotus You're Dead, Devin Townsend's Sky Blue is an examination of how one deals with encroaching death, in all of its myriad facets. And yet where Flying Lotus opted for something of a more stable narrative, Townsend is more abstract. There is celebration of life and love on tracks like 'Rejoice' and 'Universal Flame' and 'Warrior' and of course on 'Before We Die', contemplation of the eternity beyond and what we might do before that sudden stop on 'Fallout' and 'Forever', and yet Townsend is also keen enough to show more than just his own perspective, to show others going through every stage of grief before finally approaching some form of acceptance. And the Flying Lotus comparison gets even more striking when you consider the final two tracks - the moments of surging beauty as they face Death having lived that full life, and the final song a message from beyond. And yet the final message is very different - where Flying Lotus urged the listener to celebrate life in the face of what might come and the end, Devin Townsend's whisper is not to mourn, implying something far greater that comes after. It's a message that feels surprisingly intimate for such an epic record, and it's the sort of humanizing moment that does wonders to anchor the album.

So to conclude, we might have come for Ziltoid 2, but Z²: Sky Blue is incredibly satisfying in its own right, a great slice of explosively energetic progressive metal that manages to tackle death with vigor and hope. Devin Townsend has mentioned in reviews he's more proud of this than Dark Matters, and that's because this disc is definitely something to be proud of. For me, it's a solid 8/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan or even if you're looking for a good introduction to a brand of extreme metal that is surprisingly accessible. It's rare that you get an album exploring death that is this triumphant, and this one deserves all of the celebration.

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