Wednesday, December 3, 2014

album review: 'casualties of cool' by casualties of cool (RETRO REVIEW)

There are some records that the second you hear about them you just know on some level they're going to work - or at least they should. Maybe it's the people behind it, the concept, the genre fusion, you just have the feeling in your gut that this is going to kick all amounts of ass.

And really, the fact that I'm only getting to this now is more than a little embarrassing. A side project that Canadian extreme metal artist Devin Townsend had long dreamed about, the beginnings of Casualties of Cool started in 2010 as a pairing between himself and Che Aimee Dorval, a spacey country/blues/ambient blend that promised one of Townsend's most ambitious stories yet. And keep in mind this is the guy who wrote Ziltoid The Omniscient, a space opera that featured a dimension bending alien searching for the meaning of existence and the perfect cup of coffee. In other words, I had to make time to hear this album, half because it's Devin Townsend and half because I'm still one of the few critics on YouTube who really talks about country music in any capacity, and this looked to be right up my alley. 

So why did it take me so long to get here? Honestly, this is a case of me completely forgetting about this album when it dropped and struggling to find time to cover it. And part of it was beyond some scattered albums, I still hadn't taken the time to delve deeper into Devin Townsend's entire discography. But now that I've had the pleasure of doing that and since I've already covered Devin Townsend projects twice this year, why not make it three with Casualties of Cool? So I finally took the time to dive into this self-titled album - what did we get here?

Well, I can say this definitively - the self-titled record from Casualties of Cool will not be like anything you'd have heard this year. Hell, I don't think I've ever quite heard an album like this, blending elements of country, blues, ambient music, progressive rock, and even sputtering moments of glitch. It's the sort of record that is defiantly its own entity, but is not forceful, the sort of subtle, spacious, vaguely unsettling record that is gorgeously organic and yet tightly regimented, a difficult listen if only because empty spaces defined like this are intimidating for any stretch of time. Oh, and if you can't tell, it's goddamn incredible, one of the best records of the year that outstrips anything Devin Townsend has released in a while and highlights his insane talent as a composer, producer, and songwriter. I was expecting to like this album, but I definitely wasn't expecting something like this, that's for damn sure.

And I'm almost at a loss at where to start, so let's begin with the simplest element: the vocals. The pairing of Townsend with Dorval is inspired, mostly because they play off each other in a distinctly unique way - Townsend's voice isn't precisely country, especially in his rich, smooth tenor that is perfectly multi-tracked, but it still gently fills the mix and is a perfect counterbalance to Dorval's more country tones, which vary between strident and poised to achingly poignant and emotive. And the vocal production is goddamn phenomenal too - in comparison with most country music, there are more synthetic vocal effects, both reverb and lo-fi, and when the rich baritone choir comes in on 'Broken', it's startling how well every single voice is perfectly placed within the mix, a swell that feels grandiose without ever being overbearing. It also makes for incredible contrast when Townsend does let loose his rougher vocals later on the record for moments of precisely timed, glorious impact.

And while mix balance has always been a strength of Townsend's production, it's been a while since I've heard him this on his game across the board. Casualties of Cool is a record that demands subtlety and patience, using the country tones for steady chugging grooves that produce the skeleton for the ambient textures and melodies of the album, the drums keeping their restrained and brittle yet ruthless cadence. And all of it is intensified by a mix that has the massive size of any of Townsend's metal records, where he can either overlay layer after layer into the wall of sounds of which he's famous or, in some of the album's most memorable moments, highlight the sweeping, desolate emptiness. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has made statements about he always considered the pauses between words to be as important, if not more important than the words themselves, and here Devin Townsend follows a similar approach, his rich spacious mix drawing all the more attention to the lonely melodies that echo across the voice, if and when they move at all. What this can mean is that the album can feel a little long at points, especially during how some tracks fade into ambient sound or the instrumental segments that take repetitive melodies or grooves and isolate them to intensify the atmosphere, and while it sounds fantastic and perfectly fits the album's atmosphere, it could be argued this album could afford to move a little more quickly.

But if you have the patience for it, there are some absolutely incredible moments on this record. Townsend has cited comparisons to Johnny Cash, and he's not kidding, especially in the electric tone for the grooves, starting innocuously enough with 'Daddy' that despite Townsend's cleaner production still picks up a phenomenal amount of texture and a spacious country sound that's unlike any other. The groove gets darker and thicker on 'Mountaintop', especially as the bass gains more prominence on the eerie back half. I love the glitchy fragments and ragged strings of the shimmering sounds of 'Flight' against the gorgeously smooth acoustic melodies and its subtle ominous flavour, how it gets even darker in the faded voices against the more prominent groove that blends into the guitar solos on 'The Code', before landing in the muffled clatter of percussion against the bass groove, fluttering synth, and saxophone leads on 'Moon'. From there, we get the windswept horns and tight acoustic groove on 'Ether' that break into a progressive drum solo, the thick drums of on 'Hejda', the bluesy snarl on 'Forgive Me', the eerie almost gothic feel of 'Bones', or the scratchy, jagged shards of 'Deathscope' that is only grounded in a solid melodic riff against the vocal snippets, ragged strings, blasts of distorted guitar and horns that breaks into in desiccated, lonely gasps. And yet the album still isn't done, fading into one of the more normal sounding country tunes with 'The Field' with a striking guitar solo against the backdrop of the strings and acoustic strums, the climatic swell of 'The Bridge', and a moment that would be anticlimatic but for its lonely power on the closing song 'Pure'.

Now I've gone on about the instrumentation for a while now, but what about the songwriting? Well, like most of Devin Townsend's material, it's vaguely sketched, and it can get hard to parse out the details of his story, which is reportedly about a man lured to a sentient planet, and after discovering a radio and old phonograph, he confronts his fear, frees his soul, and is able to escape. You'd be forgiven for not getting that after multiple listens of this record, because it's certainly sparse on details even if you can tell that there is a story here. But even within the story it's a tough sell, mostly because Townsend is the sort of songwriter to leave details up to interpretation, or let the mix show rather than tell in the lyrics. And I'll give him this, he does a damn good job selling that sense of loneliness and being adrift in the void, the subtlety of being lured into space being played remarkably well with every masked word, facing an entity that seems far larger and implacable than yourself.

Now by now you all should have guessed the obvious themes about confronting fear, the entity that can feel like a whole sentient world and is often a subtle entrapment that paralyzes rather than outright attacks. This is a fear that lures the narrator through a chance to recapture dreams, and traps him through feelings of inadequacy and doubt. And it wasn't until I reached 'Bones' that I grasped a very subtle choice of Townsend's that's downright inspired - see, for as lonely as this album feels, it's nearly always composed of both Townsend and Dorval's vocals, with only the obvious moments on 'Hejda' and 'Forgive Me' implying one might be another speaker, either from the radio or phonograph. And on my fourth listen and a deep read through the lyrics, I got it: for the majority of Casualties of Cool, Dorval was representative of the narrator's fear. It's why she eggs him on the early tracks to get him to the planet, where her narration on 'Forgive Me' presents feelings of despair that she can't provide for her family, and why on 'Bones' she is the main vocalist set on crushing Townsend into the ground. And after Townsend confronts his fear on 'Deathscope', Dorval's vocals now represent the new woman he has freed from within his mind - an acknowledgement of the root of his fears that lie in the pressure of parental figures early on, set through the story of 'The Field' where the overbearing parents often have more of a stake in their children's activities than the kids do. And from there, the narrator gains the confidence to free himself from the weight of fear and rocket back into the void, with only the flute on 'Pure' playing in the void. An ode to the sentient world he now left behind, or of his own loneliness as he sees an uncertain future?

Either way, this album is goddamn incredible. Now let me stress this album will not be for everyone - usual Devin Townsend fans who aren't a fan of his ambient work will likely find it too slow, quiet, and empty to really grip them, and country fans will likely be put off by the spacey production and glitchy effects around the edges. But if you can find that middle ground, you'll find a record that is subtle, beautiful, and heartbreakingly powerful, and easily one of the best of the year - it's a goddamn crime I didn't get to this sooner. 9/10, a high recommendation to anyone who has the patience for over an hour of ambient country blended with progressive rock - hell, anyone who loves great goddamn music. If you haven't heard the self-titled album from Casualties of Cool yet, I highly, highly recommend it - it might be overlooked by most as an idle side project, but I promise it's definitely worth the listen.

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