A little too beautiful, a little too silly
Devin Townsend is a unique and prolific figure in heavy metal. Well-known in extreme metal circles for his leadership of the hyper-aggressive, gleefully manic Strapping Young Lad, Townsend has also been releasing out pseudo-solo albums under variations on his name since the mid-1990s. Over the last several years Townsend has settled into something of a rhythm, finding a generally steady band, a vocal counterpart and releasing a number of albums bearing the Devin Townsend Project moniker.
Following up 2012’s Epicloud, Sky Blue (disc 1 of the Z2 double album) represents the state of Townsend’s art – his wall of sound engineered to immaculate perfection, and Anneke van Gierbergen’s soaring voice providing a pivotal counterweight to his familiar croons and screams. However, despite its sonic and compositional refinement, Sky Blue lacks the jolly irreverence and personal drama of Townsend’s previous releases, coming across as somewhat uniform and lacking in surprises.
In retrospect, Strapping Young Lad seems like a thing that got away from Townsend, spawning a legion of fans that loved his most unhappy expressions, seemingly more than he did. Since the early days Townsend has been releasing lower-key, more melodic, and often ambient albums to express his mellower, more contemplative side. Part of Strapping Young Lad’s appeal was its often messy emotional directness. Accompanied by crushing guitars, a stampeding rhythm section and all manner of industrial whams, booms, synthesizers and sirens, Townsend cursed, howled, flew off the handle, argued with his lover and generally freaked out about sex, alcohol, drugs, parenthood, inadequacy and other hallmarks of the difficult transition to functional adulthood.
But those songwriting conventions are gone now, likely being picked at – along with the skullet – by seagulls at some seaside landfill. Townsend’s new stock in trade is the construction of diaphanously towering castles – a whole Weltlandschafts of sound, each subtle layer of melody complementing the one adjacent, until the entire construction exudes warmth and fullness. Sky Blue’s opener “Rejoice” features aggressive, djent-ish guitars, harsh vocals and an exhortation to “fight” that may sound familiar to longtime fans. Yet, there is an undeniable current of melody and hope even in these arrangements, burnished by floating, chiming ephemera and the divine vocals of van Giersbergen.
This massive, uplifting tone suffuses the entire album, but it only remains truly captivating when there is essential tension between the uplift and a measure of aggression, or a measure of quietude. When DTP simply make their joyful noise of wistful contentment, things can grow somewhat dull and cloying. “Midnight Sun,” “Rain City” and “Before we Die” are examples of songs that will either lift you on golden wings into the sunset, or push you deep into an abyss of boredom.
Sky Blue’s songs are so dense that the ones exercising restraint are the ones that distinguish themselves. “Warrior,” with its faux-indigenous chant, playful synthesizer-and-bass drum motif and nimble yet stately van Gierbergen vocals, is instantly endearing. Title track “Sky Blue” almost sounds like M83, alternating morose, quiet electropop verses with big synthesizer and guitar-driven choruses.
With no real sense of narrative struggle and dramatizing heaviness only appearing on tracks like “Rejoice” and “Silent Militia” (whose chorus sounds oddly like Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round”), there just isn’t enough dynamic push and pull to keep Sky Blue interesting through its 58-minute runtime. It’s not that there isn’t a good bounty here, it’s just that one must be in exactly the right mood to sit patiently through the unrelenting beauty that dominates the album.
Sky Blue is only disc 1 of Z2. Disc 2 is Dark Matters, a direct sequel to 2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient – a Townsend-penned rock opera and concept album about an alien who starts an interdimensional war with planet earth over a “fetid” cup of coffee. Though the ending of the last album implied that Ziltoid’s adventures were the escapist daydreams of an overworked barista, the introduction of Dark Matters assures us that “As it turns out, he’s very real.” From there the Ziltoid sequel proceeds like a full-blown stage musical – which it actually will become, in April 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
But where does this leave the person listening at home? As it turns out, in a somewhat awkward place. Dark Matters’ narration and dialogue do most of the expository work; imagine a version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall where most of the songs sound like “The Trial” and you’ll have the whole unpleasant basis in mind. The story itself is silly and thin, with anti-hero Ziltoid returning to earth, stealing a war princess’ pet, welching on a contract, discovering a family secret, etc. The narrative patently lacks the essential drama and emotional impact of say a “2112.” Nonetheless, Townsend’s genuinely sharp sense of humor shines through in the dialogue and narration, providing number of laughs throughout.
There are a number of musical (in the song sense) highlights on Dark Matters. Van Giersbergen provides lovely vocals on “From Sleep Awake,” and at the beginning of “War Princess.” Playful interwoven rhythms and background vocals give way to a brief set of Dillinger Escape Plan-esque guitar flourishes in the latter section of “Ziltoidian Empire.” “Wandering Eye” makes great use of dynamics and an odd time signature to create a looming robotic edifice – one that is cut short for a narrative section that is funny, but not as interesting as the song it supersedes. The old aggressive Townsend makes a welcome appearance on the romping, stomping “Deathray,” and “March of the Poozers” is a colossal, fabulously constructed march that is both stridently martial and enjoyably whimsical.
But there’s no escaping it, the narration and dialogue are distracting, and often derail the music. Townsend or someone close to him realized this, including Dark Matters – Raw, a dialogue free third disc, with some releases. What’s even more telling is that the climactic moment of the narrative hinges on a meta, self-deprecating comment on musical theater.
In the end, “Ziltoid Goes Home” offers a glimpse at what could have been. Here DTP barrel uninterrupted through industrial wastelands of galloping thrash, sky-high vistas of heavenly ascent and all the chaotic spaces in between. The song is truly immersive and compelling – an expression that dispenses with the theatrical goofiness and commands attention with its undeniable artistry. If there were more space on Dark Matters reserved for revelations like these, the general wackiness of Ziltoid and his coffee-motivated misadventures would be much easier to swallow.