November 2020 Feature Release - The Sphere Edition
It's now November which of course means that we'll be nominating a brand new monthly feature release for each clan. This essentially means that we're asking you to rate, review & discuss our chosen features for no other reason than because we enjoy the process & banter. We're really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on our chosen releases so don't be shy.
This month's feature release for The Sphere is the classic 2005 fourth album from legendary Canadian industrial metallers Strapping Young Lad (entitled "Alien"). The album often sits in the shadow of the band's breakthrough 1997 release "City" but it will be interesting to see how people compare the two.
...What? You didn't think that I was going to miss out on my opportunity to talk about Devin Townsend did you?
To me, Strapping Young Lad has always been the red headed stepchild in Devin Townsend's musical endeavors. And with Alien, I can see it's appeal within Devin Townsend's discography with a lot more hindsight and deep dives into his entire discography. To me, SYL reminds me more of a project in which Townsend is free to let out his most absurd, technical thrash adjacent music that he is physically capable of making. And if that's what you're looking for, then cool; more power to you! This is very impressive technical thrash by it's own regard.
However, that seems to be all that it is. Let me not mince words here: Devin Townsend is one of heavy metal's most eclectic musicians. So for him to make a pure industrial-thrash metal album is a little disappointing. Not to mention the fact that the music found within is not among his best. "Imperial" and "We Ride" work really well, "Love?" is a very accessible song I guess, and the album ends with "Thalamus" and "Zen", which turn out to be the albums most progressive moments. Beyond those, this is pure aggression all of the time. And I can only listen to so much of it before it gets tiresome. To hear guitar riffs that are almost indistinguishable from one track to the next is infuriating to say the very least.
For an industrial-thrash album, it is very solid. But I expect more out of Devin Townsend; the guy responsible for Terria. The sequencing of this album is extremely back heavy, and the full frontal assault leaves me exhausted by the time it reaches the "Two Weeks" interlude.
First and foremost, I like this better than “City,” though I still don’t think I’m a SYL convert yet. I agree with saxystephens on a few things. It is a bit more straightforward than what Townsend is capable of, but that’s kind of what I like about it. I like that “Skesis” keeps the momentum going long enough so that you can sink into the drums (which are awesome, by the way). I also agree that the album is pretty front heavy (NOTE: Rereading, I realize Saxy said “back” heavy, so maybe we’re not in sync?). The first three tracks rip, and then things kind of calm down. Like I mentioned when we talking about “City,” I have a lot of trouble with Townsend’s vocals and lyrics. The lyrics are a bit better (I only cringe a few times while listening to this), but the vocals... I don’t know. Obviously he’s really good in the technical sense, and he is all over the place, which is cool. I guess it’s his “straight” voice I have a problem with, with the hoarse screams not being a problem. I also don’t know how I feel about the Dio-esque vox on “Love?” He pulls them off pretty well, but I’m not sure if I like them in the context. A few more complaints: I don’t care for the palette-cleanser “Two Weeks,” and the bass drops are over-used. This ties in to the album being front heavy: the drops are cool on the first few songs, but get old after that.
So now that I have all the negative stuff out of the way, there’s a lot to like about “Alien” too. The production is thicker/heavier than on “City.” Like I said, the first three songs do kick ass, and I appreciate how unrelenting they are. If the rest of the album isn’t as consistent, there’s still a lot of elements I like. The high-end (female?) cheering vocals on “Possessions” are really cool. “Thalamus” is a good closer (I’m not counting “Info Dump”), going from a super-heavy Godflesh-like waltz to a power blast and then into slightly more melancholy territory. Overall, this record (instrumentally speaking) reminds me of the more recent Napalm Death material, which I consider a good thing (although chronologically, it would make sense if SYL influenced them). I like some of the odd percussion on some of the tracks too, whatever it is that sounds like bottles. It keeps things weird, even if the song approach is relatively straightforward. I normally score 1 to 5, but on this I’m feeling 5.75/10. If it was just the first 3 tracks plus “Possesions,” it would be more like 7.5. Maybe someday I’ll be a fan, but I’m not quite there yet.
Some interesting comments here. I came into "Alien" fresh as the only Strapping Young Lad release I'd experienced previously was "City" (which I really enjoyed) but over the last couple of days I've found that I marginally prefer "Alien" & was blown away by just how heavy this record is. It takes no prisoners whatsoever & very few fucks are given along the way. I can understand how it might seem like one huge barrage of aggressive to some listeners but I feel that I'm well equipped to handle that sort of thing due to my extreme metal background. I definitely noticed a Napalm Death influence to many of the more intense riffs which isn't surprising given that Devin's been a long-time fan of the band going way back to his contribution to Steve Vai's "Sex & Religion" album in 1993. The timing makes sense because I was continually reminded of 1992's "Utopia Banished" album.
Devin puts sssoooo much into his vocal performance here. I really enjoy the crazed lunatic vibe on some of this material (see "Shitstorm" for example) & feel it's when he's at his best. His more melodic moments are also high quality though with the chorus of "Love?" actually reminding me a lot of Deftones. Gene Hoglan is an absolute enigma & proves that his feet should be insured for a very hefty sum as he's more machine than human. What a performance! And the production job couldn't have been better suited to the product to be honest. Every track sounds enormously epic here with the listener being virtually assaulted with sound which I would imagine was exactly the outcome that Devin was hoping for. The subtle use of keyboards at key moments is used to great effect & fills out the sound beautifully.
The lone ballad "Two Weeks" is clearly the least effective song on the tracklisting even though I still have time for it's sweeter take on an 80's Pink Floyd vibe as the listener is definitely in need of a short break by that stage. Closing twelve minute industrial noise piece "Info Dump" was certainly a challenge at first though with my initial thoughts being "Oh no, he's decided to give us the impression that the album is longer than it actually is by filling in time with pointless noise" but I'm very pleased to say that it develops over time & ends up leaving the listener with a unique & disturbing atmosphere that I really enjoy. But it's the heavier tracks that really float my boat, particularly when they're matched with some of Devin's more intense screams. Brief opener "Imperial" is nothing short of devastating with the gradual buildup & crescendo of "Thalamus" being a close second. The triple play of "Shitstorm" through to "Shine" is also spectacular!
Despite the fact that most of the highlights reside on the A side for me, I find "Alien" to be a very consistent release overall. In truth, some of Devin's more progressive & melodic moments take me a touch outside of my comfort zone & this (along with the first five minutes of "Info Dump") prevent me from going with a slightly higher rating but the quality here is undeniable. It's an outstanding effort from a highly capable & significantly battle-hardened group of musicians. Whoever selected this album for feature release inclusion really knows his shit & should be heaped with praise for eternity.
For fans of Fear Factory, Ministry & Nailbomb.