Released: 2005, Century Media
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
My consummate love for all things that Devin Townsend does is a secret as poorly kept as a junior high crush. Whether it is his incredible production ear with Soilwork or Lamb of God or his solo work with OCEAN MACHINE, TERRIA, PHYSICIST or The Devin Townsend Band, I have yet to find a release that has not floored me. However it is his forays into aggression, madness and full-on hate with Strapping Young Lad that really curls my toes. 1997’s CITY is an absolute masterpiece of metal and should be owned by any self-respecting headbanger. 2002’s SYL was more of a departure from the heavily-sampled, cold industrial feel of CITY and was met with mixed results, though I found the six-year break between the two albums worth the wait when the tsunami-like crashing of tracks like “Relentless” first ripped through my speakers.
Despite that big gap between releases, 2005 sees Strapping Young Lad come back with ALIEN a mere twenty four months after SYL. It should be noted that by most musical standards, two years is NOT a long time, but in Strapping Young Lad years—kind of like “dog years”—it’s the equivalent of about two seconds!! The heavy metal maelstrom we have come to expect out of a Strapping Young Lad release is still intact and Dev & The Boys pummel the senses right from the get-go. The first three tracks are arguably the heaviest the band has ever penned but there is also a couple of noticeable stretches here that may catch a first-time listener off guard. Admittedly, ALIEN was definitely a “grower”—an album that required several listens to really drink it all in. At first, some of these tracks seem like leftovers from one of Townsend’s solo projects as the one-time chasm between the two was far-reaching. Townsend is one of the busiest and most prolific artists in metal and a clear division between The Devin Townsend Band, for example, and Strapping Young Lad has always been drawn with the latter being a project for Townsend to get his aggressions out while the former, along with Ocean Machine, concentrated on the melodic side of things. On ALIEN, the area between solo Townsend and Strapping Young Lad has become gray and, in places, the two seem to have overlapped creating tracks that really stick out like a sore thumb. Granted, Strapping Young Lad has side-stepped from balls-out fury on past releases ("Bring On The Young" from SYL, for example) but the intensity was always there, still seething below the surface. Like all other Strapping Young Lad releases, the powerhouse rhythm section of Byron Stroud (bass) and Gene Hoglan (drums) keep the intensity levels up. Hoglan, especially, shines on this recording as his drumming attains a new level in the heavy metal genre. His double bass, floor tom and snare work has really raised the bar of what metal drumming is all about. Townsend’s trademark manic growls/screams are heavily layered within the tracks delivering a brick wall of sound that remains unmatched. Not only that, but the samples have returned from CITY and really pump these songs up. When taken together, these elements add up to nothing less than a ground-breaking release, but one that seems a better fit between CITY and SYL rather than after. One word of caution must accompany this review: ALIEN is a bit experimental in places and one must go in with an open mind.
Like “Velvet Kevorkian” and “Dire,” “Imperial” is the traditional grandiose opener found on Strapping Young Lad releases and is sure to get the band’s live set kick-started into high gear. “Skeksis” and “Shitstorm” are among the heaviest tracks the band has ever done. Townsend spits his lyrics out like a marauding pitbull and his own neuroses and insecurities (“Self-control is something I’ve learned”) are once again explored through them. Tracks like “We Ride” with its frenetic double bass and shredding guitar solo and “Zen” whose drum track is almost hypnotic, leave the listener in a wake of dust and sweat, bowing at the altar of the almighty Hoglan. Children’s vocals and a female choir are employed on tracks like “Possessions” adding a sonic beauty and a clever element lyrically.
However the very recipe that makes up Strapping Young Lad is aggression, hostility and heavy metal attitude so what are a semi-ballad and an acoustic track doing here? “Love?” could be a leftover from the TERRIA or ACCELERATED EVOLUTION sessions with its lush chorus and prog-styled rhythms that was stepped up with some extra double bass in the studio to fit better on a Strapping Young Lad album. It’s an excellent song but really stands apart from the rest of the tracks on ALIEN. The real departure though is the 500-pound acoustic gorilla known as “Two Weeks.” The Devin Townsend Band explored tracks like this brilliantly on ACCELERATED EVOLUTION (“Storm”) and the Pink Floyd vibe of “Two Weeks” is a stunning track but grinds away any energy generated by the pacing of the album up to that point. It is definitely a welcome breather to the tear-yer-face-off assault of the previous seven tracks but it really takes the wind out of my sails. The most glaring mistake, though, is found on “Infodump,” a bloated hog of a track that is nothing more than twelve minutes of feedback and sound effects. As a “hidden” bonus track or something, this might work, but to take up the space of two or even THREE tracks with cacophonous white noise that will have you reaching for the volume control to save your tweeters and woofers from exploding and send your dog yelping from under the bed, “Infodump” is just a waste of space that will be forever skipped over after hearing it once. The SYL album clocked in at a tidy 39 minutes—less is ALWAYS more—and the band should have followed suit here by leaving off deadwood like “Infodump” and playing an actual song. Besides, what happened to the Tom Jones cover that was recorded? Devin has been quoted as saying it didn't fit with the rest of the tracks but 12 minutes of annoying noise that no one will listen to twice does?
The first quarter of ALIEN is a turbulent piece of (dis)organized chaos that ranks among the finest moments of Strapping Young Lad’s career and the bulk of the record is a skull-crushing fornication of the brain. A few other frenzied gems can be found along the way, too, but what will really be remembered about this release is the experimentation taken by the band. Strapping Young Lad is the epitome of ferocity and extremity and I like it that way. I look for—and welcome—melody and melancholy in solo Townsend but I want to feel like I just got jumped by four thugs in black and beaten senseless when I pop in a Strapping Young Lad CD. Let's not forget that even lukewarm Strapping Young Lad music kicks the ass of most metal today—and ALIEN is an ass-kicker of a record that deserves to be heralded as a landmark release of 2005—but let’s hope the melodies and experimentation are left with Townsend’s other projects.
KILLER KUTS: “Skeksis,” “Shitstorm,” “Love?,” “Shine,” “Possessions,” “Zen”