As metal music closes in on its 40th year (or thereabouts) of existence, today’s bands continue to push the genre’s boundaries, as the drive to create the most extreme sounds possible seems to intensify with each new year. As a result, the more chaotic the music gets, the more tame the older metal music starts to sound. Once upon a time, Slayer’s “Chemical Warfare” was the fastest stuff ever, and Kreator’s “Rotting Corpse” was as over the top as it got; today, while both songs remain classics, they simply cannot match the ear-splitting cacophony of some of today’s more aggressive artists. In fact, it’s gotten to the point now where the influences of grindcore legends Napalm Death, Morbid Angel, and Carcass are starting to be heard in some of the most popular younger heavy acts out there, such as Mastodon and The Dillinger Escape Plan.
As extreme metal continues to inch towards the mainstream, Devin Townsend is determined to live on the fringes, determinedly pushing the proverbial envelope in his own inimitable way. Like a psychotic mad scientist, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based musician has been behind some of the most insane, visceral, aggressive music to come out in the past decade, as a solo artist, producer (he produced two of this decade’s best albums, Soilwork’s Natural Born Chaos and Lamb of God’s As the Palaces Burn), and most notably, as the frontman of the undisputed kings of musical excess, Strapping Young Lad. Employing rhythmic, crunching guitar riffs, the prodigious blast beats of drummer Gene Hoglan (who has previously played with underground legends Dark Angel and Death), plenty of deliciously tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and a very distinctive production style that sounds both spacious and claustrophobic at the same time, Townsend’s trademark sound is one of the most distinct in metal today, and next to impossible to duplicate.
“In any relationship, there has to be compromise, and God knows every one of them has baggage,” snarls Townsend on SYL’s fourth album, Alien, evoking the goofy sermonizing of Manowar. “I know I have my issues, and we know you have yours…put it in gear, motherfuckerrrr! For tonight… WE RIDE!!!” In one masterful, hilarious moment, he completely eviscerates the angst-ridden whining of My Chemical Romance and The Used. Nah, with SYL, you don’t wallow in your sorrow, you revel in it. Subtlety is not a part of Townsend’s vocabulary; he has two modes, on and off, and on this record, the man is on. The simple fact is, nobody else makes being royally pissed-off with the world sound like so much fun.
Combining the inspired lunacy of 2000’s classic City with the riff-heavy sound of 2003’s potent, portentous SYL, Alien careens as crazily as the late Hunter S. Thompson’s Dr. Gonzo piloting a red convertible on a desert highway in the midst of an ether binge. You are absolutely bombarded: Townsend’s and second guitarist Jed Simon’s riffs churn away, Byron Stroud’s downtuned bass rumbles, while the shrillness of Hoglan’s cymbals is brilliantly offset by the beefed-up density of his double-bass work. The industrial metal sounds of Ministry and Skinny Puppy creep in one moment, strangely subtle keyboard accents enter the fray the next, and even female backing singers make an appearance, as the quartet goes full-throttle for three quarters of an hour. This is an album that’s as exhausting as it is enjoyable.
The chaotic “Shitstorm” just might be the most ferocious song SYL has ever recorded, as Hoglan propels the entire track with his percussion work, which achieves a black metal intensity, as Townsend drops programmed beats that explode like bombs, momentarily drowning out the rest of the mix. It’s a remarkably effective touch, serving as a perfect backdrop to Townsend’s impassioned, filtered vocal screech. At one point, he says, “If you want fucking crazy/I’ll show you how to be crazy,” and he most certainly does.
The rest of Alien carries on at a slightly more controlled, yet equally furious pace, best exemplified by the midtempo tracks “Skeksis”, “Ride”, and “Love?”. “Possessions” contains the most accessible moments on the album, with Townsend’s vocals taking on a slightly more melodic turn, the song bolstered by effective synth stabs and some of the best use of backing singers this side of Rob Zombie. To show that he’s still not without a sense of humor, the acoustic ballad “Two Weeks” comes in from out of nowhere, a song so slyly pulled off, if it were Good Charlotte singing it, 14-year-old girls would be instantly rendered weepy, but Townsend’s vicious combination of sarcasm and modern rock cliches tell you instantly what his intentions are, as the song quickly morphs into the brutal “Thalamus”, as bipolar a love song that’s ever been recorded.
As strong as Alien is, the decision to conclude it with the 12-minute track “Infodump” was a horrible mistake, its blend of static noise and feedback (which rips off Neil Young’s equally tiresome Arc) becoming unbearable less than two minutes in. It’s simply a waste of time and CD space. However, that’s why we have stop buttons on our CD players, and for the first 42 minutes, anyway, Strapping Young Lad have raised the bar yet again, proving that no matter how hard young bands may try to crate something new and menacing, nobody does it as well as the old masters.