You never pass up a chance to see Strapping Young Lad in concert. You just don’t. It’s one of metal’s unwritten laws. Nobody in metal today has the same kind of commanding stage presence as the self-professed Bald Bastard, Devin Townsend, and whether it’s in an arena, at the sweltering second stage at OzzFest, or a tiny Mexican cantina, the man knows how to whip a crowd, no matter the size, into an absolute frenzy. In fact, the dude is responsible for one of the funniest concert moments this writer has ever seen. At the end of a furious set, Townsend ordered a monstrous circle pit on the floor, but wanted to try out an old swimming pool trick, instructing the kids that on his command, they had to stop, and start running in the opposite direction. As he and his three bandmates tore into the classic thrasher “In the Rainy Season”, Townsend kept hollering, “Reverse!”, to the point where, near the end of the song, dozens of dizzy bodies were crashing, tripping, and falling everywhere. The man said he wanted to create his own “human goulash,” and he pulled it off, with hilariously violent results.
The craziest musical genius to ever live in quiet Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Townsend wastes no time getting down to his typically zany business on Strapping Young Lad’s fifth album. 2005’s Alien was a moody piece of work compared to the band’s early output, the chaotic blend of thrash metal, power metal, and industrial metal underscored by a dark, foreboding element. On The New Black, though, Dev and SYL are back doing what they do best: providing audiences with plenty of viscerally exhilarating tunes, and having a bit of a larf in the process. And what a blast it is.
Townsend’s ability to praise All Things Metal and lampoon the cheesy aspects of the genre at the same time remains a big part of the band’s charm, and the new record is aimed at pissed-off 14-year-olds and the pissed-off 14-year-olds inside the rest of us, brimming with F-bombs, dripping with lyrical sentiment so hostile it would make even the angriest kid pause and ask Devin to stop and calm down for a while, all packaged in an impeccably produced musical melange that is equal parts extreme and accessible. “Oh, you ironic pop rock fucks / Don’t you fuck with METAL!” screams Townsend at one point, with the conviction of a madman ready to beat your ass to a bloody pulp, and laugh while doing so.
The strongest SYL album since 1999’s City, The New Black is as diverse as Alien, but the lighter mood helps immeasurably. “Decimator” is a mid-tempo 6/8 chugger that obliterates similar fare by the metalcore kids out there, highlighted by a ludicrous chant of “SYL!” midway through, followed by a massive breakdown, propelled by the great veteran drummer Gene Hoglan. The shuffling “Antiproduct” might attempt a critique on consumerism at first, but by the time the horns and flute pop in, we’re too distracted to care about what message the song has, and when Townsend adds a brilliant jab at Whitesnake at the 3:28 mark, we’re laughing too hard to care about how strange those horns sounded. An immensely talented lead guitarist (geeks will be pleased to know he’s back to shredding on the record), Townsend is also a terrific lead singer, and his range is on full display on songs like “Monument” and “Almost Again”, while Hoglan, one of the finest metal drummers of the last 20 years, steals the show on the blast beat-laden “Wrong Side”.
But it’s when SYL goes completely over the top that the real fun is to be had, and there’s no shortage of such moments here. “U Suck” matches the frenetic speed of the great “Oh My Fucking God”, Hoglan going nuts on drums, and Dev leading the way with such eloquent lines as, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck”. “Far Beyond Metal”, a longtime live staple, is finally given the studio treatment, and quickly stakes its claim as one of the finest tunes in the band’s entire discography, a hair-raising, headbang-inducing anthem that is bolstered by a cameo appearance from GWAR’s Oderus Urungus, who delivers the inspired couplet, “Raped his woman, smoked his bone / Leave a booger underneath his throne”. And “Fucker” is the funniest radio censorship parody since Monty Python’s “I Bet You They Won’t Play this Song on the Radio”, an insanely catchy, and even danceable rocker reminiscent of ’80s pop metal, featuring Vancouver singer Bif Naked, who adds a welcome feminine touch to the proceedings.
There has been much speculation that The New Black will be the final Strapping Young Lad album, as Townsend will be going on hiatus to focus on his family, and if that is indeed the case, it’s been one hell of a run, one that’s been capped off in triumphant fashion. Townsend is one of metal’s singular talents, and Strapping Young Lad is one of the best live bands around, and there’s no better time like the present to go enjoy the SYL experience one last time. Bald Bastard, we’re in your debt.