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Downtown with Devin Townsend #2: Strapping Young Lad

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In this series, Langdon Hickman will lead up to the release of Devin Townsend’s latest and potentially greatest work Empath, out March 29th, by exploring and dissecting his multifaceted body of extreme, obtuse, and sometimes obscure music. When it comes to Devin Townsend, there’s something for everyone.

Strapping Young Lad holds a special place in Devin Townsend’s body of work. It’s a position that makes more sense historically than it does sonically, admittedly; taken holistically, the elements of industrial, groove metal, death metal, and noise that make up the heavy metal context of Strapping Young Lad are present in his other solo works even of the same time period, and likewise the theatrical and panoramic post-Zappa cinematic prog is laced deeply into every Strapping Young Lad record. So while sonically there isn’t as deep a differentiation as we are sometimes led to believe, Strapping Young Lad still hold a strong enough position to be considered on its lonesome in a larger scale project such as this. Plain and simple, Strapping Young Lad was the first introduction to Devin Townsend’s work proper for most people, especially in the years prior to Ziltoid the Omniscient, when suddenly everything changed.

This leads to an interesting point that unfortunately lenses all aspects of discussing art, be it records or films or novels or poetry or cartoons or comics or anything in between. Distribution has an overwhelming power when it comes to what we consider and evaluate. It’s a good-faith presumption of any decent critic of art that more great art is lost between the cracks of time due to poor distribution, imperfect public relations and patchwork coverage than is brought to our attention; the job of a critic is as much to search out and find those gems to preserve them and demonstrate them to wider audiences as it is to separate out the chaff and attempt to remove from discussion groups and creators that feel artistically sub-par for one reason or another.

Devin Townsend almost fell prey to this for a long stretch of his career; the shifting names for his groups, with each of his first five albums being released under a different pseudonym, was probably not entirely due to creative choices but also partly ones predicated on contracts, the economic value or lack thereof of certain artist names, and so on. He is only one artist that this has happened to. The consuming tides of art and time and commerce form a storm system that sinks, sadly, most ships, despite our best efforts to the contrary.

But Strapping Young Lad broke through. This is largely due to being signed to Century Media, a major record label in heavy metal that has broken such acts as Shadows Fall, In This Moment, Nevermore, and Lacuna Coil. Regardless of how one might feel about those acts (though the label’s reach also extends to such well-regarded extreme metal genre stalwarts as the Swedish no-frills death metal band Grave and proggy doom metal masters Tiamat), the reach both economically and public relations-wise for the label can’t be denied, and having a position such as that is part of what allowed Devin Townsend’s work with Strapping Young Lad to finally reach audiences his solo material struggled to find at the time. Certainly having an all-star band consisting of Jed Simon (guitars, then most recently of industrial group Frontline Assembly), Byron Stroud (bass, who would eventually join Fear Factory full time between 2004 and 2012), and Gene Hoglan (greatest extreme metal drummer of all time) didn’t hurt. And while Devin Townsend is a name of great esteem in the world of heavy metal and progressive rock, it’s still not uncommon to find fans who are largely devotees of this nominally heavier group of his, a fact that is not due to weakness of his solo material (there is none) nor indeed even of a comparative strength of his work under the Strapping Young Lad moniker (both strands of his early work are roughly equal in quality) but instead the platform Strapping Young Lad was offered in comparison to its sibling work from its primary creator.

Still. Without the success of Strapping Young Lad, we likely would not have the Devin Townsend records that followed from Ziltoid the Omniscient forward, that most fertile period of his career that is still ongoing. That, combined with the fact of the increased profile itself and the fact that for so many Strapping Young encapsulates all of what they know of Devin Townsend makes it fair to give those records their own article, placed between the two great expansive wings of Devin Townsend’s vast solo work.

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The first record released under the Strapping Young Lad moniker Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing was released shortly after Devin Townsend’s time with Steve Vai’s band. The classic story regarding the record is that frustration with major label fuckery from top to bottom with the group, from material to touring, led Townsend to develop a set of tracks inspired by his more extreme musical interests, spanning early industrial metal, death metal, and thrash. It was written and recorded as a set of solo tracks, more demos than finished material, with light embroidery from session musicians to beef up largely finished material. Townsend has since come out as deeply critical of this record, his first recording after his time with Vai to surface, but in truth it’s stronger than he lets on.

It’s not hard to see why he is so critical of it, however. His later work has revealed an obvious knack for the cinematic and macroscale, and while these tracks certainly feature moments that swim out into implied oceanic sound, it is by and large a dirtier, grittier album than Townsend would ever record again in his career. Its industrial timbre sits comfortably next to Streetcleaner by Godflesh, a noted major influence on Townsend’s work (he has named several of his own tracks after those appearing on that record) and the production feels closer to a flat, tinny sound that the more extreme wings of death/thrash such as the early Meshuggah records had at the time.

Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing also signals a tongue-in-cheek humor that would for the most part disappear from Strapping Young Lad’s material going forward. Tracks such as “Satan’s Ice Cream Truck” and some of the brief spoken interludes offer brief glimpses of his zany humor to the title of the record itself. It feels the correct decision to have excised these types of excursions from Strapping Young Lad material going forward from here, but in the context of the relative lo-fi grit and grimace of Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing, they provide a grain of salt and humanity that can sometimes be lacking in utterly humorless extreme metal records. Not all groups or records benefit from self-awareness, to be fair, with the tactic sometimes being used to offload the awkwardness of material that couldn’t comfortably be sold with a straight face. But in the context of compositions this strong and playing this fierce and aggressive, arguably the most aggressive of Townsend’s entire career, they cut well.

It is easy to see why Townsend is so critical of the record: it is his first solo record, a wild spread of ideas that don’t gel perfectly with one another, mid-paced epic prog stomps derailing frantic industrial-thrash guitar parts and wider sonic vision compromised by a crushed and noisy production. But it is these same elements that make the album feel like it is bristling with more ideas and energy than most, and given that it was the first proper record with Townsend as a bandleader, we can now safely say that the imaginative reach hinted at on this record was seized upon. If one were to rank the five Strapping Young Lad records, this one would be placed firmly at the center, marking well the genesis of a ravenously creative force in extreme and progressive music demonstrating how wide his vision spanned at the tender age of 22.

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City is widely considered the greatest record by Strapping Young Lad; if this series were to be delivered in the standard So Grim, So True, So Real format, this would certainly be the True. Even Townsend himself considers it the greatest record of the group’s short discography. It’s not hard to see why: given Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing as the template, this is certainly an improvement in nearly every area. Gone, admittedly, are the heavier death/thrash production elements and the gritty, lo-fi demo feel of the previous record, replaced with the kind of macroscopic cinematic vision that one presumes Townsend had in mind for this project all along. City was written and recorded alongside Ocean Machine: Biomech and each resembles the other in all aspects except heaviness: where Ocean Machine: Biomech uses expansive soundscapes to create a space somewhere between the heavy and the dreamy to enact long-form prog parables about the human body, City represents a grinding and noisy industrial cityscape.

In almost every instance, describing Strapping Young Lad as significantly heavier than Devin Townsend’s solo material is a gross misnomer, but on City that position is earned. This is by far the heaviest record of Devin Townsend’s career thus far, a level of heaviness not even rivalled by other recordings by the same group. It is as though he knew instinctively that this was a kind of apex and attempting a straightforward replication of this kind of style for Strapping would eventually turn the group into a parody of itself.

And you can’t discuss City without discussing the intensity of the music on the record. If Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing was a directionless blast of unsorted creative energies, then City was those instincts winnowed down to a hypomanic blast of confusion and terror. The themes of the record do not seem to be those of rage, despite the searing intensity of the record; instead, it feels like a drug/alcohol-fueled blast of manic energy from one end of a bipolar turn, countering the mournful and melancholic grandeur of Ocean Machine: Biomech. The album feels more harried, frantic, and confused than malevolent, though not without danger, simply a danger without explicit will to harm.

For those who have experienced manic fits, the way the body and mind raced out faster than the limits of self-control, life and action passing in a mad blur where you wake up guilty of things both mundane and awful that you would not have intended in clear mind, the record can be, if anything, much much too intense. Townsend has developed a wariness of playing material from Strapping Young Lad, with the literal few handful of tracks he’s played from the group’s body of work in the over a decade since their folding becoming massive news in the world of heavy metal. He cites the difficulty of returning to that mental place to adequately perform the music. On paper, this reason seems strange, since he returns to earlier material from his solo work with frequency enough to indicate that it is particularly Strapping Young Lad that he has difficulty with. City is a clear indicator of what he may mean. This is a record that uses the lightspeed confusion of metropoles such as Los Angeles, the inspiring city itself, as a metaphor for the internal swarming, gridlock, and impossibly complex inward energy of a body undergoing mania. It is not surprising that Townsend would be so wary to come back to this particular material, representing so raw a place in himself as it does.

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The self-titled Strapping Young Lad record came after a hiatus for the group following the tour for City. At the time, Townsend cited a seeming inability to write music that was satisfyingly heavy for the group, instead focusing on what would become both Physicist and Terria. In the wake of September 11th, however, Townsend seemed to find a new creative impulse (this was, to be fair, common across a number of artists in America and Europe.) While travesties of that scale plagued and continue to plague areas all over the world, be they natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis to the imperial wars of great powers and the power vacuums they leave in their wake in smaller, less powerful nations, the vision of September 11th shook something very deep in a number of people in the West, artist and non-artist alike. Suddenly the reality of the suffering of the world became, briefly, clear, and while some would seize upon this for more jingoistic and racist ends, Townsend channeled his energies back into himself, ever as always, returning eventually with both the self-titled Strapping Young Lad record and Accelerated Evolution the first record of the parallelly assembled Devin Townsend Band.

Musically, Strapping Young Lad represents a detour for the group, eliding their industrial underpinnings for something closer resembling black metal, at least in terms of the guitars. Tremolo picking abounds, replacing the terse industrial/death metal rhythmic pummel and noise-wall that had defined the band’s sound for the first two records. Townsend has cited inspiration from the Samael record Passage for the sonic shift, seizing on their own hybridization of black metal and industrial on that record as a model for his own. The record also sees a bigger uptick in clean singing, continuing the trend from City which itself saw Townsend tone down his more bestial growling from Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing for a more fierce and contained bark. This fits hand-in-glove with the rawer, more direct arrangements of the record, foregrounding the group as a four-man metal band foremost as opposed to a cerebral and cinematic art-metal project like previous records and their relation to Devin Townsend’s broader body of work had implied.

Unfortunately, it also sees the group producing what is easily their weakest effort. Admittedly, taken on its own, Strapping Young Lad is a fine and serviceable album, delivering hooks and memorable riffs and plenty of power behind its compositions, but this came at the cost of sacrificing the character of Strapping Young Lad which ultimately drains the record of a great deal of its personality. For any other band, this would be a fine album, if not one that would turn a great deal of heads. Given that this was the same group that had released Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing and especially City, let alone that it was authored by the same hand that had created records such as Ocean Machine: Biomech and Infinity, it simply wouldn’t do.

In fairness, the parallel Devin Townsend Band album of the same era, Accelerated Evolution, also marks itself as the weakest of that first wing of his solo material, albeit for different reasons. Given the strength of the material both before and after this window in his career, it is easy to believe that Townsend was simply tired, relearning the process of creating engaging music in that part of his life compared to older methods of artistic development that had helped earlier in his career. And, once more, for being the worst record of Strapping Young Lad, it is certainly far from a bad one.

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If City would be the True, then Alien would be the Real. City represents undoubtedly the moment in which the grander concept for the group was first realized, but Alien is an older, wiser group returning to those same thoughts with a greater sense of emotional elaboration. The two records form a productive dichotomy: City is focused on the metaphorical image of a city in relation to the body and psyche — that of something we can get lost in and reside within but never fully understand because of its vastness and all the nooks and crannies and hidden spaces squirreled away within the vastness of the modern metropolitan cityscape — while Alien is focused on the ways we can fail to understand ourselves, feeling outside of the processes of our own thoughts, be it from intoxication, mental illness, or neurodivergence, such that we are unable in turn to connect or navigate meaningfully the world around us.

If City is a manic tantrum pointed outward, Alien pours inside, the negating black hole of an imploding psyche. The mad pseudo-philosophical babble of “Skeksis,” itself a microcosm of ]Townsend’s entire post-Zappa cinematic art-metal career past and present, captures this sentiment perfectly: “Colors relate to numbers relate to sound relates to form relates to sex relates to healing relates to all-God vibration.” Later in the same track comes the line, “Writing down my infinity / writing for all eternity.”

These thoughts sum up the psychic wilds the album traverses. When Townsend discusses Strapping Young Lad as a project that eventually became too toxic a headspace to continue and one that eventually expunged what it needed to anyway, Alien is in large part what he is referring to. There is a myth around the album that Townsend specifically went off his antipsychotics in order to reach greater artistic heights, a claim which Townsend later refuted as naively and destructively romanticizing something more circumstantial than deliberate. Gauging that his initial bipolar disorder may have been inaccurate, his manic and depressive fits perhaps stemming more from excessive drug use and the environment of being in the music industry at such a young age, Townsend decided to stop taking his antipsychotic medications and re-evaluate himself; however, lacking sobriety at the time, it led to more and more toxic psychological space that happened to manifest itself in a record as powerful as it is psychologically disturbing.

We often hear extreme metal musicians discuss their music as disturbing or dark, but often this means recycling the same types of images and sounds, even if they retain power in some instances. Alien feels legitimately frightening and dark precisely because it doesn’t sound like an artful rendition of mental illness; like nu-metal at its best, Alien instead feels like a very real, raw, and unvarnished display of what mental disorder feels like internally and appears to be externally, with portentous words dissolving into mad nonsensical ranting.

If Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing and City were defined by frantic soundscapes that just so happened to be sonically compelling, Alien represents a salvaging of lessons learned from the self-titled, turning instead to tighter songwriting that would then be elaborated on by expansive production techniques. Ultimately, this is a large part of what places Alien a notch above City in the grand scheme of the group’s work. Both are keen displays of the psychic processes underlying the creation of the records, albeit Alien being a more psychologically destructive and unhinged version of its predecessor, eventually collapsing into a 10+ minute noise track titled “Info Dump” made of static and buried morse code.

But Alien displays a keener sense of songwriting, with Townsend for the first time applying some of the broader songwriting lessons he learned in his solo material, especially the near-Broadway programmatic song formatting of Infinity. As a result, Alien plays like a longform suite, something no Strapping Young Lad record before or after would emulate. Even the title, an unadorned cosmic landscape, feels like it intends Alien as the ultimate statement from the group, a barely-harnessed display of the underlying rage, confusion, terror, impotence, maladaptation, and emotionally rattled mental illness that described both the genesis and thesis of the group. Synchestra, Devin Townsend’s reaction to Alien in his solo work, in turn wound up being arguably the best of his pre-Ziltoid work, displaying that these years were superlatively artistically fruitful even if they were psychically taxing to the extreme, effectively damning the group to dissolution due to the bad mental associations the headspace of this album and the events surrounding its creation caused.

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The New Black presents a strange problem for the group. It is by no means a bad album, continuing the focus on strongly focused songs started on Alien and evolving those sonic ideas to more self-contained ideas. Likewise, it feels less psychologically oppressive despite frequently featuring busier arrangements. This was to be the next to last record Townsend produced, preceding ambient album The Hummer, prior to dissolving all of his groups and making Ziltoid the Omniscient alone and, in retrospect, this shows in the compositions. They are more often on the wider-scope progressive metal bent that Townsend would pursue on that later album, featuring elaborate arrangements of choirs and deftly layered heavy instrumentals as well as a greater focus on his increasingly rich clean chest and head voice.

If Alien represented the end of Strapping Young Lad as an emotional and aesthetic climax, The New Black represents the various strands of Townsend’s creative voice coalescing back into a single space again. In this manner, it serves as a fine counterpoint to Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing, featuring the same conceptual breadth but honed on a song-to-song level in finer detail. As a record unto itself, it is a fine album, closing out the project well. After this it was clear that maintaining separated groups was no longer working for Townsend; even discounting the negative associations Strapping Young Lad had developed for him, the streams had been crossed and could not be uncrossed again. It feels proper in retrospect that, following this, Townsend would unify his aesthetic approaches, at least in a fashion, going forward.

The New Black signifies that the well that had fueled Townsend for a decade had seemingly finally run dry. The destructive maelstrom of thoughts that powered Strapping Young Lad’s first release all the way up to Alien had seemingly dissipated, replaced by what on tracks like “Antiproduct” and “Wrong Side” could best be described as theatrical art-metal. Townsend seemed as well to be aware that eyes were primarily focused on Strapping Young Lad as opposed to his solo work. As much as the group served to offer the group up to progressively more and more ears, such that to some it still remains his definitive work (although his larger body of work contains both more and better records on the whole), it had also begun with that fame to recapitulate some of the issues from the likewise larger Steve Vai band Devin Townsend had been in that had been the genesis of the group in the first place. At the time, Devin Townsend framed his decision to dissolve Strapping Young Lad and his own Devin Townsend Band as an extended hiatus to exclusively make music alone and focus on production work and his family.

What followed after was, of course, over a decade more of music, resulting in ten additional studio records.

Check out Langdon’s dive into early (non-SYL) Townsend in the first edition of this column; an edition on Townsend’s later albums is on its way. Also stay tuned for an interview with Townsend about his latest album Empath.

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