Review Summary: Strapping Young Lad's masterwork is a violent and relentless look into the distorted mind of Devin Townsend.
One would be hard pressed to compare listening to a Strapping Young Lad album to anything tangible, but I'm going to go ahead and suggest that sticking your head in a blender is probably the best example. I'd imagine that it'd be excruciatingly loud, pieces of your face would instantly disintegrate, and tortured screams would radiate throughout the neighborhood. Sound pleasant? Devin Townsend really doesn't give a fu
ck, and that's what makes this album so terribly intriguing. If this doesn't sound like it would appeal to you, go ahead and click the Back button on your web browser right now, because the ride only gets bumpier from here.
Strapping Young Lad were a band that never really broke onto the main scene of metal in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but two of their albums (City and Alien) remain extreme metal classics to this day. They were best known for the schizophrenic vocals of lead singer and songwriter Devin Townsend, as well as the ferocious double-bass work from drummer Gene Hogland. Their sound is frantic, chaotic, desperate and unpolished - and they seemed to be just fine doing things their own way. Townsend's vocals are psychotic, ranging from demonic growls to possessed shrieks, soaring melodic vocals to mocking snarls. Some of his screams are downright disturbing (take the end of Home Nucleonics, for example), and he does it all while playing riffs that sound like they came out of "Creativity Hour" at your local mental hospital. The band also makes use of tasteful voice samples from what sound like science fiction movies, adding an extra degree of eccentricity to the mix.
Kicking off the album is the introductory song, "Velvet Kevorkian". Immediately, Townsend grabs his listeners by the throat and forces them to listen to his maniacal preachings. "All I need is this city and this mind and I will get by! Fuc
k sleep, and fuc
k all of you!" He is backed by a chanting vocal line, and the whole thing sounds like a march of some sort. Suddenly, a faster hi-hat line begins to play and Townsend whispers "Are you ready?" The second song, "All Hail The New Flesh", is regarded as the band's magnum opus. The blast beats at the beginning of the song are nothing short of incredible, and Townsend's 13-second roar is ear-splitting (to say the least.) His lyrics in this song are dark and sarcastic ("So all hail the new flesh, because it suits me fine!"), and his ability to shift from harsh to clean vocals is immaculate. Next, "Oh My Fuc
king God" begins with a drum fill amidst a spoken word segment, and the heaviest part of the album kicks all listeners straight in the teeth. I have no idea how Townsend is able to scream half of this song without taking a breath, because the pace is so ludicrously rapid that it's almost impossible to understand specific words. Around the midpoint of the song, the pace changes again and somehow increases the speed even more, with Townsend shrieking again in a sing-song voice until the song ends.
The fourth song, "Detox", was the biggest song from this album and the only one to receive a music video. It documents Townsend's struggles with bipolar disorder, making the tone very urgent and frenzied. His voice changes dramatically throughout the course of the song, varying from a powerful grunt to a high, melodic shout. At about the halfway point, the song turns in a new direction and it's perhaps the best section in Strapping Young Lad's history. Lyrics such as "How did I get here tonight? What am I doing here? How did I reach this state? How did I lose my sight?" clearly chronicle Townsend's struggles for sobriety. "Home Nucleonics" is the fifth and shortest song (besides Velvet Kevorkian) and arguably the most jarring of all. Townsend simply sounds inhuman on this track, and his bizarre shrieks complement the thrashing riffs from his bandmates. The end of the song simply has to be heard to be believed. Next, "AAA" begins with a slow chugging riff and Townsend's snarling chants of "Devy in the corner of his teen year, born to run away. Children in the middle with the village idiot, so he never made the potty grade." This is the slowest song on the album, but I feel that it's the heaviest and it comes across as a collective "Fuc
k you!" to Townsend's teen years in general. The atmosphere is quite ominous and brooding, and it manages to keep the album's ridiculous pace intact despite the change.
It picks back up again with "Underneath the Waves", generally regarded as the weakest track on the album. That's not to say that it isn't a great song; the bass is at its peak here and some of the riffs are astoundingly heavy. Many people feel that it just fails to leave a similar mark to the rest of the songs on the listener, which is a fair argument. "Room 429" comes almost out of nowhere, being keyboard heavy and containing very little screaming at all. Instead, Townsend goes for more melodious singing in a deep key, and the result is a catchy and well-executed tribute to Cop Shoot Cop
. Finally, "Spirituality" begins with a two-minute heavy and ambient introduction, building the tension wonderfully. The song progresses into a chugging beast, with synth patterns floating aimlessly around Townsend's distorted howls. Eventually, the music fades out entirely until only one note laden with feedback draws the album to a close. As the track ends, Townsend leaves one last little present for the listeners.
This album can be split hypothetically into two sides: the punishing, psychotic first half (from "Velvet Kevorkian" to "Home Nucleonics") and the dark, gloomy second half (from "AAA" to "Spirituality"). It's an excruciatingly bleak look at the terrors of suffering from a mental illness, backed by some of the most intense guitar and drum lines ever recorded. Devin Townsend is unquestionably the highlight of the record, as his barbaric and cold-blooded vocals tease and torment the audience ruthlessly. The band blends elements of thrash metal, industrial metal and progressive metal to perfection, and they were undoubtedly in peak form on this album. It's unfortunate that they were unable to recapture the magic on later releases (although Alien was about as close as they came), but Strapping Young Lad have left behind an extreme metal masterwork that remains one of the most chilling albums of all time.