Review Summary: SYL's final record: some of their best material is on here mixed into an otherwise lackluster outing.
Extreme metal is a mixed bag. When done correctly, a band can end up creating one of the most acclaimed works of art ever, albums that are disliked by no one except that douchebag hipster across the street, an album that unites music lovers of all kinds. However, when done wrong extreme metal is a muddled mess of a genre of music filled with unnecessarily abrasive screaming, clumsy drumming, no sense of melody, inaudible bass and a guitar that is more distortion than actual instrumentation. Put both well-done and confused and amateur extreme metal music together and you'll get The New Black, the final album by Devin Townsend's twisted brainchild Strapping Young Lad. Devin Townsend is one of the best metal songwriters in the history of the genre, going from his own prolific solo work to this critically acclaimed metal supergroup. Featuring Townsend, resident shred master Jed Simon, bassist Byron Stroud and one of the greatest drummers ever in Gene Hoglan, SYL were one of the most promising metal acts in the game during their 13-year run. And most of the time they delivered: City and Alien are two of my favorite metal albums ever. However, they also had another disjointed confused side to them. Their self-titled album was a far more accessible work than their previous album and after a 6-year hiatus it wasn't up to standards. However the s/t album only showed a small part of this confused mess of a band. It is ever more prevalent on the band's final release, The New Black.
You may be asking why I rated this album a 3 if all I've done so far is complain about it. Well to be honest there are some amazing positives about this record. The opening 5 minutes of the album are truly brutal and contain some of SYL's finest material. Opening track "Decimator" definitely lives up to its name, utilizing Hoglan's signature double-bass mastery and a chugging distorted riff with a galloping bass line following closely behind. Townsend's harsh vocals are truly an enigma: how he has managed to pull them off as well as his amazing cleans over 20 years (even live) still amazes me. "Decimator" is a rather short burst of energy clocking in at less than 3 minutes. However it does what the rest of the album refuses to do: it doesn't overstay its welcome. "Decimator" stops at exactly the right time: if it had gone on any longer it would have been a pretty boring track. What I just said about "Decimator" completely characterizes track two, "You Suck" which is one of the most furious tracks that SYL ever recorded. The lyrics of the song make me laugh every time: it's basically just about how much you, your band, your friends, your family and your girlfriend f*cking suck. The hollers of a choir in the background certainly add some atmosphere to this extremely angry 2 minutes and 40 seconds, while Hoglan turns in another stunning performance and Simon uses his squealing guitar to compliment the choir in the background. These 2 opening tracks are definite highlights and make the album seem extremely promising-but then we get to middle section.
"Anti Product" is just plain lame. There is no melody in this song whatsoever-just Hoglan playing a boring drumbeat over a minimalist bass riff and Townsend speaking-not even singing-over this boring backdrop. When the guitars come in it admittedly gets a little better but nothing can really save this mess of a track-not to mention that's it a minute longer than the previous two which makes it even more painful. The next few tracks are a lot like this one: "Wrong Side" contains another melody-depraved chugging riff with Townsend's worst harsh vocals on the album: how this was released a single defies me. The guitar riff is kinda annoying and Hoglan's drumbeat is the saving grace of the verses: the chorus on the other hand is pretty nice. "Monument" is easily the best track of this section of the album, utilizing a swung 6/8 riff with a nice distorted riff and (finally) an interesting bass part. Townsend actually puts some effort into his vocals this time around and the result is that this song slays. However, this song once again is about 30 seconds too long and you're eventually waiting for it to end. "Hope" intrigues you from the start with crowd applause opening the song. I have no idea why the crowd is applauding after the really weak last few songs but who am I to judge? This song is painfully boring with the instrumentalists doing nothing particularly special with the exception of the always rock-steady Hoglan, and Townsend's harsh vocals are getting a little bit sour by the halfway point. He hasn't used his clean vocals once yet on the album and the harsh vocals are starting to become mundane and boring: they're trying so hard to be metal but in the end is it really metal at all?
The next track answers my question. "Far Beyond Metal" is the best track of the album's middle portion with Hoglan going completely crazy and Stroud's performance actually being worth talking about again. Stroud's bass riff is completely filthy, utilizing a lot of reverb and string bends to create one of the most infectious riffs I've heard in a while. The guitar is once again at the forefront, chugging away but this time with a bit of taste: the riff, while distorted and undoubtedly heavy, carries the first remote signs of melodic tones since "Monument" and really sets the track apart from all its other mediocre predecessors. However it does feature a guest appearance by Oderus Urungus which sort of disrupts the flow of the song and keeps it from being truly great. That's another bad thing about this album: the guest appearances. There are 3 in total, and while 1 of them is pretty good (Cam Kroestch on "You Suck") the rest all just drag down the songs they're featured on. The biggest offender is the 8th track, "F*cker". While the song begins promisingly enough with Townsend triumphantly crying "F*CK YOU" followed by one of the most crushing heavy riffs on the album, guest star Bif Naked (a truly horrible stage name) drags through his verse with no melody whatsoever, practically rapping over the riff which is all that's keeping the song alive. Townsend takes over vocals on the second verse and saves the song but it still leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth. But have no fear-you have made it through the challenging middle section of the album. The best tracks are saved for last on The New Black.
"Almost Again" has no signs of metal influences in it and is an extremely melodic song, featuring keyboards and Townsend's amazing clean vocals for once. Hoglan delivers another stellar performance playing a nice little beat without being too overly technical and Stroud also delivers a great high-pitched melodic bass line. The chorus, although consisting of only two words is extremely catchy and is guaranteed to get stuck in your head: the vocals on the chorus are double-tracked to create an extra sense of melody. At this point the album is showing signs of life again and begins picking up speed, and you're actually excited to hear the last two songs (which actually segue into one another). The downtempo guitar interlude "Polyphony" is one of the album's finest moments featuring a slow clean guitar line over Townsend's disturbed whispery vocals. Toward the end of the song Stroud and Hoglan enter with a bang, with powerful cymbals and aggressive bass technique dissolving the mix until the chaotic soundscape finally crumbles and transitions into the monstrous title track. The title track is everything you want in a Strapping Young Lad song: Townsend's harsh vocals are the best they've ever been on this cut. The guitars are wailing and distorted, and the two guitars bounce off of each other's melody to form an amazing brutal yet melodic whole. The bass is aggressive and busy, and the double-bass is in full effect with Hoglan's hands doing some insane fills as well. The title track is easily the best on the album despite it being the longest (6 minutes and 16 seconds) and my earlier complaint about how most songs were too long. This song uses every second of its running time to the fullest to create one of the best, and the final song of the band's career.
The New Black is definitely not the place to start with Strapping Young Lad, in fact it's their weakest record even weaker than the debut. It's not a great final record but there are some gems on this album that are some of the best the band ever recorded, and those tracks alone are worth buying the album because you will fall in love with them no matter how much the rest of the record gets on your nerves.
Recommended Tracks (the asterisk signifies the best track on the album):
Far Beyond Metal
The New Black*