Strapping Young Lad- a name uttered so often by Canadian metal fanatics, yet a name so ignored by the vast majority of music lovers. “Formed” in 1995, SYL has always been the brainchild of musical deviant Devin Townsend. After contributing soaring vocals to Steve Vai’s Sex and Religion album, Townsend needed a release. He was prone to extreme mood swings (a condition which was later diagnosed as bipolarity), and nothing seemed to vent his angst and anger better than music. So came the first Strapping Young Lad album, a maelstrom of dissonance mixed with harmony. Although he was the only contributor to the album, he managed to find his own distinct sound. This album was not too well received, unlike his next album, City. For City, Devin recruited three excellent musicians to help with recording. Gene Hoglan (ex-Death, ex-Testament), a truly legendary drummer, Jed Simon (ex- Frontline Assembly) to help on guitars, and Byron Stroud (now with Fear Factory), a solid bassist. This album defined the “heavy yet melodic” sound of Strapping Young Lad. Soon after, No Sleep ‘Till Bedtime, a live album recorded in Austrailia, was released. Townsend’s musical career was on the rise.
However, apparently Devin felt he had released enough (in every sense) and decided to put Strapping Young Lad away for good. During the next four years, Townsend released many critically-acclaimed solo albums, including the essential Terria and Ocean Machine albums, as well as producing a handful of records including Lamb of God’s 2001 release, As the Palaces Burn.
But as time passed, Devin’s slow-boiling anger came to frothing point once again. (Some might say he needed the cash, but I’ll be an optimist.) He decided the time had come to take Strapping Young Lad off the shelf and release it once again. The self-titled album he released in 2003 had much less of the melody that was displayed on SYL’s two previous releases, yet the sandblaster intensity and rib-cracking riffs were much more plentiful. Some fans were displeased by this change in direction, but the two year tour promoting the album helped to raise eyebrows among metal fans.
This brings us to Strapping Young Lad’s latest release, the expansive Alien. Described by the band as being “manical”, “outlandish”, and “the soundtrack to the Armageddon”, Alien disappoints in no way. It seems to balance the raw fury of SYL’s self titled album with City’s somewhat melodic approach. From the opening throes of “Imperial” to the eerie static that is “Info Dump”, SYL have conceived a near perfect album. Orchestrated vocals, synth, and heavy guitars dominate.
While most of the songs are well-written and interesting, a few parts seem oddly out of place. On the odd “Possessions”, a song about the decision to bear a child, Devin seems to hit a high point vocally, going from growling unusual lyrics and making them seem like a death chant (Vacation, procreation, sterilization, DISNEYLAND!!!) to carrying the opening melody of the song. However, the intense “S**tstorm” has an almost silly level of madness. At some points, such as the part where “If you want crazy..” is screamed, the anger seems almost contrived. However, these moments are few and far between. This album gives an overall feeling of being bludgeoned with a beautifully artistic club, a truly unique experience that I highly recommend.
Now for the track-by-track:
Imperial: A fine intro. Starts immediately into a blast-beat driven frenzy, into a low major key section. Although this song has lots of melody, Devin almost chants over most of the song, leaving the synths and guitars to pound out rest. Great, epic opening song. 5/5
Skeksis: Starting with scratched out guitars, this song grabs and holds the listener by the throat. Synths dominate again on much of this track, save for the part headed by Devin’s “Formula!!”. This song even includes SYL’s first ever solo, a strange descending melody that fades into the extremely low rhythm guitar. This song is an album highlight. 5/5
S**tstorm: Now this is heavy. Chock-full of lunging, demented riffs and battering rhythms, this song is a truly punishing assault on the ears. The drums are especially brutal, with Mr. Hoglan moving his feet like no man should. All beauty is discarded in favour of ramming home the “I hate you” feel of this song. However, the vocals and lyrics make it seem trivialized, and this makes the song lose conviction somewhat. Still very well done. 4/5
Love": The one and only single. This song is proof that SYL are evolving. While following a fairly strict construction, this song still flourishes the band’s overall feel. Some fans may think this a “sellout” song, but the songwriting and lyrics are too good to be overlooked. 4.5/5
Shine: A strange song, in many respects. Strapping try out their female vocal choir for the first time, creating a decidedly unusual, offsetting atmosphere. The addition of some other weird noises (including some marimba, if I’m not mistaken), makes this a fairly interesting, if not too pleasing, song. Not a strong point in the album. 3.5/5
We Ride: A quick, thrashy number. Devin’s vocals sound very arrogant, suiting the song and the lyrics extremely well. A couple of great solos add to the classic metal style this song portrays. Near the end, the synths do a fantastic job of adding a dissonant, uneasy edge to the main riff. Very profound and simple. 5/5
Possessions: In the vein of “Shine”, this song is a strange epic. Female vocals are fairly prominent on this song, though they are managed better than they were previously. A high point is the bridge, where gut-churningly low guitars ebb and convulse. Generally, vocals are done quite well on this song, making up for the somewhat lacklustre musical content. 4/5
Two Weeks: This song is truly unexpected. Dreamy keys precede a lone acoustic guitar, plucking a lonely yet happy melody. Devin’s vocals are almost pop sounding-you can easily pick out the influence from his solo albums. It drifts into a sinister atmosphere near the end, to lead into the next song. Depending on whether you like ballads or not, this song can be great or grotesque. 4.5/5
Thalamus: If musical indexes existed, this would be considered a prime example. It seems less of a song than a gathering, taking elements from all previous songs and merging them into the next song. Although the nature of the song is slow and lumbering, it manages to be majestic and powerful throughout. 5/5
Zen: Really the final track, Zen is the zenith of Alien. Starting with a bizarre riff, the song seems to be fading out when the listener is hit with a gut punch of double bass hammering and tremolo-picked guitars. This song seems to possess no melody until suddenly Devin lifts the music up into major-key bliss, and the song continues like this for some time. Though drums pound, guitars drone, and vocals screech and croon, this song never really reaches the pinnacle it has built for itself. 4/5
Info Dump: White noise. Oddly unsettling, as though the listener is hearing something not meant to be heard. Kudos to SYL for going completely overboard and making it 12 + minutes long.
Overall, this album contains some of Strapping Young Lad’s best work. The musicianship is at its best on this album, and though I would recommend City over this, Alien is certainly a must-have album for fans of non-traditional metal, or for music fans in general looking for something different.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5