At some point in every band’s career, there is a point where vision and accomplishment collide; that is, a point where the pinnacle of a band’s creativity and originality is reached. For Canada’s Strapping Young Lad, this album is without a doubt their 1997 release, City. Although only the band’s second record, City is as focused and energetic an album as you are likely to hear. Fraught with originality, innovation, and confidence, City is SYL’s defining moment. The orchestrated vocals, layered-beyond-belief guitars, jackhammer drums, banshee howls and the enormous amount of sampling and synth work are all part of the musical trademark that Strapping Young Lad established. This album is simultaneously thinking man’s metal and pummelling death/black metal, devastating to the first-time listener but ultimately rewarding to the persistent ear.
Strapping Young Lad:
Vocals, Main Guitar, Samples/Programming: Devin Townsend
Drums: Gene Hoglan
2nd Guitar: Jed Simon
Bass Guitar: Byron Stroud
The track listing for this album is perfect. I’ll list the track, then rate it on a 0-5 scale.
Velvet Kevorkian: The introduction to City starts with an eight count, then plummets directly into a sea of layered vocals, samples, and guitar. The song churns for awhile, while Devin’s harmonized vocals soar over the dense guitar riff, until the tension breaks and the song explodes. The song ends with an open guitar chord, bringing us straight into the next song. An extremely well orchestrated song, perfect mood setter for the rest of the album. 5/5
All Hail the New Flesh: This song is widely considered SYL’s best, ever. The opening riff is pure adrenaline, especially with Mr. Hoglan’s pounding blast beat raging behind it. However, when the song “opens up” and Devin’s scream comes through, the true nature of Strapping Young Lad is revealed to the listener. Through four and a half minutes of extreme rage and magnificence, including a beautifully sung chorus, this song makes it hard for me to give it only a perfect score. 5/5
Oh My F**king God: Following beauty, the beast. Hoglan’s swift drum solo kicks off this track, and he continues to impress with his double bass work throughout. When Devin screams for the first time, I get goosebumps. This song’s main riff is an unstoppable musical steamroller, and put to Townsend’s rapid-fire vocals, beats the listener into submission over and over. The chorus is a highlight, where Devin chants “Oh-My-Fu-*king-God”, and the guitar slashes away on a low, rigid note. Just when the song seems to reach its breaking point, Devin lets out a vicious ten-second gurgle and the song kicks the intensity up another notch. The interlude, featuring Townsend wildly yelping “la la la la” over and over, gives the listener the impression of a man losing his sanity. The song finally ends with a horrific wail, and a strange beeping sample. Frighteningly heavy, severe song. 5/5
Detox: Mainstream singles always tend to be the bands’ best songs, whereas metal singles rarely get across the feel of the band. Not so with City’s single, Detox. A cool riffs starts this one off, and Devy shouts, “I hate that stupid piece of s**t,” one of the many nonsensical quotes that could be taken from this song. The song stays dormant for awhile, until Townsend sings, “I’ve got a feeling, with the wrong people”, where the song rises in mood a little. Actually, overall this song has a very “positive” feel, a great juxtaposition with the previous song. During the bridge, the song gets nearly too happy, with no complex drumming, a major vocal line and an almost joyful guitar riff. The song gets a bit heavier after the bridge, but never really changes its mood. An excellent song, but a bit too monotone. 4.4/5
Home Nucleonics: The most powerfully heavy song I have ever heard. After a brief, ironic-sounding sample (“The beat starts here.”), a huge blast-beat driven guitar riff molests the ears of the listener. The lyrics to the verse are undeniably creepy, and some of the screams that Devin pulls of are just terrifying. The double bass work during the chorus will impress even the most learned death-metal drummer, and at the risk of repeating myself, I must say Townsend shrieks like a demon from the most torturous pits of Satan’s realm. During the bridge section (“Hating, burning, waiting, falling”), the song is taken to new levels of heaviness as Devy roars diabolically and samples add to the thickness of the mix. The end is so bloodcurdling, you need to hear it for yourself. Pure lunacy, from start to finish. 5/5
AAA: A slower song, AAA is a nice break from the prior five songs. A guttural guitar part brings us to Devin reminiscing his teenage years, apparently. (“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 whole song gives a feeling of disgust, somehow. The lyrics and guitar lines seem to just ooze grunginess. However, after the second chorus, the song picks up a bit. The riffs become more heavy, and the mood just seems angrier. A terrifically depressing song, and a SYL classic. 5/5
Underneath The Waves: A generally overlooked song on this album, Underneath The Waves is a solid thrasher, nonetheless. The verse is neat, where the guitar drops out and Devin barks, “On and on, it’s on and on.” The chorus is strangely beautiful, in its own way. Devin’s vocal line fits well over this guitar and synth. However, the song really never does enough to make its mark upon the listener. Probably the weakest song on City, but the quality tells you something about this album as a whole. 4.1/5
Room 429: This is a cover of 90’s industrial/experimental band Cop Shoot Cop. The song is heavily reliant on synths, and Devin’s voice pretty much carries the song. The lyrics are undeniably thought provoking, as well. The chorus is pretty catchy, and the bridge is just awesome in every way. However, the song seems pretty repetitive, and lacks the SYL trademark, for obvious reasons. Still first-rate. 4.7/5
Spirituality: The last song on City. This song, while over six minutes, has minimal guitar or drum work, relying mostly on Devin’s harmonized vocal lines to add colour. With no real structure, Spirituality seems to be more of a gloomy, miserable reflection on the purpose of life. The song starts slowly, with thick, heavily distorted guitar and tons of samples and white noise. After a couple of minutes Devin comes in with some of his best lyrics, (“You’ll never know what you try to be if you want to be it…God help the king of nothing.”) The song really never changes mood, although Townsend’s vocals are truly moving. Spectacular, just be sure to take it in the right context. 5/5
With City, Strapping Young Lad have produced one of the most dense, original and moving works I have heard in my life. While the overall mood is crushingly depressing and ironic, Devin Townsend obviously doesn’t want to be taken too seriously. (The album is “dedicated to pee and poo”, and at the end of Spirituality a computer-generated voice intones, “Strapping Young Lad rocks my hairy anus.”) A masterpiece that all music lovers should hear, if only to hear something truly radical and deviant.