Strapping Young Lad, "Alien"
Devin Townsend has balanced insane brutality with beautiful melody on his many different releases over the years. Strapping Young Lad is, of course, known as Townsend's "insane brutality" project, and "Alien" certainly delivers on that promise. As usual, this release sports Heavy Devy's industrialized guitars and Gene Hoglan's frantic, air tight drums along with stomping grooves and giant vocal hooks to keep things from devolving into a morass of white noise (until the final track, at least - more on that later). This adroit combination of unlikely musical bedfellows is the basis of the Strapping Young Lad sound and displays Townsend's mad genius, which has earned the group so much respect over the years. While the band will never recapture the magic created on "City" (you can only come out of left field and catch people by surprise once), they continue to churn out the violent, venomous and clever songs that leave you exhausted and exhilarated upon album's end.
Townsend's vocals are as dexterous as ever, from angry belly roars, shrill screaming, fevered ranting, maniacal whispers to emotive crooning, dude covers all styles with skill and conviction. A couple tracks feature high backing vox (either by a female or child, I can't tell), and it sounds great. Townsend's guitar work is impressive, his right hand usually fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird until a staccato section breaks things down. Can't really call much of this "intricate", but its sheer intensity is impressive and the fleet-fingered runs crop up periodically. Most riffs are stripped down to their bare bones, perhaps a reaction to the more hand-numbing arrangements of the previous self-titled disc. Acoustic interludes provide a lovely counterpoint to the mayhem found on the majority of the tracks and synths are used effectively to create a complementary (rather than underlying) atmosphere.
I've always felt that Devin is one of the few musicians who "gets" the bile-filled angst that Pink Floyd captured so well, but to the Canuck's credit, he's managed to update it with a modern edge and make it his own. Compositions range from jack-hammer pummeling to plodding to droning with Devy screaming his guts out one way or another. Pretty much everyone recognizes Gene Hoglan as one of metal's best drummers, and his work truly helps create the manic vibe that the guitars and vocals crave. Pure, unbridled primal release - just what you'd expect from these crazy cats.
The usual "wall of sound" multi-layered production/mix is present and continues to be formidable (if by now familiar), although I find Townsend's work behind the board too trebly and wish he'd fatten up the bass - it's audible, but needs more room. With so many things taking up space, this would be a challenge, but a monster bottom end would definitely add a new twist to the band's sound and certainly give more weight to the purveyors of heavy-as-a-really-heavy-thing metal.
The tracks are somewhat schizophrenic, so don't expect to find too many hooks to latch onto upon the first listen, but given a bit of time, things will sink in. "Alien" is yet another challenging and rewarding release from musical madman and his talented crew (except for the final track "Infodump" which is just 12 minutes of static, electronics and muffled voices until the scream at the end - call me crazy, but this one aspect of Devin's "humor" that I could live without).