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Devin Townsend – Z2

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It feels like it has been a long while since I’ve made a “Music” entry here. That’s probably due to music not having an inherently nostalgic feel for me, especially when compared with television, movies, and video games. Truthfully, nothing about this particular post is really nostalgic for me, but it is one I feel compelled to make.

Devin Townsend is back once again, and this time he brought Ziltoid along.

Devin Townsend is back once again, and this time he brought Ziltoid along.

Devin Townsend has been at this whole music thing for quite a long time now. Whether you associate him more with Strapping Young Lad, Steve Vai, or as a solo artist it’s possible you’ve been listening to him for twenty plus years. He’s released a lot of material under various guises and umbrellas and he is one of the rare artists I feel has produced something for everyone. He’s best known for his extreme brand of heavy metal but he’s also done rock, country, punk and pop while taking time out for more obscure designs that may not appeal to anyone (I’m talking about DevLab here)! One of Mr. Townsend’s most noteworthy and recognizable creations is Ziltoid, The Omniscient. The fourth-dimensional intergalactic guitar hero first debuted on 2007’s Devin Townsend Presents: Ziltoid The Omniscient, heavy metal meets old-time radio show mash-up that took listeners on a journey through space as Ziltoid sought to find the universe’s ultimate cup of coffee. The album is basically a cult classic at this point, and if you are unfamiliar with it one I highly recommend. After Ziltoid, Townsend formed the Devin Townsend Project and set his mind on releasing records under that moniker. Ziltoid has been a part of the live show and even made an appearance on the DTP album Deconstructed, but a sequel to the Ziltoid record was only speculated upon. It seemed obvious that Townsend would revisit the material and he would acknowledge as much in various interviews with the media while promoting one of his other albums. Fans wanted a Ziltoid 2, but at the same time, Townsend’s other works were being received quite well so while there was demand, fans were uncharacteristically patient when the Ziltoid 2 conversation would come up. This past summer, Townsend took to the internet and crowd-funding to create a passion project he dubbed Casualties of Cool, a hybrid rock-country record. As part of his promise to those who pledged, any dollars raised, but not spent, on Casualties would be directed towards the Z2 record. Proving once again that he is the hardest working man in music, Townsend not only found the time to produce the Casualties double-record, but also what has become a double-album itself, Z2, and release everything in the span of a few months.

For Z2, Townsend wanted to play up the radio show angle even more and his story about an alien kidnapping a being called a Poozer and igniting an intergalactic war over it was a hard sell to his label. Devin has his own label, but he apparently still has people he needs to answer to, so in order to get everyone on board with the Z2 project he agreed to make it a double-album. In what is probably a rare event, Z2 arrived in stores with two discs that were actually two separate albums. On one disc is Devin Townsend Presents: Dark Matters, which is the Ziltoid disc. The other disc is Sky Blue, the latest album from the Devin Townsend Project. Even though both discs contain essentially the same band, they’re intended to represent two distinct artists, if you will, much as the Devin Townsend Band is considered different from the Devin Townsend Project. If all of that is confusing to you then that is okay, as it’s really not important. The important take-away here is that Devin Townsend released two albums at the same time for little more than the price of one, and to top it all off, they’re both pretty good.

Devin Townsend Project - Sky Blue

Devin Townsend Project – Sky Blue

Sky Blue is essentially the bonus disc here, but it also seems like it’s intended to be disc one, so let’s start there. Sky Blue sounds very much like a continuation of the last Devin Townsend Project album, Epicloud, and contains the same supporting cast including vocalist (and now frequent Devin collaborator) Anneke van Giersbergen, best known as the former front-woman for The Gathering. Sky Blue is essentially a pop-metal album. There’s a strong electronic component to the songs and Anneke’s vocals dominate the majority of the record as opposed to Townsend’s. There are plenty of Townsend’s trademark hooks and his “wall of sound” approach to the production. Guitar tones are unusually bright in tone compared with other DTP records with few “crunchy” riffs present. Townsend still employs his old screaming voice in some parts, notably the opener “Rejoice” and “Silent Militia.” The album comes across as being very danceable and some songs wouldn’t seem out of place in a discotheque. The chorus for each song is usually quite catchy, but the album does slow down at parts and becomes more introspective and contemplative. “Before We Die” is the big set piece of the album and it’s positive outlook on life and love makes it a fair representation of the album as a whole. Other highlights include the very catchy title track, which according to the liner notes, is inspired by the Usher track “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love.” Raise your hand if you never thought you’d see Devin Townsend giving his interpretation of an Usher track.

Sky Blue is an album that could have been released by itself and appreciated by the Devin Townsend fanbase, but I suspect most of the people who scoop this release up are most interested in the second disc: Dark Matters. The first Ziltoid record was pretty unique when it came out, but it was also basically just a Devin Townsend album with some entertaining bits of dialogue inserted in between some of the tracks. Dark Matters, on the other hand, plays more like a radio show with the music appearing just to enhance the setting and presentation of the unconventional story. It doesn’t really work as a metal album in that sense, but that also doesn’t mean it isn’t any good or lacking of quality material. There are a few tracks that stand-out as entertaining songs, such as the Soilwork inspired “Ziltoid Goes Home” or the punishing “Deathray.” However, those looking for the same experience as was found on the first Ziltoid record may be let down.

Ziltoid returns in Dark Matters!

Ziltoid returns in Dark Matters!

Ziltoid The Omniscient was an extreme metal album. There were some lighter moments to be found, but there was also “By Your Command” and “Planet Smasher.” The previously mentioned “Ziltoid Goes Home” is probably the heaviest moment of Dark Matters, but it doesn’t really approach the heaviness of the first record. The glossy production and electronic elements found on Sky Blue are present here, making the two discs more similar than anticipated, and also making Dark Matters feel more contemporary. The first Ziltoid sounded similar in approach to the material Devin Townsend was releasing at the time, so naturally Dark Matters sounds similar to the more recent Devin Townsend Project albums of today.

How does Dark Matters work as a radio show? Pretty well, though if you’re expecting high art out of the story you won’t find it. It’s basically on the same level as the first album in terms of ridiculousness. Townsend pretty much made that album by himself, but here has the whole DTP band and some guests for other roles. The two most noteworthy additions include WWE personality (and fellow Canadian) Chris Jericho as Captain Spectacular (who was voiced by Townsend on the first Ziltoid album) and Stolen Babies member Dominique Lenore Persi as the war princess. Jericho’s role is basically just a speaking one and he is appropriately cheesy in his presentation of Captain Spectacular while Persi is asked to sing on her character’s main track, “War Princess.” The story as presented is entertaining, though not hilariously so, and some of the charm has definitely faded a bit. It doesn’t really have a lot to do with the events of the first record (which were implied to be the delusions of an overworked barista) but all of the characters that make a return for this record behave in a manner consistent with how they were presented on the first record.

Dark Matters is an entertaining ride, though it’s function as more of a theatrical release make its lasting appeal questionable when compared with the first record. And in a somewhat surprising twist, it’s actually the package’s other disc, Sky Blue, that shines brightest. The two work surprisingly well as a package release, and as a fan of Townsend’s work, I must say it’s pretty awesome to receive a third album from him this calendar year. Dark Matters concludes with a “To Be Continued” message so it appears we’re set for more Ziltoid in the future, which is fine by me. Hopefully, the Devin Townsend Project, which was originally supposed to just be four albums but has now become six, continues long into the future as well.

 

Top Tracks

  • Universal Flame
  • Sky Blue
  • Before We Die
  • War Princess
  • Deathray
  • Ziltoid Goes Home

Devin Townsend Project – By A Thread: Live in London 2011

Devin Townsend Project – By A Thread: Live in London 2011

2011 for me was the year of Devin Townsend.  After being a casual fan of Townsend’s work for a few years, I dove in headlong into his back catalog while also enjoying the two albums he put out in 2011 under the Devin Townsend Project moniker:  Deconstruction and Ghost.  Those were two albums that could not be more different from one another, which is something Townsend is known for.  After establishing his name with Strapping Young Lad as a destructive force in heavy metal, he felt secure enough to branch out and really get experimental with his sound.  There probably is a traditional Devin Townsend sound, but for the most part his stuff is all over the place.

One of Townsend’s most creative outlets is with his latest band, The Devin Townsend Project.  Prior to creating this outfit, Townsend was touring and releasing music as The Devin Townsend Band.  After resolving some items in his personal life (namely getting sober) he decided to focus his efforts on a new project.  He envisioned it spanning four albums and decided it would be different enough from what he was currently doing to change the name of his band.  The lineup of musicians that would appear on these albums would be fluid and feature several guests and no two albums would sound alike.  The first of these albums was released in 2009 and titled Ki, the second would follow that year and is called Addicted!  To celebrate the release of the third and fourth albums last year, Townsend decided to do a special series of concerts in London.  The shows would span four days and each night a different album would be featured.  Naturally, the shows went in order of release and lasted four nights.  Not wanting this experience to go to waste, Townsend had each show recorded and the end result is the new CD/DVD box set By A Thread:  Live in London 2011.

The contents of the release which comes housed in a sturdy booklet style holder and cardboard sleeve.

By A Thread was released this past month in both Europe and North America.  The box set includes 4 DVDs and 5 CDs.  Each concert is on its own DVD, while the CDs are arranged by albums with a fifth disc comprising all of the encore tracks played over the course of the four days.  The first three shows were held at the University of London, while the Ghost set was done at The Union Chapel.  I’m guessing this was done to give the more intimate Ghost record a different feel.  Despite the change in venue, the audio quality is consistent across the board and is quite clear and crisp.  The audio wasn’t optimized for 5.1 though, which has left some fans disappointed.  They also aren’t intended for playback in a PC DVD drive, if that’s something that is important to you.

Visually, the DVDs are okay but nothing spectacular.  The venues are modest in size and the image sometimes feels a bit cramped.  The image also won’t be confused with an HD one, but as far as concert DVDs go it gets the job done.  The menu graphics are interesting and fun to look at.  They also contain loads of hidden easter eggs for the curious type.  Most of which are sound-checks and other behind-the-scenes shots.

As for which concert is best, well that’s a matter of opinion.  Chances are, whatever you favorite DTP album is will be the star here.  Where possible, Devin tried to recruit the musicians that actually played on the album, but some were unavailable.  The star-studded Deconstruction suffers the most as none of the guest musicians could contribute.  Rather than use someone else, Devin opted to use recordings to fill the gap as it would seem he went to great lengths to try and recreate the album sound live.  This means instead of hearing someone else sing Floor Jansen’s parts, for instance, you just hear her track from the actual album.  A lot of the backing vocals are also richened with audio samples from the albums, especially some of the songs from Addicted!  I’m the sort of person who prefers as little of that as possible, but it doesn’t harm the experience for me.  Even with that element, the Addicted! set is my favorite.  That’s due in part to it being my favorite of the four albums, and also because Townsend was able to assemble the key contributors from that album (basically Anneke).  The encores are also some of my favorites.

The image quality on the DVDs won’t blow you away, but it gets the job done.

Speaking of which, Townsend took a different approach to each encore.  For the Ki and Ghost sets, the band mostly did bonus tracks from those albums that didn’t make the original release.  For Deconstruction, Townsend reached deep into his back catalog to pull out some tracks from the Punky Brüster LP.  The reasoning behind this, as explained by Devin, is that since Deconstruction was such a nightmare to learn they’d follow it up with a bunch of stuff they didn’t know!  He flubs some of the lyrics too, but it’s all good.  The Addicted! set features some songs selected just to take advantage of Anneke van Giersbergen and includes the tracks “Pixilate,” “Life,” and “Kingdom.”  There’s also some Ziltoid appearances, which is to be expected.

The crowd is pretty good for most of the sets.  They seem particularly into the Ki and Addicted! sets, though slightly flat for the Deconstruction one.  I’m pretty disappointed they didn’t play along with the Ziltoid campaign speech, but maybe by then they were pretty drained.  That album is punishing.  They also didn’t seem too interested in the Punky Brüster tracks, though I enjoyed their inclusion.

All in all, this is a nice set but it’s definitely for the Devin Townsend Project enthusiast as opposed to the casual fan.  It’s cool to have live versions of these four albums, but not really necessary since how often are you really going to opt to listen to the live version over the studio one?  Probably not all that often.  The videos are cool though and Devin and the boys make it fun to watch (especially the previously mentioned Ziltoid campaign speech).  Devin did a commentary track for each set too that gets into more of the nuts and bolts of the production for you gear-heads out there.  The physical package is attractive and makes for a nice display piece.  A word of caution though, the North American edition apparently has a defect with the Addicted! DVD.  I’m not certain what it is exactly as I bought the European edition, so if you have a choice, go for that one.  Apparently the production company is issuing replacements so it’s more of an inconvenience than anything.

Devin Townsend is one of the most interesting musicians around, so even if this set isn’t for you, check out some of his other works.  There’s pretty much something for everyone in his rather diverse catalog.


Nightwish: Imaginaerum

Nightwish: "Imaginaerum" (2011)

From time to time I like to break format and post my thoughts on a current game or album.  It helps to keep things interesting, and even though I love things from my past, I’m actually a pretty forward thinking individual.  And lately I feel like this blog has become a video game one because there’s just been so much to talk about where games are concerned.  Which makes this a perfect time to post a new entry on something that’s both current and not a video game.

2011 was not a banner year for music.  At least, not for me.  I made a couple of posts on new albums in 2011 but none were glowing.  And it’s a shame because there was some stuff in 2011 I was really looking forward to, most notably Opeth’s latest album Heritage.  Heritage ended up being a bit on the underwhelming side.  There was some good stuff, but it fell short of my admittedly lofty expectations, and it had nothing to do with the lack of any true metal moments on the album.  There were some albums that impressed me to various degrees.  Symphony X released Iconoclast and the double album version is an enjoyable listen.  Mastodon’s The Hunter was a big surprise for many as the prog-metal masters decided to go in a more rock n’ roll direction.  I enjoyed it, though it lacks true staying power.  Devin Townsend released two albums under the Devin Townsend Project moniker that had their pluses and minuses.  Deconstruction was an abusive, relentless, heavy piece of music that’s so destructive it borders on unlistenable.  Fantastic in small doses, but tough to digest as a whole.  On the other hand, Ghost is extremely accessible and damn near dull by comparison.  There are some moments where Townsend stumbles on some truly memorable hooks and melodies, though ultimately the album’s style is not my kind of thing.

Sneaking in at the end of the year though was the latest album from Finnish symphonic metal maestros Nightwish; Imaginaerum.  It had been over four years since Nightwish’s last album (and first without longtime vocalist Tarja Turunen) Dark Passion Play and I’m sure the die hard fans were eager for something new.  I’ve never been among the die hards and only own two Nightiwish albums in addition to this one, Once and Dark Passion Play.  Nightwish is a band I’ve often enjoyed in small doses.  Keyboardist and lead composer Tuomas Holopainen has always had a gift for composition, especially when crafting a chorus, but has the tendency to over dramatize the music.  This can, at times, give Nightwish a pretentious air to it.  Not that such a feeling is bad in itself as many bands convey that sentiment as well (Tool and Opeth immediately come to mind), it’s just that Nightwish goes for an almost Hollywood sound that doesn’t agree with me all the time.  Often I actually find myself enjoying their more complex pieces and only some of the considered accessible stuff.  The ones I enjoy the least tend to be the heavier tracks where the band almost tries to be too metal.  My least favorite track on the last album was “Master Passion Greed” which just so happened to be the heaviest.

Nightwish: Jukka Nevalainen, Emppu Vuorinen, Anette Olzon, Marco Hietala, Tuomas Holopainen

Nightwish also has a reputation amongst the metal community as being “girl metal” or other terms too derogatory for me to list.  I kind of get it, the metal community is always going to be this ultra macho thing and women always have a harder time winning over a metal audience than men.  Especially women who earn the label of pop singer.  Nightwish has also invited drama in the past with their handling of Tarja Turunen’s dismissal by publishing an open letter to her on their web page.  The whole scenario had a very high school feel to it and I legitimately felt bad for newcomer Anette Olzon who had to walk into this mess, though I’m sure she’s been well compensated for the aggravation.  Olzon has had a seemingly difficult time winning over the fans as her vocals are more “poppy” than Turunen’s operatic vocals.  I find them too different to really compare to one another, but Olzon is by no means a deficient vocalist and the music the band is producing now suits her style quite well.  I’m closer to 30 than 20 these days and labels like “girl metal” are juvenile and, quite frankly, beneath me.  Good music is good music, and I don’t care about labels (I’m listening to country while writing this), and Nightwish has made a better album in 2011 than Megadeth, In Flames, and just about everybody else.

That said, Imaginaerum is one finely crafted piece of art and would be considered such no matter what year it was released in.  This is the first Nightwish album I’ve listened to from start to finish and can honestly say I enjoy every song.  I don’t love every part of every song, but this is a complete album and quite possibly the best of 2011.  It’s a concept album and Holopainen explains it as being from the point of view of an old composer looking back on his life.  This seems to take the form of the protagonist longing to be a child again where imagination rules supreme.  There are many references to fairy tales and folklore and the album has a story book quality to it.  The first single and second track, “Storytime,” captures this beautifully.  If the opening track “Taikatalvi” is an intro then “Storytime” is the launching point.  It’s a catchy, bombastic song with the type of chorus Nightwish is adept at crafting.  Seriously, if I made a list of the 10 catchiest choruses I’ve ever heard there’s a good chance Nightwish would have as many as 5 of them.  Holopainen seems to be well aware of this strength as just about every song is chorus heavy and the band is not above doubling or tripling up on the chorus to close out a track.  My only complaint with the lead single is the speed at which it shoots on by.  It almost sounds like the vocals have been artificially sped up.  As a result, this one had to kind of grow on me even though it’s supremely catchy.

With "Imaginaerum" the band is going for a creepy, fairy tale vibe which has shown up in the artwork.

There are some heavy tracks too, and the third track is one of them.  “Ghost River” is perhaps the most experimental track on the album as it contains some odd time changes.  It’s hard to digest on the first listen due to its placement in the album, but it has its own hooks that will eventually take root.  “Slow Love Slow” is the only track that falls a bit flat for me.  Nightwish attempts an old style lounge song with this one that doesn’t quite fit.  It does start off well, and vocalist Anette Olzon proves more than capable for the material, but the band doesn’t really know where to take the song.  It almost sounds like they want it to have a more bombastic second half but there’s restraint in the air.  Even Olzon sounds like she doesn’t really know what to do with the vocals towards the end and the song never reaches the crescendo it seeks.

“I Want My Tears Back” is the album’s most accessible song.  Similar in structure to “Wish I Had an Angel” from Once, it’s a faster number that gives considerable room for bassist Marco Hietala to stretch his vocal chords.  The song’s title makes it sound like some teenage angst song, but it’s a reflection on nightmares with the twist that the protagonist is sad dreams can no longer frighten him.  It almost seems like fluff on the first listen, but it’s too catchy to remain so and I like the interesting angle the lyrics put on the song.  “Scaretale” is anything but conventional and is the album’s most daring track.  It’s a circus with Olzon producing the creepiest, scariest vocals she can.  She doesn’t cheapen out by just using a growl she just creates this maniacal persona that’s insanely fun to listen to.  Hietala does the same, but to lesser effect.  It’s certainly a wild one!

The album has an extremely well-rounded second act.  “Turn Loose the Mermaids” is a celtic kind of ballad that has its moments, while “Rest Calm” is a doom-laden track with some wonderful layers.  “The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove” is a more traditional ballad that has a nice vocal duet between Olzon and Hietala.  It’s one of the simpler compositions on the album but extremely effective.  “Last Ride of The Day” is fittingly a roller coaster of a track with a fist-pumping, bombastic chorus that will likely delight live audiences on the tour.  “Song of Myself” is actually one of the more disappointing tracks for me.  It starts off flawlessly and feels like it’s building towards something fantastic before it just kind of gets ground to a halt halfway through.  The rest of the “song” is just spoken word and where Nightwish decides to overdue the pretentious angle.  There’s nothing particularly worth saying within the spoken word section and it goes on for over six minutes.  I kind of wish it either wasn’t there or was considerably shorter.  The final, title track is just an instrumental medley of the entire album that’s actually pretty enjoyable, and I’m not usually one for instrumentals.

As with most releases these days, numerous special editions exist for the collector market.

The band’s playing is also top notch here.  The lead guitar riffs have a stronger presence and more variety than what was on Dark Passion Play as Emppu Vuorinen is given plenty of room to breath.  Holopainen’s keys are consistently strong and actually aren’t the overbearing presence they sometimes are on other Nightwish compositions (call it the Steve Harris effect where the main composer is perhaps too audible in the song at times).  Most of the tracks contain some kind of orchestration, and like with their previous albums, these are real orchestras and not electronic.  The album has a rich and full sound as a result.  Olzon’s vocals are wonderfully diverse and she’s really given room to express herself on several tracks.  At times it felt like Dark Passion Play’s songs weren’t crafted to fit her strengths while every track on Imaginaerum has been.  Hietala’s vocals are also quite good and more dynamic than they have been in the past.  Musically there’s plenty of celtic influences sprinkled about as well as a Danny Elfman influence on others.

The album is wonderfully arranged and even tracks that sound out of place on the first listen start to make sense on subsequent ones.  Imaginaerum is a rollicking journey through the fantastic that proves quite charming and a real joy to experience.  Nightwish’s older records never grabbed me like this one.  And even though the Tarja vs Anette debate likely rages on amongst Nightwish fans I consider this Nightwish’s finest hour.  It’s actually really hard to even pick a favorite track off of this one as I tend to enjoy all of them for different reasons.  This is a surprise favorite of mine for 2011 and I hope to get a lot of milage out of it.

Top Tracks

  • Scaretale
  • Rest Calm
  • The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove

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