Strapping Young Lad
The New Black
evin Townsend is a mad genius. Literally. He once took a brief break from his music career to check himself into a mental institution. He even looks the part, with his trademark "skullet" (balding head + mullet) blowing wispily onstage. Townsend is astoundingly prolific, having worked on 20 albums in the past ten years by his count. He's metal's answer to Frank Zappa and one of the genre's most beloved figures. But he says The New Black is his last album for a while due to impending fatherhood; if so, he will be sorely missed.
Townsend's career began inauspiciously as the singer on Steve Vai's overwrought Sex & Religion. Afterwards, he played guitar on Frontline Assembly albums and shopped his own demos around, signing to Century Media for Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing as Strapping Young Lad. Townsend has released albums under his own name (this year's Synchestra is amazing), but his whole career is of a piece. Rock and pop albums go to The Devin Townsend Band, while metal albums go to Strapping Young Lad. Each group has different personnel, but Townsend's fingerprints—heavy guitars, lush arrangements, and bright melodies—are all over both.
Strapping Young Lad has come a long way since Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing, which Townsend himself admits was two great songs and a bunch of filler (the album's reissue has some of the most self-deprecating liner notes ever penned). The album sold 143 copies in its first six months; in contrast, The New Black hit #296 on Amazon on its first day. SYL's second album, City, was balls-to-the-wall brain-frying; imagine Fear Factory and Frontline Assembly getting together to cover Ministry's Psalm 69. The band's eponymous follow-up cemented its present sound—streamlined death metal riffs, electronic touches, dense climaxes, and ever-present humor.
The New Black fulfills SYL's contract with Century Media, and while its quick timing suggests "contractual obligation," its content is anything but. These songs are easily SYL's best to date; while previous albums at times threatened to dissolve into white noise, each song here has strong hooks and melodies. "You Suck" is pulverizing, with dive-bombing solos, vocals flying around the mix, and the simple refrain, "Hell yeah, you fucking suck!" "Far Beyond Metal" operates similarly: "You ironic pop rock fuck, don't you fuck with metal!" In interviews, Townsend is a staunch defender of metal, but it's also refreshing to hear him poke fun at it. His mock-abusive onstage banter is legendary; he'll tell kids to start a circle pit just because he can, and sure enough, they obediently do.
But it's not all F-bombs here. "Anti Product" has a swaggering, almost-cock rock groove, unleashing a horn section and even a flute solo; "Fucker" deploys female vocals to surprisingly good effect; "The New Black" floats anthemic melodies above brutal blastbeats. The highlight is "Almost Again," which explores melodic, uplifting prog rock. Listen closely, and you'll hear lots of cool production—layered vocals, electronic accents, and judicious left-right panning. Townsend has produced albums by Lamb of God, Darkest Hour, and Soilwork, among others, and he obviously applies his full technical knowledge here. Heavy, catchy, and with no filler, this album is a joy to hear.