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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

The Devin Townsend Band

Synchestra

Review by Mike Korn

There is still a place in the world for the eccentric and even the downright looney, as the continued success of Mr. Devin Townsend proves. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, Devin definitely does it his way and the result is some of the most eclectic and unpredictable music available.

Townsend has a lot of outlets for his creativity. His band Strapping Young Lad is known for its incredibly dense wall of sound and almost unfathomable metallic aggression. He has also dabbled in numerous one-off or limited projects such as Physicist and Ocean Machine. But with his own Devin Townsend Band, this manic maestro seems to really cut loose and incorporate every weapon in his musical arsenal.

The latest DTB extravaganza is an incredibly diverse and ambitious epic that unites such disparate influences as acoustic folk, blast beat metal, New Age, surf-rock, classic rock, Floyd-style spaciness, doom metal and world beat sounds. It is very exhausting to listen to in one sitting but it is amazing how Townsend is able to weave all of it together. This is not an easy listen but it is a fascinating one and it really exhibits the limits of Townsend's creativity, which seems to acknowledge no commercial pressure at all.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Let It Roll
In direct opposition to many metal albums, this starts the record off with gently strummed acoustic folk that soothes the nerves. In fact, I was reminded of James Taylor when listening to this. The lyrics seem to be autobiographical: "I was born not to follow and many times my pride I had to swallow."
Hypergeek
Animal sounds percolate in the background as this starts with almost cheesy happy folk music. The music becomes more layered as other instruments join in, and then the blast begins. It's a metallic bombast not unlike something from Strapping Young Lad, but on top of that, the folk elements are still there and the song develops into kind of a majestically heavy instrumental.
Triumph
This is one of the longer songs on the record and sticks close to a metal framework for most its length. It builds gradually and stealthily, creeping up on the listener. The chorus again shows Townsend's talent for mixing heaviness and a kind of spacey, expansive feel. Watch out for the amazing bluegrass break which is so goofy it made me laugh out loud. This song by itself has more ideas than a lot of entire albums.
Babysong
It's very hard to describe this song as anything but a heavy metal waltz. Rock instruments are used to create a slow and stately tune that conjures images of overweight Germans whirling on the dance floor. There's a very "groovy" riff that comes in halfway through and changes the character of the song before it returns to its original feel. "Why don't you have a baby?/Why don't you have a child?" Townsend's lyrics plaintively ask.
Vampolka
This goofy little track sounds like a cross between Dick Dale surf-rock and the kind of polka stuff that Whoopee John used to play, complete with a tuba and cheesy sounding organ. This is very much a fun track, which bleeds seamlessly into the next one
Vampira
This is fairly straightforward catchy metal, but still quirky. The riffing pattern follows the earlier "Vampolka," but played as straight metal. Townsend's vocal performance is pretty overwrought and during the very aggressive chorus, it turns into a roaring, screeching yell. I love the chugging riff with a gang chorus yelling "Hey! Hey!" on top of it. This is the band's first choice for a single, which makes sense as it is the most "normal" of a generally weird lot.
Mental Tan
After the metal fury of "Vampira", this tune cools things down considerably and demonstrates more of the New Age side of the band. It's a soothing wash of synths and vocal crooning with a languorous guitar solo on the top. There's a "false" fade before the music comes back in with some feedback.
Gaia
This is my favorite cut from the album. It's a driving metal song where the pace is quick but not break-neck. The vocal hooks are extremely catchy and Townsend's delivery is smooth. The middle part is an extended jam that's very cool to just sit back and be enveloped by. From this point on, though, the album starts to fracture and gives way to some long-winded pretension.
Pixillate
The record's lengthiest cut, this covers a lot of ground and is hard to absorb. A chunky bass groove sets the tone and morphs into a very thick, almost doom metal feel. This reminds me a lot of Tool in its approach but with Townsend's trademarks all over it, including some female vocals In fact, the vocals are all over the place here, including harsh shouts, a singsong Middle Eastern chant and almost subliminal whispers. This is a monolithically huge slab of music.

Judgment:
  Heavily dissonant metal riffing kicks this off with a kind of majestic touch. The vocals are very soft and soothing in contrast to the scraping guitar beneath them, but then turn into extremely harsh, almost black metal rasps and then, amazingly, a soulful croon that wouldn't be out of place on a Motown album. A cross between Pink Floyd and mid-period Voi Vod comes to mind but even that doesn't really describe the track.

A Simple Lullaby
The super fuzzed out guitar here repeats a theme that is indeed very "lullaby" like and maybe that's why this lengthy cut put me to sleep. The repetition here is just numbing and after the two previously slow and lumbering cuts, this just didn't do anything for me at all. It could have been cut from the record with no loss whatsoever.

Sunset
The pace picks up slightly here with a vaguely jazz-fusion feel that gives room for a more keyboard based melody. There's some tasteful guitar but it's not as overbearing as it is elsewhere. This could almost be an out-take from a Toto record!
Notes From Africa
I like the way this starts with a powerful metal riff but with some tribal funky rhythms beneath it. This song again shows Townsend's proclivity for deeply layered music where instrumental layers pile on each other to create a very dense soundscape. The vocals here are extremely catchy, but that African flavored chorus is again repeated entirely too much by the end of the song, wearing out its welcome.
Sunshine and Happiness
After the long winded and exhausting epics preceding it, this breezy burst of classic hard rock is a perfect way to end the album. The band's mimicry of 70's hard rock here is dead on and the refrain of "sunshine and happiness to every one" has a touch of camp to it. Nevertheless, this ends this peculiar album on an upbeat and remarkably conventional note.

 
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