Devin Townsend has never been insular when it comes to his emotions. He formed his first major-label band, Strapping Young Lad, following his disillusionment with the music industry and its practices. Prior to this, he had been working as Steve Vai’s vocalist during his Sex and Religion Tour. In response to his dejection and feeling like “a musical whore” (his words, not mine; from a 1997 interview) he recorded and produced his first album, Heavy as a Real Thing.
This release turned out to be a bit of a black sheep within the heavy music community, dismissed almost entirely by metal elitists. A caustic blast of Death, Thrash, and Industrial metal, Heavy as a Real Thing was a blur of poorly-produced activity, distracting the listener from the instrumentals themselves, and instead drawing their attention on the two main emotions being portrayed: anger and black humour, which would often exist comfortably on the same track. Listening to songs as heavy as Townsend’s with titles like ‘Satan’s Ice Cream Truck’ and ‘Happy Camper (Carpe B.U.M.)’ is incredibly satisfying.
Following Heavy as a Real Thing Devin Townsend Transformed STL into an actual band, recruiting additional members and perfecting his unique sound. 1997′s City is widely considered to be their best work, and was a further refinement of the furious industrial vibes that dominated their first record. At this point, Devin could have taken his career in a number of different directions: he could have polished and intensified the aggressive aspect of his music, or added more humour, making the instrumentals themselves far more dynamic.
But in 2007, Devin Townsend was doing more of the same—except by himself. Having grown tired of touring with Strapping Young Lad and The Devin Townsend Band, he took a temporary sabbatical from public life, deciding to work on a solo album with minimal outside assistance. He engineered, produced, and played basically every note on the record, even the drums (Meshuggah’s Fredrik Thordendal gave him a nifty little software drum machine, Drumkit from Hell). Released on Townsend’s independent label HevyDevy records, Ziltoid the Omniscient is pure, uncut Townsend, a perfect distillation of his metal and humour elements. The fact that these elements are at their most exaggerated here is irrelevant. While some would argue that comedy has no place in metal, Townsend has found a way to reconcile these two radically opposed styles.
And to do this, he concocted one of the most ridiculous premises for a concept album I’ve ever heard. An alien named Ziltoid, a powerful being from the planet Ziltoida 9, has travelled to Earth with a fleet of unstoppable warriors in tow, in search of the universe’s greatest cup of coffee. When the cup of coffee delivered to him is not to his satisfaction (he deems it to be ‘fetid’, in a wonderfully malevolent voice) the warriors are summoned, and the human race is forced to fight desperately for it’s very survival. All within the first two tracks. The album’s story takes some amusing turns (SPOILER ALERT: It’s all a dream!) but it never seems to run out of gas, always bolstered by the impeccable instrumentals.
Though the vocals are often delivered in a harsh, pained scream, frequent spoken-word segments are scattered throughout the album, a bevy of memorable characters and vibrant personalities that are brought to life by Devin Townsend and Brian Waddell. However, despite their clear passion for the project (the enthusiasm with which they deliver their lines is charming and infectious) their inexperience at voice acting is readily apparent. I’d hardly say that it impedes my enjoyment of this record, though. I tend to think of it as an oasis of cheesiness, a brief reprieve from the surprisingly sober progressive metal sections. Though you could say that many of the characters and situations riff on familiar sci-fi tropes (the character of Captain Spectacular being one example) it’s all part of the fun.
In saying this though, I’m going directly against the feelings of the album’s creator. Though a sequel to Ziltoid is currently in the works, Devin Townsend has already scrapped this idea once, stating that metal and comedy don’t work. And though, as a complete work of music, I feel like this album is absolutely spectacular, I can’t help but agree with him in a certain sense. Perhaps metal and comedy don’t work as a concerted unit, vying for dominance. Fortunately that’s not how Ziltoid the Omniscient works. That ‘Oasis of Cheesiness’ I was talking about before, the whole album seems to follow this format, not just the spoken-word parts. The comedy and metal, when it’s most important, are efficiently divided, allowing for both sides to fulfil their full potential. Though there are certainly goofy lyrics hidden among the calamitous arpeggios and punishing breakdowns they never take center stage, or convey any crucial plot information, which would almost surely be missed.
Likewise, the story is communicated clearly and tactfully. Which is good, because you don’t want to miss a tale as unabashedly fun as Ziltoid the Omniscient. It’s the story that Music from “The Elder” should have been, a nonsensical, over-the-top gamble that one could regard as terrible, if they weren’t too busy laughing and fist-pumping. But while it is nonsensical, and (amazingly) over-the-top in its central ideas, the story moves along in a lucid manner, and offers a surprising amount of insight into the inner motivations and feelings of the characters.
There are an astonishing number of poignant and emotional moments on the album, considering its subject matter. But the lyrics are secondary during these instances. You can thank Devin Townsend’s virtuosity for them. Every instrument comes together in rapturous harmony so frequently during the album that every thought of coffee or aliens is expunged from your mind. Ziltoid the Omniscient isn’t just a string of jokes with the music tacked on in post-production: melodies like these have the capacity to steal the show. When ‘By Your Command’ slides into major key, billowing arpeggios rising through the distortion, it feels like an expression of pure freedom, saying more in that moment than a well-timed quip by Ziltoid ever could.
Progressive rock is often labelled as being emotionally sterile, obsessing over fast solos and complex time signatures, while at the same time ignoring the human aspect, the need for shared emotional experiences between musicians and listeners. While this can be dismissed (at least for the most part) as a sweeping generalization, Ziltoid bypasses any such criticism. It does this by reigning in the expository fretwork, instead concentrating on following the essential demands of the vocals and atmosphere, rarely stepping out of its designated place. Sure, there are guitar solos, and flashes of mind-bogglingly speedy sweep picking, but I couldn’t seem to find an instance where they felt unnecessary. It feels weird to think that Ziltoid the Omniscient is better arranged than most other prog metal albums I’ve listened to.
Devin Townsend just couldn’t seem to resist letting the jokes bleed into the music at points. They come in the form of jovial pastiches, friendly riffs on the styles of established metal groups. ‘Ziltoida Attack!’ opens up with the brutish punch of industrial metal comrade Marilyn Manson, before abruptly switching gears, ending up in the middle of a Judas Priest album. Devin’s pitchy Rob Halford wail cracked me up on first listen, his incessant shriek telling of endless Ziltoida fighters swarming about the Terran atmosphere. The melodramatic post-grunge of ‘The Greys’ pulled me into this crazy world, feeling vague sympathy for the alien/sock puppet Ziltoid, while at the same time grinning at the sheer madness of the whole thing. Surely this is another reason why Ziltoid works, despite Devin Townsend’s prior doubts: both the comedy and metal sections share a common foundation, a gleaming heart of emotion existing just below the immediate surface.
The only thing that could ever break ‘full immersion’ would be the constant inadvertent reminders of the fact that this album was self-produced and released, a certain ruddy and unfinished hue that permeates many aspects of the composition. The abundance of parts often grind and clash against each other, fighting for recognition in similar scales or chord progressions. This produces a muddy effect, made all the more aggravating when beautiful sections whizz by without receiving their due recognition and exposure. The vocals could definitely be patched up as well, sometimes feeling like the product of impatience. But while unlimited time in a professional studio seems like a reasonable prescription for an amateur music critic, this is obviously a foolish dream in the real world, and I have to admit that Devin Townsend did a splendid job with the tools at his disposal.
Everybody knows that sequels are almost never better than the originals. Yet I’m still insanely pumped for Z2, the upcoming Ziltoid continuation, hopefully seeing release this side of 2014. Because even if the sequel is a dud, it will be uncompromising in its humour and aggressiveness, the uncensored spasms of a frontman who’s more than comfortable with voicing his feelings. Crazy projects like this one fail much more often than they succeed, so it’s more than likely Z2 won’t have its predecessors luck, collapsing under the weight of a tough premise. But even if this does happen, it’ll still better than the last gasp of a glam rock band who aren’t even trying anymore.