Strapping Young Lad
The New Black
7/2/2009 - Review by: Etiam
With the word that Devin Townsend is back in business and preparing a quadrilogy of albums, the first of which is entitled 'Ki', it seems fitting to look back on the beginning of his sabbatical and the disbandment of his flagship groups. Back in 2006 and '07, Strapping Young Lad and The Devin Townsend Band both had breakthrough success, releasing high-profile and Billboard-charting albums that primed the Canadian multi-instrumentalist for mainstream success. However, in quick succession Devin dissolved both projects and retreated from public music-making, citing exhaustion with the music business and a desire to return to a semblance of private life. Somewhere in the interim we received Devin Townsend Presents 'Ziltoid The Omniscient', a comical and occasionally superb solo outing, but for the most part Devin kept a low profile.
Three years later, Strapping Young Lad is still broken up, and 'The New Black' remains its unexpected swansong, regarded by most to be SYL's most accessible, traditional release. For a band--more specifically, for an artist like Devin--that cut its teeth on some of the most aggressive, hyperactive, and maniacal metal to emerge from the 90s, 'The New Black's style was tantamount to selling out, especially once SYL appeared on summer festival tours like Sounds of the Underground and Ozzfest. However, as is often the case with the Hevy Devy, the situation just wasn't that simple. Everything about SYL's rise to popularity was laden with irony and a disarming blend of scorn and affection. Discussing their tour cycle and the band's success, Devin said, "...this record is really based around abhorring the current music scene, yet being a part of it in some weird way. SYL is ready to be a subversive product for unwitting 14-year-olds to scream along with." Note how he says that SYL and not Devin himself is ready to be "product", as well as the contrast between his statement and the lyrics to 'Antiproduct'. Even the album's name, 'The New Black', is a dig at the mercurial nature of fame and the mainstream that celebrates Devin's sardonic humor. Devin sneers at us, lambastes metal's excesses (even if he does love it in his own way), and the audience simply eats it up. So the cycle perpetuated itself.
But the charade eventually had to end, as Devin, no longer the strapping young lad he was in '95, simply couldn't hold his bluff any longer. SYL was becoming a bizarre, self-contradicting charade that surely would have imploded under sustained public scrutiny and pressure from Century Media to produce. So, 'The New Black', irreverent and rather less towering than one might have imagined, is all the farewell we have. And, for all that, it's actually quite good.
Given SYL's place in the metal scene, as well as their popularity, unleashing another 'City'--boiling, sophomoric misanthropy interspersed with obtuse spirituality--simply wouldn't have worked. 'The New Black' represents an older Devin, one (somehow) more cynical and less randomly pissed off. After revealing more of himself on prior DTB and SYL albums, on 'The New Black' he builds his lyrical walls back up, playing the spiteful clown to his audience ("Hell yeah, you fucking suck!"). When he does dig deeper, he retreats even further into the obtuseness and the passive voice (as on the utterly impenetrable 'Almost Again'). In that sense, 'The New Black' is one of Devin's most flippant and arguably shallow albums to date, even by SYL standards. Indeed, never an especially subtle bunch, SYL stooped to new extremes here as Devin alienated some fans with his middle finger thrust up his nose.
On the one hand, this disenchantment is understandable, as few music fans appreciate being repeatedly told just how much they and their girlfriends suck. For some, it seemed that Devin's personal concerns were overshadowing his songwriting, or that his attitude was becoming too excessive. But, actually, this oughtn't to surprise anyone, since Devin has always been a swaggering iconoclast who unburdens petty concerns through extraordinary, raging catharses ('Happy Camper', anyone?). Besides, parts of 'The New Black' reveal a wealth of emotional depth, and Devin's musical bug (or genius) prevents him from writing material that's wholly filler. The layered, half-time refrain in 'Antiproduct' is pure Devin malice, 'Wrong Side' features compelling interludes of sweep arpeggios and unconventional melodic lines, and 'Far Beyond Metal' (which until now only appeared on the live record 'No Sleep Before Bedtime') is a rollicking ode to rock and metal roll that is incomparable fun to play. Also, as usual, Devin will recycle ideas from previous or concurrent works, most noticeably 'Polyphany' directly rephrasing the opening riff of 'Judgement' (from the 'Synchestra' album).
The industrial and noise influences so prevalent on 'Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing' have been scaled back significantly, but 'The New Black' is still pretty damn heavy and much more focused than the murky 'SYL' or scatterbrained 'Alien'. On this album, Dev and the boys cut loose their C-tuned thrash and groove chops, splitting the tracks almost evenly between up-tempo blasts (such as 'You Suck') or grinding anthems ('Hope'). Beastmaster Hoglan is his usual pulverizing self on the kit, and the ride/bass kick flourish that fades out the album's eponymous closer is one of his snazziest passages as SYL skinsman.
Altogether, 'The New Black' is a contrarian, volatile affair, which makes it just like all the other albums in SYL's catalogue. True, the SYL that left us was in some ways far from the spastic jet-engine buzz of their early days. But at their core they remained what they always were--the only genre tag ever used to describe them in my library: Heavy Fucking Metal.
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