The original Ziltoid album, “Ziltoid the Omniscient” was a one-man show. Devin Townsend recorded the whole thing at home, playing all instruments except for drums, for which he used Drum Kit from Hell to program the drums. He did nearly all the voices: vocals, Ziltoid and his crew, Captain Spectacular, narrator, Planet Smasher and others. There are only two other names credited as guests (one called The Beav) who provided a small contribution. The story was wacky, cheesy, silly. The music sincere, loud, fun, and often really good. Whether you liked it or not, it was an album that showed what one person’s imagination could do and get away with. It was crazy. It was cool because it was so crazy.
“Zed Squared”, as it is called (written as Z to the power of 2), is the sequel, and like many sequels to original movies, the budget was way bigger this time. No longer a one-man show, this album features a band, a choir, and an orchestra along with guests playing the main characters (Chris Jericho as Captain Spectacular, Dominique Lenore Persi as Blataria the War Princess, and famous broadcaster Bill Courage as the narrator). You could compare the two albums to “Terminator” and “T2” for budget or “Alien” and “Aliens” for a boost in the cast. The album is big and loud, the story cheesier and sillier, the music over the top, and the voices and sound effects will make you feel like some 50’s B sci-fi movie has been remade into a heavy metal musical.
Devin himself has stated in interviews that even he can’t say what the true meaning behind it all is. He won’t know for a while. For now, more than anything, he hopes that someday in the future people will look back on this album and think that it was incredible that anyone could do this. Not just him. This entire project with so many people involved to make the vision come true. About the story he has also said that many ideas were given to him by children and that he sucks at writing stories. But he loves theater and entertainment and puppets (“The Dark Crystal” left an indelible mark on him as a child) and he really wanted this to be a huge production. In fact, it was so demanding that numerous times he wanted to just quit. But he didn’t and that’s one big reason why he’s so proud of it. In addition, the schools were on strike while he was working on wrapping up the album and kids were tearing up the place.
Keeping the big impossible production theme in mind, you’ll find that the story and voices drive the album along as much as or perhaps even more than the music. I find myself paying more attention to the story and voice acting than many of the songs. Bill Courage is excellent and a familiar voice to me, having grown up in Canada with Bill’s voice often on television programs. Some of the lines in the script are so silly and Bill hits the delivery right on. There is so much that is cliché in this story and so much ham, cheese, and corn that you’ll wish you had some bread to go with it except that Devin spent all the bread on making an animatronic Ziltoid puppet (search for Ziltoid ZTV on YouTube).
As everything is so big and loud, I find that my visual impression of the music is not of a 3-D array of instruments and voices where I can move between the sounds and pick out the individual instruments but rather like a wall with a raised-relief surface in which the instruments are carved. It can be a little too solid, dense, and massive at times. And although I have been enjoying the album so far, only songs have really stood out for me and called for stand-alone replays: “War Princess” and “Death Ray”, the latter being full of clichés both in compositional style and voice acting lines. It is so brilliant like that though, and I love it! “People of Earth! We are your Poozonian overlords. You Cannot run. Resistance is futile. Hand over your coffee!”
Actually, between typing this and posting it, I had a chance to listen to “Deconstruction” by the Devin Townsend Project and these two albums are musically siblings, both with big production, choirs orchestras, guest vocalists, and a distinct dense sound.
If there are any real disappoints for me, they are in changes made to the story. In particular, after so much was made about the Planet Smasher (a.k.a. Herman) coming to earth, it was a let down to hear him described as being a cute furry little creature the size of a football, whose voice could destroy entire galaxies. In the CD booklet that came with “Ziltoid the Omniscient”, the Planet Smasher is said to be so huge that he can’t help but destroy planets when he moves about. But perhaps in his sixth dimensional nature he is as such. In his three dimensional form his only appears to be so small and cuddly. There are a few other small misses in attention to scientific and language detail that irk me a touch but I can let them go. In the end I think the album really is an incredible product. However, Devin warns us not to say that you love it or you hate it so soon. It’ll take time before any of us can really understand what it really is.
I purchased the limited edition, 3 CD set in the digipak with the extra artwork and it really looks spectacular. One disc is the Ziltoid disc without the between-song dialogue and most of the narration. This is really nice to have as it’s possible to enjoy the songs more without most of the story drama. Some instrumental parts seem a bit long as they are meant to be background music to the dialogue, however, I can appreciate the more progressive nature of the music on this disc easier and thus for listening to individual tracks I choose this disc.
The third disc (actually disc one) is the sixth installment in the Devin Townsend Project series, called “Sky Blue”. The music here carries on where “Epicloud” left off. It is very poppy but with the loud guitars and wall of sound that you’d expect from Mr. Townsend. Most of the music is not particularly complex but the melodies are very catchy and beautiful and Anneke van Giersbergen from “Addicted” and “Epicloud” is back. The combination of her vocals with Devin’s make the music sometimes sound like Enya meets melodic pop metal turned full blast. At first there were only three or four songs I liked but more recently I find myself enjoying “Sky Blue” quite a bit and it is nice to hear in between albums like “Terria” and any of the Strapping Young Lad albums.
Though the music has strong pop leanings, Devin has warned that the songs are not so cheerful like those on “Epicloud”. Prior to writing the songs, some people he knew passed away and his cat was eaten. But I find the songs are infused with hope. One line in “Universal Flame” optimistically claims, “Look for hope and it will find you,” and the song ends with “The sun will rise again.” Besides, not all of “Epicloud” was cheery anyway.
Overall it is quite a lot of music to digest and for me the biggest hurdle is getting over the density of the production. If you are ready to take on this mad metal musical and this massive heavy pop album then you may like this very much.