Reading over reviews on different sites, it seems that Strapping Young Lad’s definitive album is considered by most to be “City”. I, however, put that album in third place out of the five SYL albums. It’s furious, intense, and mostly one heck of a ride. But I like “Alien” best.
There’s something about “City” that really grabbed people. Perhaps it was its brutal intensity and honesty. “Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing” was loud and a bit silly. “City” was honest to goodness anger and being fed up. After that, Devin Townsend spent time working on his solo albums which were where he could be more melodic and more sensitive. That’s not to say those albums weren’t heavy, and his trademark screaming vocal style found its way in aplenty. Then six years after “City”, SYL recorded a new album entitled “SYL” and though it was good and heavy and raw, most fans just didn’t see it as living up to “City”. In the meanwhile, Devin had started up a new band called Devin Townsend Band and released a debut shortly after “SYL”, having written and recorded both albums in the same period. Word is that he was disappointed that the fans hadn’t been happy about the latest offering by Strapping Young Lad and after recording an ambient / experimental album called “Dev Lab”, he devised a plan that could satisfy SYL fans.
The problem Devin faced was that when he had written and recorded “City”, he was really pissed off about how things were going for his musical career. He had to regain that anger – that rage! Having been diagnosed several years before with bipolar disorder and taking medicine to control his negative mood swings, Devin decided to quit taking the medicine. At first he felt a terrible panic and fear about leaving his safety harness. This is expressed in the final track of “Alien”, a hidden track called “Info Dump” which begins with static and a repeated static pulse like a bit of percussion while some incomprehensible voice speaks in the background of the static. The piece eventually builds and explodes with a calamity of static and guitar feedback with a booming voice overtop that makes me think of God conducting several speeding freight trains and crashing them all into a beached freighter. It’s a wreck of sound that is interrupted with explosions of a pulsing static boom. At the end someone, an older child I think, awakes with screams from a nightmare. That, Devin said, was meant to express how he felt going off his medication. Alright then.
So, here comes an unhinged and un-tethered Devin Townsend, and for the first several tracks its absolute mayhem. The songs are exploding rage with Devin screaming expletives and shouting hellfire while the guitars attack with the subtly of a supercell thunderstorm and drummer Gene Hoglan sends a furious assault of double bass drumming that always makes me feel like I am being shot at continuously by a machine gun of large calibre. I especially like “Shitstorm”, which is well titled as the sentiments expressed are indeed such a tempest, and “Love?” which must be the most played Strapping Young Lad song in my iTunes library.
One thing I find really outstanding is the use of synthesizers to give a background melody supporting the thunderous guitars. I read that for his album “Physicist”, Devin wanted to combine a Metallica thrash metal sound with Def Leppard’s bright pop keyboards. That album did not work out as well as its concept. But on “Alien” the synthesizers work very well, I feel. There’s also quite a show of Devin’s progressive side as the songs often feature abrupt tempo changes and odd time signatures. Some songs here are easily tech extreme progressive metal in some ways.
The mood finally lightens up for a bit with an acoustic and effects track called, “Two Weeks”, which to me sounds like a precursor to what would come on the Devin Townsend Project albums, “Ki” and “Ghost”. By “Zen” we are back to the intense and heavy thrashing of extreme metal again.
My copy of “Alien” has the simplified cover without the Strapping Young Lad name and just the band logo seemingly carved or stamped into the eerie space scene and the alien letters glowing red at the bottom. For me, this album really stands out and though I have very few albums in my collection of such extremeness, I’d say that it’s thanks to this one that I have come to appreciate this kind of screamo / aggro metal. But I also think that the use of Devin’s normal vocals, the keyboards, and the more advanced rhythm changes and meters make this album an easy favourite and preferable to “City”, great though I think most of that album is, too.