UB40 – Signing Off

signing offIn most people’s minds, UB40 represent the most easy listening aspect of reggae music. Often derided for being lightweight, they were once a band with a serious edge and strong political bias. It’s sometimes hard to believe they would have once been contemporaries of The Clash and Steel Pulse, but back in the early 80s, they were eight men from Birmingham delivering a serious message. In September 1980, UB40 released their debut album, ‘Signing Off’, a hard-hitting mix of politics and classic style reggae, faultlessly produced by Bob Lamb with Ray ‘Pablo’ Falconer.

Its intense political stance is present from the opening track, ‘Tyler’ (arguably one of the angriest songs the band has written), concerning the mistrial of Gary Tyler, a young black youth sentenced to life in prison – a sentence given after an appeal was made against his original death sentence. Most of UB40’s tougher elements are present in this song: Earl Falconer’s bass line is uncompromising and upfront, Brian Travers’ sax carries weight without losing any soulfulness, Ali Campbell’s vocal performance brings a great amount of passion and Robin Campbell’s rhythm guitar parts are suitably spiky. During the song’s mid section, Jim Brown lays down a marching drum rhythm, while Norman Hassan joins on percussion (in this case, I’m sure it involves milk bottles) while Earl and Robin’s bass and guitar parts incorporate dub reggae elements. If Astro, their second vocalist and sometime trumpet wielding Rastafarian, had a lead part here, all of UB40’s best strengths would have been on show. All in all, ‘Tyler’ is a very impressive opening number.

Also home to equally powerful political messages, ‘Burden of Shame’ is another bitterly angry piece concerning Britain being supportive of colonizing and ‘Little By Little’ carries a heavy handed message of rich versus poor – which was almost certainly a swipe at the then new Tory government helping fill the bellies and pockets of the rich. During this track, Jim Brown’s drum part provides a high point with excellent use of hi-hat and a groove which compliments Earl Falconer’s bass very well. (Interestingly, despite being a reasonable drummer, Brown chose to use drum machines and programming in the studio from 1984 onward, a technique he would favour through the rest of that decade and beyond).

Perhaps the album’s best known track, ‘Food For Thought’ provides a good example of where UB40 stood musically in the early part of their career. Ali Campbell’s vocals are natural sounding and distinctive, but it’s the combination of solid bass playing from Earl Falconer and a memorable sax arrangement by Brian Travers which give it lasting appeal. Once again, it’s a piece with another hard-hitting message; in this case, concerning suffering caused by famine. ‘King’ (released as a double A-side with ‘Food For Thought’) features a heavyweight message about racial equality; musically the piece’s main musical refrain comes from Brian Travers on the sax, but most of its sharper-edged moments come from Mickey Virtue’s staccato keyboard work.

The album’s intense politics are balanced out by some lighter material. During a cover of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, UB40 reggae chops give the song a new bouce to which it is well suited and Ali’s vocal is one of his best here. ’12 Bar’ has a light and summery feel – influenced by the late sixties reggae and ska released on the Trojan record label – during which Astro lends some vocal assistance, though his delivery is almost incomprehensible.

There are also three instrumentals featured: ‘25%’ hits upon a slow groove by Jim Brown and Earl Falconer but it’s most memorable feature, once again, is the sax playing a simple but effective tune. Likewise, ‘Adella’ focuses on Travers’s sax, but it’s a little gentler than the other instrumentals. The sax has a bit more of an easy listening tone, but if you can listen beyond that, you’ll spot Virtue’s echoing keyboard rhythms adding depth and Falconer’s bass work has a great flow. Lastly, the title cut provides a decent mix of Norman Hassan’s percussion and an almost dub style bass line by Falconer. It’s a fantastic end piece for the album and once you’ve included a unobtrusive keyboard solo by Mickey Virtue, a sax solo by Travers and a guitar solo by Robin Campbell – with an unexpected jazz tone – it becomes a great showcase for each of the musicians.

Original pressings of the LP came with a bonus 12” single (the three songs from which are included on all CD pressings as bonus tracks). One of the tracks, ‘Reefer Madness’, is a fun but otherwise forgettable instrumental. However, the other two tracks are indispensable. A cover of Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is given a well-structured reggae makeover, while ‘Madam Medusa’ (another original UB40 composition) combines scathing anti-Thatcher lyrics with elements of dub music and features fantastic vocal performances from both Ali and Astro.

A 2010 re-issue of ‘Signing Off’ contains a bonus CD featuring the three tracks from the original bonus 12”, plus 12” versions of ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’, ‘My Way of Thinking’ and ‘Dream A Lie’, all of which were featured on the 1985 compilation ‘The UB40 File’. Also included are the 12” version of ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ plus previously unavailable BBC sessions recorded for John Peel and Kid Jensen. A bonus DVD features each of the 1980 promotional clips for the singles releases, plus a ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance and the complete ‘Rock Goes To College’ set (both recorded for the BBC and available for the first time as part of a sell-through release).

UB40 followed ‘Signing Off’ the following year with ‘Present Arms’, an album which gained them increased popularity through the angry hit ‘One In Ten’. In many ways, it’s a better album than ‘Signing Off’ since it has a tighter structure – the well-crafted songs aren’t padded out by instrumental numbers (a companion release ‘Present Arms In Dub’ was also issued in 1981, which featured excellent dub reconstructions of the album, which further highlighted UB40 as being a really tight musical unit). For those wishing to check out the band at their most edgy, ‘Present Arms’ is also an essential purchase.

It’s become easy to sneer at UB40. Four years into their career, they took the easy route and recorded an album featuring cover versions of (mostly) old reggae hits. This would make them even more popular, and from that point on, their albums became more commercial. While their albums released during the remainder of the 1980s would occasionally feature songs with social and political messages, there was an increasing focus on feel-good pop-reggae with hummable tunes. Despite these later faults, it needs to be remembered that ‘Signing Off’ is a fantastic debut album, even though couple of the instrumental numbers feel rather like filler material. It is, perhaps, one of the most important debut releases by a British band.

[A 2008 release, ‘Live at The Venue’, recorded a few months before the release of ‘Signing Off’, is also essential listening for fans of UB40’s earliest work]

——————–

UPDATE: A message from UB40 drummer Jim Brown written in November 2010 to Real Gone, explaining the change in drum sound:

OK. Let’s put this one to rest. I know I get some stick for using machines, but it’s a bit like shooting the messenger.

The reason I used machines in the second half of the eighties and onwards was simple. That’s where the music went. Reggae didn’t stop in the seventies. It continued to develop. As studio sequencing developed it was adopted very quickly by Jamaican producers. From the eighties onwards almost everything made in JA was made that way. Classic reggae tunes like John Holt’s Roumers of war, most of the output of crooners like Berris Hammond and all of Stevie and Cleevey’s output [which dominated reggae for years and gave birth to dancehall].

We didn’t stop listening to reggae when we started the band. And we weren’t a nostalgia band just sticking to one era. I was just doing what my heroes were doing. Never felt like cheating because I had to reproduce the sound live, and I’m not a machine. So, in a way, I was making my own life harder having to reproduce a machine style. Every other reggae record used machines, so why shouldn’t we? We were following the development of the music, just like we did in the seventies.”

March 2010/October 2010

STRANGEWAYS – Perfect World

strangeways

When the news came in early 2010 that vocalist Terry Brock was to re-join Strangeways, AOR fans were given a rather good reason to get excited. Brock’s previous releases with the band (1987’s ‘Native Sons’ and 1989’s ‘Walk In The Fire’) are considered cult classics and are maybe two of the finest examples of the genre (Kerrang! Magazine, in fact, voted the former one of the greatest AOR albums of all time, back when they cared about such things). After Brock’s departure, Strangeways carried on, with guitarist Ian Stewart taking on the role of vocalist in addition to his usual guitar based duties.

The next Strangeways releases (1994’s ‘And The Horse’ and 1997’s ‘Any Day Now’) moved away from the classic sounding AOR of the Brock years, opting for a voyage further into pomp and prog, with Stewart’s wandering guitar work becoming far more of a feature. Although the change in direction alienated some of the previous Strangeways fans, both albums are great in their field. Another album, ‘Gravitational Pull’ followed at the turn of the millennium, but still, most fans hankered after that “classic” approach to song writing and the stadium rock sound at which Strangeways had excelled in the late 80s.

In theory, Brock’s return should have brought with it a great album, especially considering the strength of his 2010 solo release ‘Diamond Blue’. Sadly, with ‘Perfect World’, this isn’t the case.  Some of the songs may be well constructed, but the album is so poorly recorded it makes it really hard to tell. The vocals are okay, but the rest of the band sound like they’re in another room. The drums are so quiet they barely exist, while Ian Stewart’s guitar work sounds almost woolly. Imagine something which sounds like you’re listening to your stereo while wearing ear-plugs. Even through great speakers it’s a sonic disaster…

Attempting to pick out any separation between the instruments is almost impossible, but it sounds as if the atmospheric ‘Crackin’ Up Baby’ finishes with a corker of a guitar solo (the kind Stewart filled the later Strangeways albums with), but it sounds like it was recorded underwater. ‘Liberty’ features a reasonably big chorus and a good performance from Brock, but the end result is compressed to absolute fuck. In ‘One More Day’ you have what should have been a classic mid-paced power ballad, but the (lack of) production values means it’s reduced to a plodding mess. As for the rockier numbers ‘Movin’ On’ and ‘Bushfire’, they’re no better. ‘Bushfire’ in particular is the audio equivalent of wading through treacle for a particularly uninspiring six minutes.  It’s all fuzzy noise and no edge.

Faced with such an appalling audio experience, as a listener, you’ll find any decent moments to be heard are almost completely lost in the swamp and attempting to pick out many standout moments seems like a waste of time. As one of the cult classic melodic rock bands, Strangeways deserves much better treatment than this. And frankly, being one of the best known AOR/melodic rock labels, Frontiers Records really needs to stop releasing demo quality material and passing it off as a finished product.

If you wanted a return to ‘Native Sons’ and ‘Walk In The Fire’ territory, honestly, you won’t get that here. Pick up Terry Brock’s ‘Diamond Blue’ instead: not only does it feature great songs, but it features a production value approximating something this kind of rock music deserves.

October 2010

METHODS OF MAYHEM – A Public Disservice Announcement

methodsIn 1999, during his time away from the Mötley Crüe drum stool, Tommy Lee embarked upon a new project, Methods of Mayhem, with rapper TiLo. Their 1999 self-titled album combined dance, rap and a healthy dose of nu-metal and was a world away from any of Lee’s previous work. Featuring a host of guest performers, including Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, L’il Kim, Snoop Dog, The Crystal Method and George Clinton, the album’s fusion of styles could be best compared to Limp Bizkit, though the end result was far better than anything Fred Durst and his band of cronies had released by that point. Or, in fact, ever. Naturally, the reviews were mixed, as were the responses from Crüe fans.

A decade later (after various Crüe albums and tours, and a couple of solo releases)
Tommy Lee revived the Methods of Mayhem project. In place of TiLo and a long guest list of famous vocalists, Lee takes on most vocal duties himself. The album isn’t without outside contributions, though, since Tommy Lee had a rather resourceful idea: he asked unknown musicians to submit work to his website – from which he would choose the best bits as the basis for the album’s songs. In addition to the pieces of music selected from over 10,000 submissions, ex-Bone Machine guitarist John Allen III (aka J3) assumes the role as Tommy’s main collaborator. With J3’s 80s rock and glam metal roots, he provides more musical clout and melody than the original pairing of Lee and TiLo, which in turn makes ‘A Public Disservice Announcement’ a surprisingly varied outing – and one which, for the most part, doesn’t sound much like Methods as you remember them on their debut.

The opening track, ‘Drunk Uncle Pete’ would’ve been enough for me to stop listening almost straight away, had I not had faith that the album had to feature at least a few great tracks. Imagine something that sounds like ‘In Too Deep’ by Sum 41 with more electronic fuzziness and a choir of teenagers, and that’d be a close approximation of its evilness. How it made the final tracklisting is a mystery in itself, but to open the album with it is just insane. One of the only “typical” sounding Methods tracks, ‘Fight Song’ (released as the album’s first single) redresses the balance, with its sledgehammer guitar riffs and aggressive vocal (part shouting, part rap influenced – though no actual rap this time around). This has the trademark Methods sound which was slapped across the debut; elements of nu-metal band Snot, P.O.D. and early Powerman 5000 colliding with Tommy Lee’s unrelenting attitude make this impossible to ignore, whether you like it or not. ‘I Really Want You’ hits upon a similar groove, but it much lighter in tone, with Lee delivering a fairly melodic vocal. The electronic parts are among the albums best – each of the musical elements unfussy and suitably crunchy.

‘Time Bomb’ is a track which melds alt-rock and lightweight pop-punk, but does so with plenty of charm. J3’s guitars are fuzzy and the vocals are subject to studio trickery, but for those of you who like your hooks a little more traditional, this should be far more enjoyable than anything Methods have offered you previously. Between the pre-programmed elements and slight distortion, J3’s chorus is like a shining beacon (surely a hit in the hands of any number of made-for-music-television pop-punk outfits); some guitar playing here leans towards the more traditional too, with a (multi-tracked) twin lead solo.

The acoustic guitars overlaid with subtle electric parts as featured on ‘Blame’ provide a huge musical curve-ball for Methods. I expect J3 has had an influence, once again, and particularly so during the track’s slightly Beatle-y moments. Its “modern rock” sound – the kind which became unavoidable on US radio throughout the 00’s – is closer to Lifehouse or The Calling than anything you’d associate with Tommy Lee, but even so, his vocal is strong here and he sounds incredibly comfortable in this musically mature role. With a very gentle verse – a hushed vocal set against an almost mechanical arrangement, ‘Louder’ is another of the album’s stand out numbers. In terms of feeling, again, it shares more in common with the soft end of alternative rock than it does with the angry metal of old school Methods. According to Lee, the song is about those dreams you have where you try and scream but all you hear is silence. In an attempt to recreate the unnatural feeling of this, all the vocals have been put through various effects – not too far short of autotune abuse – but, rather surprisingly, this doesn’t detract from the end result.

Bordering on novelty, ‘Party Instructions’ lumbers around for nearly five minutes in the style of early Daft Punk, its electronic loops not really going anywhere. A heavily treated, spoken vocal delivers the instructions like some kind of motivational speaker. An occasional female vocal in an r ‘n’ b style doesn’t help matters. As such, this is a track you’ll probably skip after two or three plays – which, I suppose is good odds compared to ‘Drunk Uncle Pete’.

‘All I Wanna Do’ marries r ‘n’ b style beats with hard electronica and is certainly this album’s answer to ‘Get Naked’ (the debut’s duet with L’il Kim). None of Tommy’s sweatiness comes anywhere close to Kim’s vulgarity, but he does his best to push the buttons of the anti-misogynists. Also featuring a healthy dose of electronic styles, ‘Back To Before’ screams radio play. Having more in common with a band like The Killers or Head Automatica than Methods of Mayhem, it’s another of the album’s big surprises, matching a danceable electronic arrangement with treated vocals and an alt-pop chorus. ‘Only One’ is a bit of a mish-mash; it has a vocal which on the quiet moments occasionally slips into something resembling ‘So Fine’ by Guns N’ Roses (unintentionally, I’m sure) while its heavier moments feel rather laboured. The guitar style has presence, but aside from slabs of sound, doesn’t really achieve anything. A keyboard part occasionally provides interest among the sludge, but it’s very underused. If anything, most of this could have been tempered by a chorus of some sort.

Those approaching this album as a follow up to the 1999 disc may find themselves disappointed, at least at first. A couple of songs sound like the original Methods – which should please old fans – but in relation to the rest of this album, they certainly feel like lip-service to the past. With its aspects of light and shade, this album has far more in common, perhaps, with parts of Tommy Lee’s solo outing ‘Never a Dull Moment’ than previous Methods recordings. This may have a great deal to do with changing times – after all, if Tommy Lee were to release a carbon copy of the Methods debut, this disc would sound a decade out of date.

October 2010

THE WILDHEARTS – Earth Vs. The Wildhearts

eath vs

Back in 1993, I bought a copy of the debut EP ‘Mondo Akimbo A-Go-Go’ by The Wildhearts, a band which bought together the talents of vocalist/guitarist Ginger (previously a member of Newcastle’s premier retro band The Quireboys) , CJ (previously with The Tattooed Love Boys) and Dogs D’Amour drummer Bam Bam. While their EP wasn’t a great opening statement, it showed promise – namely in it’s opening number ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes’. That spark of gold was enough for the release of their forthcoming full-length album to be met with some excitement.

By the time The Wildhearts re-entered the studio, Bam Bam had returned to the (then recently reformed) Dogs D’Amour and had been replaced in the drum stool by Stidi (who’d played drums in a fledling lineup of The Wildhearts a few years previously), and the resulting demos are allegedly the same recordings released as the finished album.

From the outset, ‘Earth Vs The Wildhearts’ suffers a similar problem to the EP, in that The Wildhearts seem to be unable to settle upon a core sound for their material. The resulting music hovers somewhere between punk, metal and power pop. While it could be argued that the fusion of these styles gave the band a unique sound of their own on the album, its eleven songs can be frustrating and brilliant in equal measure. Ginger is capable of writing a catchy chorus, but those moments of sing-along brilliance are often overshadowed by heavy handed sludginess.

This is something clearly obvious on the opening number ‘Greetings From Shitsville’. A hard rock guitar riff drives the verses in a direction in which the song never quite feels comfortable, until crashing headlong into a brilliant multi-vocalled chorus which could only be described as power pop (albeit an edgy example of that musical subgenre). It sounds for all the world like Ginger had two half finished ideas and then melded those together, hoping for the best. Once you’ve thrown in a heavy chugging guitar riff during the bridge, it means ‘Earth Vs…’ begins with an almost Frankenstein creation that’s lucky it works at all. ‘Everlone’ fares better all round…although the sledgehammer riff during the opening bars doesn’t instantly inspire confidence. When the vocals arrive, The Wildhearts settle for a groove that rests somewhere between hard rock and punk – a sound which dominates most of their best work. The chorus is fairly catchy and the use of backing vocals is great. On the negative side, clocking in at over six minutes, it’s far too long. After the track reaches its natural end, it features a coda containing almost two minutes of guitar-based meandering, followed by a crunchy guitar riff to close. There’s a definite feeling of this being bolted on after someone decided those bits of music were too good to waste.

Released as the first single from the album, ‘TV Tan’ features ringing guitars, a little bit of 80s glam and just enough bounce to keep it going. Like ‘Everlone’ and ‘Shitsville’, the chorus is a solid one, but without its even better pre-chorus, it would never have worked. The pre-chorus is essential in this instance, since the vocal doesn’t really scan on the song’s verses, despite trying its hardest… The pre-chorus is another moment which captures The Wildhearts’ distinctive punk-hard rock fusion perfectly; as with ‘Everlone’, Ginger’s voice sounds best when CJ is on hand to sing a counter harmony, no matter how ragged. When ‘TV Tan’s strongest elements come together in such a way, it becomes the natural single choice.

‘Shame On Me’ has a spiky riff coupled with a decent vocal performance. While the dual vocals highlight The Wildhearts’ sing-along qualities, the guitar work is from a rather more straight-up metal school of playing. Interestingly, between the metallic riffing, the guitar solo has a bluesy edge. It’s a great, but fleeting moment, which once again makes it hard to understand the creative process here: how did the band decide on that particular solo for this song? It almost stops ‘Shame On Me’ in its tracks.

‘Suckerpunch’ has all the subtlety of a juggernaut. Distorted vocals collide with a Motorhead style speed riff, as the band tear through an almost breathless three minutes. Its ferocity is given a little respite during the chorus, which makes good use of gang vocals, but its anger sounds mostly contrived – and the end result presents a not very natural sound for The Wildhearts. A similar argument could be made for ‘Drinking About Life’, which combines a late 80’s Metallica style riff and a bunch of shouting to create something which lacks longevity.

Taking something that sounds like a cross between New York Dolls and mid-70s Rolling Stones, mixing it up with a suitable sneer and a pinch of metal in the guitar solo, ‘Loveshit’ represents a track where the band sound their most at ease. A definite nod to Ginger’s past in the Faces-obsessed Quireboys, it’s a pity The Wildhearts never explored the bar-room rock avenue farther on this album. Unlike a couple of the other more feel-good tracks (‘Everlone’ especially), which were weakened slightly by incorporating too much of a kitchen sink mentality, it’s ‘Loveshit’s simplicity which makes it work. There’s definitely weight in the old argument that sometimes less really is more… A confident trashiness also sits at the heart of ‘Love U Till I Don’t’, with a chorus vocal of shameless ‘la la’s. The trashiness doesn’t last though, since eventually The Wildhearts’ metal tendencies get the better of them, leading to some incredibly unsubtle riffing. While the metal moments are never The Wildhearts’ strongest musical trait, it’s not terrible – and Stid turns in some decent drum fills.

A heartfelt and tuneful vocal lies at the heart of ‘News of the World’ and its chorus is one of the best on ‘Earth Vs…’ In this respect, it captures what was so good about ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes’. It brings nothing new to the album, but there’s a great deal of pleasure in hearing the vocal arrangement used so well. The chorus/gang vocals aren’t any different from the type previously heard on ‘Everlone’, but it is best remembered that the more time The Wildhearts spend concentrating on this poppier end of their music, it means more time they’re not muddying otherwise great songs by throwing in metal guitar riffs… This number isn’t guilt free in the padding out department though. It could could have been a brilliant (and very commercial) piece of chorus driven hard rock, but manages to completely fall apart near the end, when it decends into workmanlike chugging, followed by a call-and-response vocal section that feels like it has no place here at all.

‘The Miles Away Girl’ is the album’s greatest track, without question. There’s a power pop maturity at play throughout most of the song which could be compared to early 90s Cheap Trick. It really captures the (often lost) potential behind The Wildhearts’ craft. The gang/backing vocals are excellent during a really infectious chorus; all the instruments sound crisp and even the band’s tendency to use a musical motif where it’s unwarranted doesn’t spoil the end result. While a metal section during a bridge seems a little misplaced, this is balanced by a playfulness elsewhere, as The Wildhearts tease with a musical moment not too far removed from late sixties pop. A similar playfulness can also be found during ‘My Baby Is a Headfuck’; a track which incorporates bits of glam metal, pop punk, a reworking of The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’ and a raucous guitar solo played by Mick Ronson. Listening to these two songs, it’s easy to spot those moments when the band members really gelled.

With a fluctuating line up, The Wildhearts continued to tour and release albums; however, none gained the praise of their early works. ‘Earth Vs…’ in particular, has become somewhat of a cult album. Even though Kerrang! voted it their best album of 1993, as good as it may be, it’s unfocused at best. Over the years, it’s an album I’ve had a love-hate relationship with…and probably will always continue to do so.

[A 2010 2CD reissue of ‘Earth Vs The Wildhearts’ contains a bonus disc featuring the ‘Mondo Akimbo A-Go-Go’ EP, the four bonus tracks from the ‘Don’t Be Happy…Just Worry’ compilation plus all the non-album b-sides from the ‘TV Tan’ and ‘Shitsville’ singles].

Watch clips from Donington ’94 at the links below:
Suckerpunch
Greetings From Shitsville
Love U ‘Til I Don’t

Watch the complete live at the 1994 Reading Festival, with Devin Townsend on guitar at the links below:
Caffeine Bomb
Everlone
Greetings From Shitsville
Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes
Suckerpunch
Drinking About Life
Shut Your Fucking Mouth
Liberty Cap
My Baby Is A Headfuck
Love U ‘Til I Don’t

July/October 2010

DEVIN TOWNSEND – Ziltoid The Omniscient

devin

Despite lacking warmth and almost any real human qualities, Devin Townsend’s ‘Ocean Machine: Biomech’ album is a wondrous piece of work. It has a cold, multi-layered stylishness which holds the listeners’ attention over multiple listens. In some ways, whether you like it or not is immaterial: nobody could deny its style came as a surprise after his previous work with the subtle-as-a-breezeblock Strapping Young Lad.

Over the next few years, Devin continued to release extremely heavy albums with SYL in tandem with a solo career, all with varying degrees of quality. Stylistically, ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ probably has most in common with his solo album ‘Physicist’, which although credited as a solo work, featured all the SYL members. It’s a step up from that, though, since ‘Physicist’ didn’t really highlight any of Devin’s progressive styles. Although mostly difficult listening, this album brings together both sides of Devin’s work properly for the first time.

A concept album, named after its central figure, ‘Ziltoid…’ concerns a rather malevolent being’s search for a perfect cup of coffee. If he doesn’t get one in five Earth minutes, everyone will die. Move over blind pinball kid! Move over Broadway spray-paint artist castrated by aliens! We have a new King of Ridiculous Concepts. There’s a huge difference between this and many other bloated concept albums though – Dev isn’t really expecting us to take it seriously.

The album has such density. The rhythm style throughout a bulk of the material makes it more comparable to SYL than anything else, but there’s still a wedge of sound which has much in common with Townsend’s lighter work, even though his progressive styles have been largely pushed aside.

The opening intro features Ziltoid making his request for coffee, coupled with death metal style grunting vocals; ‘By Your Command’ sets the pace for most of the album with heavy double bass drums (which are almost certainly programmed) underlying multi-tracked guitars and multi-tracked, sometimes angry vocals. ‘Ziltoidia Attaxx!!’ takes this approach and pushes it farther; its extra edge and Dev’s vocal style make this easily comparable to later Strapping Young Lad work (y’know, not quite the full on pneumatic road drill of ‘Heavy as a Very Heavy Thing’, but still bloody heavy by most sane people’s standards). On the chorus, the metal style vocals give way to comic falsetto. Within the mass of noise, some of the guitar work is amazing, although very little sounds natural due to Devin’s heavy use of pedals and phasers (I don’t really understand the technical side, so you’ll have to hear it yourselves). The programmed electronic drums towards the closing section are mastered loudly, replicating the sound of Ziltoid’s laser guns attacking Earth (it sounds really stupid when you write it all down, eh? Thanks Devin.)

‘Color Your World’ at first, sounds like SYL at their best, but with extra keyboards and Devin using the vocal style most associated with his ‘Terria’ album. There’s a good musical idea in here, but the pounding and density (there’s that word again, but no others fit the bill as effectively) masks any of the underlying subtleties. The mid section is pure, early SYL – I don’t think I need to elaborate! In a twist, the closing section features the gentlest music the album has to offer. While it has many elements in common with ‘Ocean Machine’, ‘Accelerated Evolution’ and ‘Synchestra’, it makes little impact after the noisy first half. …And even if it did, it would likely be ruined by Ziltoid shouting his name mid way – just in case you’d forgotten what this was all about.

Most of ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ follows similar musical patterns to those featured the first couple of tracks. There are a couple of exceptions, however: ‘Solar Winds’, sounds like something from ‘Terria’. It’s not as classic as any of that though, since Dev pushes his voice into slightly theatrical territory, sounding like someone putting on an amusing ‘heavy rock’ voice, although I’m not sure this element is supposed to be comical. I’d like to tell you the slow, chugging riffs make up for that…but they don’t.

‘Hyperdrive’ is classic. It’s nowhere near as claustrophobic as most of ‘ZTO’. It sounds like an odd cousin to some of ‘Ocean Machine’ and naturally, that pleases me. Devin’s vocals – again multi-tracked and treated – are much gentler here than the rest of the album. ‘The Greys’ is the best song here, without question. It’s one of those moments (and most of Devin’s solo albums feature one), where he taps into his most melodic side: that shining moment that’s not prog metal as such; certainly not AOR and not quite pomp. It’s closest to ‘Life’ (from ‘Ocean Machine’) and ‘Slow Me Down’ (from ‘Accelerated Evolution’). It’s still heavier than those songs, though – and its melodies are buried under a fair amount of sludge – so don’t get too excited. For those of you who came looking for ‘Ocean Machine’ and ‘Synchestra’ style material, this track will please you too. ‘N9’ is also lighter, but the amount of layers and overdubs used makes hard listening.

If you’re a fan of Devin’s ‘Ocean Machine’ or ‘Synchestra’ styles, then on the whole, ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ likely won’t do it for you. If you enjoy Devin’s angry, more extreme metal tendencies, strap yourselves in. It’s brash, it’s stupid…and most importantly, it’s unmistakably Devin. Pomposity and aggression coupled with a sense of humour sets this apart from anything Townsend has attempted previously – the only worry is that the silly concept gives it a shorter shelf life than some of his more serious works.

Watch Ziltoid’s transmissions:
Part 1 here
Part 2 here
Part 3 here
Part 4 here

January 2010