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.