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The latest offering from Devin Townsend is “interesting” to say the least. Although concept albums are nothing new to the genre of progressive metal, this particular concept is, dare I say, crazy. Only Townsend could possibly come up with the idea for an fourth-dimensional alien to come to Earth in search of the best coffee in the omniverse to fuel his time machine so that he can become “cool” by being the greatest guitar player to ever have lived. But the thing is that this humorous plot is only the advertised part of the album. What’s left for the listener to discover is the true treat. From the moment Ziltoid is denied assistance by the Planet Smasher, he has an epiphany of sorts, sending him on a journey to search for something more than just coffee. In his travels, he even meets up with the Omnisdimensional Creator, naturally a spaced-out hippy, who just tells him to “chill out, man”. In the end, it is revealed that this is just a dream of a worker in a Starbucks-like coffee shop. The beauty of this album is that it blends humor, a good plot, as well as excellent musicianship all into one album. As for the music, Devin does everything on his own and programmed the drums. At first, they sound very artificial, but after repeated listens, they seem like a better fit than a real drummer (although Gene Hoglan, his SYL drummer would have done an excellent job here). This is Devin’s heaviest solo work, but also his best–no question.
1. ZTO–The short opener immediately brings forth images of a sci-fi thriller, followed by an introduction by Ziltoid himself, stating his demand to the universe. It’s very heavy, yet does its job of setting up the story.
2. By Your Command–After such a short opener, we are hit with an 8 minute epic. This starts on a very heavy not, with Devin mixing frightening shouting vocals mixed with melodic clean vocals. Ziltoid emphatically states his greatness, in that “I am so omniscient, that if there were two omnisciences, I would be both!”. At about three minutes in, some nice guitar work adds a really nice “outer space travel” effect. After four and a half minutes, the song fades into a spoken-word part by Ziltoid, who is preparing his attack. The drums get louder and louder as the song progresses, getting more and more epic every few seconds. After a few rounds of this, , a spoken word part from an Earth general shows that Earth is getting ready for battle. Then the drums continue their epic acceleration, until about seven and three-quarters minutes in, where they get heavier and heavier, ominous of the impending clash between Ziltoid and planet Earth. This track is stellar, especially the drum programming.
3. Ziltoidia Attaxx!!!–Is this the moive Mars Attacks? Maybe not, but this sounds like it came right out of that movie. This is an all-out alien invasion right here. The heavy, but insanely catchy drums are quite memorable, and Devin’s harsh singing sets the mood perfectly. Here, the fact that the drums are programmed is more obvious here than anywhere else on the album when the drums get really fast at multiple points. Devin’s high-pitched vocals contrast the harsh ones very well, despite the fact that they’re probably there only for humor. “Ziltoid’s” guitar solo fits the story nicely, full of tasteless “guitar wankery”. This song continues on the perfect atmosphere created by the first two songs, and brings to a higher level. Even though the drums are programmed, they are outstanding here, and the guitar follows suit nicely.
4. Solar Winds–Here, we have the longest track on the album, clocking in at almost ten minutes. It opens with a narration by Devin, explaining that Captain Spectacular, fighting to defend Earth, has seen through Ziltoid’s facade and found out what he truly is–a nerd! After the extreme nature of the first three songs, we are treated to a very peaceful song here. Devin’s melodic clean vocals here are just beautiful. The guitar in the background is perfect–it plays a really simple set of a few notes, but it continues to create an excellent atmosphere. Devin’s vocals are progressively get louder and louder, in the role of Captain Spectacular, and then the drums kick in, building up for a nice segue to another beautiful melodic section. The guitar, drums and synth are all pretty heavy in the background, but the focus here are the vocals. Thing speed up soon, but quickly revert back to the slow tempo used before. A great shriek leads us into a dialog between Ziltoid and one of his “troops”, but then we get back to the slower part. One thing notable is that nothing gets repetitive–the instruments all do different things each time we are brough back to a softer section. Another shriek bring the song to silence, but then the instruments fade back in and get progressively faster–especially the drums. The track ends with Ziltoid being told that the human forces accelerated into “Hyperdrive” on their space ship. “Phooey,” Ziltoid states, “Phooey indeed.” It must have been difficult to fit a softer song in here, but this maintained the atmosphere, moved along the plot, and most importantly had great music.
5. Hyperdrive–This song sounds like a song from some of his other solo-works, in that it is a very melodic, mid-paced song that is veyr peaceful, but that still isn’t out of place on an album like this. The drums take a back seat here, and the guitar place a simple set of chords during the verses, and the chorus is very melodic. It’s heavier than “Solar Winds”, but not nearly as heavy as the other previous songs. Occasionally, the guitar and drum take the spotlight, with a nice riff as it nears the two minute part, but it then reverts back to the same pattern as before. This is not a humorous song, but instead a song following the humans’ attempted escape, where they eventually get to Nebulow Nine, but they don’t know that Ziltoid has already caught up. This is the least spectacular of the album so far, but this track serves its purpose–not to develop plot, but to simply create the atmosphere of a journey.
6. N9–This one opens with a great salvo of drums and vocals, in a high pitch shouting “Nine!” multiple times. The drums sound very similar to “Ziltoidia Attaxx!!!”, but that’s not a bad thing, as Devin’s melodic vocals work very well with this drum pattern too. The guitar is much heavier now, back to the style of the first three songs. An important plot twist is revealed here–Ziltoid states that he feels “vulnerable”, which does set the scene for the rest of the album. The synth in the background adds an extra “outer space feel” throughout the entire song, especially in the last minute, where it progressively speeds up, until it abruptly changes to a slower, chunkier riff that fades out. The humans have escaped, but what now for Ziltoid? This is also more of an atmospheric track along the lines of “Hyperdrive” than a plot-driven track, but the heavier sound makes it much more interesting.
7. Planet Smasher–I might be a bit biased here (I am planetsmasher!), but this is probably the best track on the album. It starts off with a little guitar section of slowly ascending volume, and while this is going on, Ziltoid is discussing with his crew that he will summon the sixth-dimensional Planet Smasher. The riff gets progressively chunkier and better as it ascends to the main section. Here, we are introduced to the first purely death metal-style harsh vocals, used for the Planet Smasher. They are excellent! The sounds very much like Johan Hegg’s vocals for Amon Amarth on their latest album, and that is quite a compliment. The lyrics are a bit odd, but very metal as well. This track alternates between the Planet Smasher singing the verse, and Ziltoid singing the chorus. The chorus is quite revealing of Ziltoid’s true scheme, but that’s not the main focus–it’s the performance itself. It is also excellent! It is very similar to “Namaste” (from Physicist) , except less harsh and more melodic, and the drums supporting it are excellent. Eventually, there is a short section alternating between the purely death metal vocals and Devin’s SYL-style harsh vocals that is very impressive. The synth is also very successful in it’s supporting role here. In the end, the Planet Smasher denies Ziltoid, and then reveals that his name is Herman and that he doesn’t like musicals, as the songs fades out with a heavy riff. There are many excellent tracks on this album, but this has everything at its best–guitars, drums, and vocals–all pushing along the plot and advancing this epic story.
8. Omnisdimensional Creator–This is just a spoken-word track, consisting of narration, and a dialog between Ziltoid and the Omnisdimensional Creator. Ziltoid’s quest has drastically altered at his point, going from a coffee hunt, to the point where he says that he sees “Modular forms and elliptic curves! Infinite fire revolving around infinite parallels fractals of infinite reality, each cascading, gliding in an infinite wheel. Tell me the true nature of my reality!”. The Creator, a hippy (as I said before in the intro), just tells him to chill out. How helpful. This is an entertaining track, but this part of the story could have been presented in song-format. That part about infinite fire would have been incredibly great as a song-lyric, but is instead put in this small interlude. A small break was needed, but this reveals so much about Ziltoid that it deserved it’s own song. Entertaining, but semi-disappointing.
9. Color Your World–This starts with a great drum intro, and gets right to the heavy part. This melodic vocal part reminds me slightly of the SYL song “Wrong Side” (from “The New Black”) at points and is very good. Devin alternates between his harsh and melodic vocals very nicely here, and the really deep vocals for about ten or fifteen seconds is very impressive. then, some synth comes in and continues the supportive atmosphere-setting role it has been playing for the whole album. It fits so well! Then we get a part that might as well be from an SYL album, with the guitars, drums bass, etc. all at their fastest and heaviest with Devin doing his trademark SYL scream. The song then goes into a softer section that is really beautiful. There is really no other word to describe it. Devin’s vocals are at their softest here, and the guitar is very atmospheric here. This continues on for awhile, and the, very death-metal-ish vocals also come in (not as death metal-ish as in “Planet Smasher”), and the contrast is excellent. The song slowly plods on in a tranquil manner. even when all of they synth stops, Devin sing peacefully over the guitar riff. That changes abruptly into some extreme, SYL-like screaming and heavy instrumentation. This song, also nearing ten minutes, is simply excellent. This is also more atmosphere-setting than plot driven, but still great.
10. The Greys–This is another song in the vein of “Hyperdrive”. Devin’s vocals are very peaceful, while the guitar takes the forefront. There are points where the song feels like it will hit a high climax, but it sticks to the main riff and vocals until the middle, where it changes for a second, goes back to the riffs, and then plays a very short solo. On it’s own, this is a very good song, but right after the extreme ending to “Color Your World”, this song is made even better, just by how simple the song structure is.
11. Tall Latte–This is the outro. It brings us into a conversation between two employees at a coffee shop, and one of them is waking the other up and telling them to make coffee. The employee who was sleeping was actually dreaming this entire story. The “frappe…shit” line makes me laugh each time. Simple, but fitting.
What makes this album so special is the creativity (coffee and aliens?!?!?), how well the plot moves along, and the great atmosphere created by the vocals, the instruments, and lastly, the lyrics. Although there might not be too much instrumental complexity, as I said, the atmosphere makes up for it. This is not a casual-listening album, and is best enjoyed in one full sitting, but thats not to say that any of the songs can’t stand on their own. This is an exceptional album, one of the best in progressive metal.