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These days it seems that death metal is kind of confused. The scene doesn't seem to know exactly where to go and the bands aren't sure what do with themselves. Ever since the rise in popularity of death metal over the last decade and this new "wave" of modern death metal, the genre seems to have hit a brick wall. The old bands played the style with the same techniques, but they also wrote real songs that really felt genuine. They wrote death metal MUSIC in which each composition said something.
Its hard to say the same with the modern bands. With the newfound trend of being the fastest, the heaviest, and most technical band, the style of death metal seems to have lost something important. That thing is composition. Not that I am saying it all sucks. I really enjoy many modern death metal bands. But the problem I see is that there are so many new bands coming out and giving a stab at death metal, that few really get the fundamentals in writing a simple song no matter the style. The scene becomes a blur and for me its all becoming redundant.
Where doesn't Strapping Young Lad come in out of all this? Well as we know the story, SYL is the brainchild band of insane guitarist and vocalist Devin Townsend who had a bad run in with Steve Vai and had to let out his anger. Alien was the group's 4th full length and to me was the peak in their career. Most tout City as the essential and while I find it to be a phenomenal record, Alien is their most complex and mature release and represents how composition makes a death metal record amazing.
From the start one can hear the strong change in the group and the unique style they are going for. Their earlier stuff was borderline noise with a strong industrial death metal backbone but here the band is surprisingly melodic. Since their self tiled they are slowing become more post thrash and their use of keyboards in a more melodic fashion. What makes Alien so special is this striking contrast between chaotic industrial insanity and blatantly melodic phrase structure. This is definitely up there as one of the heaviest albums of all time but at the same time its really catchy and fun.
Look for example Skeksis, a song that has been noted to be Devin Townsend's own personal favorite SYL song. Devin's signature production style really shines here with the massive layers of keys, synths, and choruses over the thick guitar parts. It starts slow with a gradual build of groove riffs before Devin's clean mantra pulls the song into a wondrous chorus of scatter shouts and singing over an explosion of riffs and keys, String Choirs, and even xylophones. The amount of texture and layers present makes the track sound like a cosmic storm cloud; a vortex of mysterious and horrible proportions. Clearly though, this song is like this is because its about the Jim Hensen film The Dark Crystal; a bizarre movie played by puppets as strange creatures and takes place in an even stranger world. All the members of Strapping Young Lad add well to make a concept like The Dark Crystal work in a death metal song.
Gene's amazing drumming capabilities hold the album together. Only a man of Gene's rhythmic control could take the unworldly music concepts of Devin and play it perfectly along with embellishing upon those. It takes a powerhouse like Gene to hold together such crazy songs. His great use of dynamics fits well, where he can do some of the greatest blast beats and double bass but he know when to do those, or to do a simpler beat to match the rest of the instruments.
Overall the inclusion of pleasant sounding keys and other instruments really enhances that concept of soft melody against the death metal mayhem. The string arrangements over the heavy as hell guitar parts give of this twisted sense of epicness. The songs feel bigger than they really are but not in a positive way. Its like the some multidimensional rift has opened, its amazing to behold but then you realize that you are about to be consumed into a horrible void then you feel the terror manifest. The use of choruses from not only adults but also children choirs only make this record sound that much more derranged. There is nothing more fucked than the sound of the sonic assault of the guitars and drums along with Devin's hellbourne screams against a legion of children's wails.
The guitars range from the straight up industrial riffs to extreme thrash riffs to Meshuggah like chugg riffs. Shine has a clear melodic form, and revels in some harmony throughout the piece, yet the rhythm behind the guitar part sounds like it could have been a thrash riff at one point in the writing process. However the signature "fast picking of the root" while touching upon the main melody is gone, and all that is left is the main melodic part. Imperial follows that same idea, yet is even slower due to it being a sort of anthem like intro. However the riffs have a story to tell, and they progress throughout the song. Shine has the main theme from the start, then goes into the verse where the guitars plays a reduced deviation from that main theme. Then the chorus explodes back into that main theme. This simple relationship gives the song a stronger pull for the listener and overall makes the song sound far more intense. That is because there is a high point of the song, a place for where the listener can look forward to. If the song was just as loud as that main theme the whole time, it would get boring fast. That right there is an issue with most death metal bands.
Devin's vocals is a large element as well. Today's death metal bands seem to not understand that vocals help a lot in making a song interesting. Just because you are not singing a melody doesn't mean suddenly you aren't important to the song. The vocalist still has the duty of leading the listener through the song. Devin does this beautifully writing his vocal lines closely along to how the guitar part has moved. A good example is Possession where Devin just screams "give it away!" while sustaining the "way!", which matches perfectly against the guitar riff where it picks fast for a beat then sustains the chord. Also the smart use of layer makes every intense scream sound like there are ten Devy's attacking your ears.
Shitstorm paints the diversity of Devin's vocals amazing. The first line "Oh you bastard!" is this insanly long howl, where he wavers in pitch and intonation making him sound like some berserk hobo. The tension strangles the listener before going into the main riff, and thats where the psychological destruction starts. The mentally unstable ranting of Devin and the melodically unstable phrasing of the guitars interplay in a chaotic fashion. The drums bounce throughout with frightening precision between the short bursts of unrelenting blasting and abstract technical beats. Devin's charismatic screaming feels so genuine as the song is about the the personal mindfuck he has experienced contemplating existence.
He also has the advantage of being able to sing cleanly as well. This adds another element to the mix. Love, a supposed "love song", goes between the harsh yells of "LOVE!" to ballad like singing. In the chorus, Devin goes into a heartfelt crooning while the heavy riffs and bursting drum beats pummel away, as if Devin is trying to comfort a loved one from the hateful death metal storm around them.
But how does all these thing's work together and how can one even imagine how such strange concepts even manifested themselves in a death metal record?
Well Devin is the clearly the main man behind the group and, as far as I know, is basically the main creative force. This allows for the music, despite the many different things going on at once, sound focussed and well refined in structure. The songs have been optimized to a T and there really isn't really any place in the album where the song seems to get lost as to what its trying to do. While in most cases if one person takes full creative control, you'd expect the music to be simpler and more about the straight emotions of that person, but its a rather different case with Devin being that person. This album is very emotionally driven and personal, thats for sure. Most of the lyrics don't seem to make much sense, but that is because its all emotional. Nothing is calculated. But Devin's bi-polor disorder and overall eratic personality makes the album ungodly and intense. To listen to this album is taking a trip beyond your normal line of thinking.
The album is truly an insane piece of death metal yet its merely a vehicle to show the inner working's of Devin Townsend's demented mind. This album is a great example of modern death metal doing what it does best, creating a sonic form of energy, intensity, and destruction. The contrasting instruments and constant layering make each song rich in texture and in feelings. It presents melodic portions that mesh with harsh death metal elements and speedy rhythms. The changing speed and rhythm pull the listener in and create an outstanding form of dynamics. Alien is a true lesson in intensity, brutality, and heaviness and in that regard its a rather overwhelming album for most. Only try this album if you are ready to stomach some strange concepts and vengeful assaults of the ears and mind. If more bands tried to write music in mind of how Devin does it, we would have a more satisfying death metal scene.