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Three years passed between Devin’s first record under the name Devin Townsend Band, which was a longer gap than that between any of his preceding ‘solo’ albums. Rather than signaling a bout of inactivity, however, it simply meant that he had released a solo ambient/drone album in 2004, the monstrous metal onslaught of 'Alien' with Strapping Young Lad in 2005, and then both 'Synchestra' and SYL’s 'The New Black' in 2006. So, yeah, I think we can cut the guy some slack here. There’s no sense beating around the bush: I totally fucking love this album. I think it’s the best thing that Devin Townsend has done so far, which is saying a lot, given the strength of much of his other solo material and the industrial-strength viciousness of Strapping Young Lad. Still, none of that other music, admirable though it may be, quite touches the holistic brilliance of this album. I will not, therefore, try to be objective in discussing this album, though I will try to convince you of its merits with more than just relentless cussing and exhortations.
The opening trio of songs is a perfect suite, flowing smoothly from one musical theme to the next. Throughout the album, it is apparent that Devin has thrown essentially every trick he can muster at these songs; the thing is, the songs are so goddamn unbelievably strong that this instrumental excess never even comes close to overwhelming them. Check out the brief excursion into front porch-sitting country twang in the middle of “Triumph” – I dare you to tell me that it doesn’t just work, beyond any reason. “Babysong” works its way through some almost, but not quite, cloyingly winsome melodies in a very sing-songy way. About midway through it, though, the song changes up its rhythm and just starts swinging furiously. The light-hearted instrumental “Vampolka” introduces the melodic theme of “Vampira” with some surf guitar, organ, and, yes, a motherfucking tuba. If you’ve ever tried playing a tuba (as I have), you’ll know that it’s no mean feat to make the instrument sound as jaunty and light as it does here. Interesting to note, by the way, is that it’s really only with “Vampira,” which is six songs into the album, that we got a song written more or less on the model of a classic heavy metal rager, replete with thick, aggressive riffing, muscular rock drumming, and some intensely pungent howling from Devin His Fucking Bad Self.
Accordingly, the break between “Vampira” and “Mental Tan” is the first time there’s been a full pause between tracks on the whole album. Rather than proving tiresome, however, this fluidity of movement between songs is indicative of the unified nature of this album as a composition. Unity and oneness are indeed prominent themes in much of Devin Townsend’s solo work, but on this album those lyrical themes find equally full expression musically. “Triumph,” for example, does both. Its lyrics reference Carl Jung, in regards to which the simple but insanely powerful chorus reveals a deeper meaning to the song itself. Jung’s psychological theory of the collective unconscious suggested that the human species, in addition to having in common certain biological traits, also shared a species-wide psychological reservoir. The idea was that, simply by virtue of our shared humanity, every individual had access to a set of precognitive ideas, archetypes, and so forth. Our species, thus, was not only one body, but also, in some respect, one mind. So, yeah, fucking belt it out with me: “ONE WORD – COLLECTIVE! MANKIND, CONNECTED!!!”
Even the title of the album is similarly inspired. 'Synchestra' obviously combines the words ‘synthesis’ and ‘orchestra’. But ‘orchestrate’, as a verb, already means to arrange, to bring about, or to control the movement of numerous components. ‘Synthesis’, then, would seem to be superfluous, as it typically denotes the combination of parts into a hybrid whole. Or, in philosophical terms, the synthesis is the outcome of the operation of the dialectic: one begins with the thesis, against which is opposed the antithesis; the confrontation and negotiation between a thought and its opposite thus results in a third way, the syn-thesis. In the context of this album, then, and its other lyrical preoccupations, it’s difficult to see the title as the suggestion that Townsend is attempting to fashion an orchestra of opposites, or to combine, beyond the fullness already suggested by the word ‘orchestra’ on its own, as many disparate parts as possible in order to arrive at a newness – a rejection of both prior supposition and flat refutation. I mean, it’s still heavy fucking metal, sure, but conjured and synthesized right before one’s eyes into an untrodden path.
After the marathon of musical brilliance and songwriting acrobatics on display in the first half of the album, the pacing of the latter half is comparatively deliberate and thoughtful. To be honest, the 14-minute stretch of “Gaia” and “Pixillate” drags a little bit, which may be the only fault I can find with this album. Still, even that slight dullness makes sense when arranged into the sequence “Gaia”-“Pixillate”-“Judgement”-“A Simple Lullaby.” As further evidence that this album is somewhat all over the place, the sound effects and melodic construction of “Gaia” are reminiscent of new wave, while the introduction to “Pixillate” makes me think of “Dragonaut,” the first track from Sleep’s 'Holy Mountain', though this latter thought is merely a tonal similarity rather than compositional. Around five minutes into “Pixillate,” this synthesizer joins which sounds a bit like a kazoo and noodles around for a while until the chorus kicks back in. The stretched-out nature of this tune, with its deliberately stomping pace, is suggestive of a dirge, which, given the otherwise jubilant nature of the remainder of the album, is an effective contrast. In fact, because of the thoughtful sequencing of the album, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to suggest that it can be organized into four suites along the following lines:
Suite A – Introduction & Primary Theme:
1. “Let It Roll”
Suite B – Refinement of Theme & Rising Tension:
7. “Mental Tan”
Suite C – Reflection, Doubt, & Reaffirmation:
11. “A Simple Lullaby”
Suite D – Epilogue & Valediction:
13. “Notes from Africa”
14. “Sunshine & Happiness”
If you haven’t been able to parse it by now, this is my absolute favorite Devin Townsend record, and it may, in fact, be one of the very closest things I have ever heard to a perfect album. It’s hard to put a precise finger on it, but something about Devin’s approach to songwriting, singing, emotive guitar playing, and overall tonality makes my otherwise objective and critical faculties turn completely to mush. For fuck’s sake, these songs could all be ballads in celebration of goat molestation, and I’d keep prattling on, like, “Oh, Devin! What a marvelous way you have with words/goats!” “Judgement” continues the dirge tempo from “Pixillate” somewhat, but has an altogether more mournful tone; towards its end, the drums kick into some great martial snare rolls, as the bass and piano trace out a deep melody. The closing section, which has got the drummer following the chiming guitar with deft hits at the center of the ride cymbal, is but another breathtaking moment among many. One of the album’s biggest strengths, in fact, is that these little moments of genius are scattered across its entire breadth, so that the listener picks up on more (and different) details each time through the album.
“Notes from Africa” continues to change up the pace as it closes out the album, featuring some chunky slap bass playing at the front. The song is constructed primarily in a modal fashion, especially in the verse sections, where the guitar keeps fleeing from, but eventually finding itself drawn ineluctably back to, that same high note. The chorus section does eventually pull in some chord changes, but the song is effective in the way it winds itself around that central note. The song also contains a very reedy-toned synth which flits across the stereo spectrum, daring you to follow it. The song eventually deposits you on a bed of flowing water and various animal noises, a fairly clear reminder of the terrestrial grounding and thematic focus on nature and oneness. The “hidden” track, “Sunshine & Happiness,” is almost ludicrously upbeat, sporting a bluesy, boozy, boogie shuffle with pure classic rock and roll piano vamping under the AC/DC-esque riffing. “Sunshine and happiness for all!,” it goes. Yeah, it’s absolutely cheesy as hell, but Devin’s got the musical chops to pull it off, singing these wry, winking gestures at sixty years of rock and roll history without coming off as engaging in pastiche or soured irony. To put it somewhat simply, if this tune doesn’t smack a tremendous fucking stupid grin all over your face, the world may be in sorrier shape than we’ve been told.
This album is an honest-to-goodness masterpiece.
Overall rating: 99%. I have quite literally injured myself stomping around and flailing my arms in time to those massive drum beats in the chorus of “Triumph”: MAAAN-KIIIIND, CONNNNECTEEEEEEEED!!!!!!”
(Note: Originally published at http://spinaltapdance.wordpress.com)