It’s hardly a secret that the brainchild behind Canada’s Strapping Young Lad is a little left of center. Scratch that. Devin Townsend is all the way left of center, and it’s with this perspective he’s crafted (albeit silently) some of metal’s most visionary work. Whether it’s solo or with his band in SYL, Townsend’s musical wit, unique songwriting approach and biting sarcasm afford him more creative leverage in a genre with very tall walls.
Returning after a six year sabbatical, Townsend and company (’97s City line-up intact) plant their madness firmly in 2003, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. With their closest kin in Emperor (chaos; class) a distant memory and Meshuggah (riffs; rhythm) spinning the same two riffs into reckless abandon, Strapping Young Lad’s third album not only fills the gap easily, but also reaffirms how they uprooted metal and fashioned it into a genre that’s yet to be labelled. SYL has been called chaos-core by those searching to fit a circle peg into a square hole, but the music is much more than ‘chaos’ and ‘core.’ From start to finish, SYL’s obtrusiveness is unsettling – this isn’t a record to spin idely in the background. Furthermore, the depth of Townsend’s work, as heard on last year’s breathtaking solo album Terria, is more prevalent than before. So, less isn’t always more, and this time more has meaning.
As the opener, “Dire” sets a celestial, empowering tone, and it’s one that SYL are quick to break as “Consequence’s” Wagnerian gait marches in step with “Rape Song’s” unbridled aggression. It’s a similar formula that changed Emperor from black metal to ‘sophisticated’ black metal. Yet under SYL’s tension and sheer emotional power, it feels as if something so controlled and precise can suddenly unwind into a directionless musical expression. Even “Relentless” and “Aftermath’s” structured hyper-thrash stride heavily on the same proverbial fault line. Elsewhere, SYL mocks death metal’s recent forays into the fast and furious by focusing on honest torment and anger to fuel the fire; comic book gore and horror and reinventing the wheel have no place in SYL’s pedal-to-the-metal yet purposeful world. Both “Last Minute” and the raging “Dirt Pride” do well is dispelling death metal’s intensity myth.
There is one grind here, however. At just under 40 minutes, SYL is perhaps too draining. The album’s pronounced sense of catharsis is weighty, and one experience may be enough for any well-adjusted individual to feel that it’s enough. Of course, SYL aren’t even adjusted, which is why keen songwriting is the hook that continually gets its audience in for another round. Granted, you aren’t going to hear “You’re So Vain” (wouldn’t that be a cover?), but you may just hear traces of “Mountain’s” brilliance in “Bring on the Young”, and you can count on Townsend’s riffing to be as razor sharp as his acrimony. If order and chaos do balance the universe, SYL is tipping the scales on the latter. Be thankful for that. [Chris Dick]