Strapping Young Lad – Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing
As promised, the gigantic S.Y.L. review:
O, how the mighty have fallen. In this case, I am (of course) referring to Devin Townsend. Virtually exploding onto the metal scene after his short hit-and-miss (and supposedly quite tumultuous) tenure with the guitar master Steve Vai, he now seems poised to retreat entirely from the music “business” entirely, having recently become a father. However, the reasons behind his so-called “burnout” go much deeper than that, as revisiting his debut Strapping Young Lad album shows. Constant, relentless touring, coupled with extreme mood swings brought about by clinically diagnosed bipolar syndrome, an IMMENSE collection of misgivings about the music “industry”, a nearly endless stream of interviews (at least according to everyone representing Townsend), and a haphazard balance struck between his Strapping Young Lad project, his solo efforts, and his many production and collaboration stints all created an unstable situation: one that could collapse at any moment. While I, like many other S.Y.L. fans, had previously thought that S.Y.L. was immortal, retrospection can easily show that the writing was on the walls for a long time, even though it was written in subdued colors and in cryptically ambiguous messages. S.Y.L. was doomed.
Although some do not care for the Strapping Young Lad / Fear Factory comparison, it actually, if given enough specifics, is quite apt and appropriate. Both bands started as extreme metal bands which would deviate wildly with their next albums (although Fear Factory had started roughly three years before S.Y.L.). Both bands pioneered (but by no means “popularized” or “initiated”) the now standard vocal technique (for those who can pull it off) of extreme and melodic vocals. Both bands then followed up by introducing a plethora of additional influences and sounds into their production (mainly industrial, techno, and arguably grindcore and death metal aspects as well). But this is where the comparison begins to diverge. While Fear Factory descended from being a slightly faster Godflesh to “Frontline Assembly with a metal band” (comparing Demanufacture to FLA’s Epitaph album is damnable evidence at how often Leeb and Co. recycles their signature set of sounds…also highly ironic when considering that Townsend provided the guitars for FLA’s Millennium, Circuitry, and Hard Wired albums), Strapping Young Lad would polish their attack from their admittedly scattershot (but still powerful) debut to record the classic City album. With regards to City, I would rate it one of metal’s top twenty albums EVER. If not the top ten (if that is not too audacious a statement to make).
The title “Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing” is probably the best title the album could have received (although it also would have made sense to self-title it as well). It is also unique in that it is the only SYL album not to be created by their “signature lineup” of Gene Hoglan (formerly of Dark Angel, Death, and several other influential metal bands), Byron Stroud (having also been simultaneously in Fear Factory over the past several years), Jed Simon, and Townsend. Instead, it seems that Townsend himself performed and arranged the majority of the album, with the help of several individuals (mainly Jed Simon, Adrian White on drums, Chris Valago, Greg Reely as engineer, and others).
The production on this album is undoubtedly Devin’s best (along with City). The amount of minute aural details shoved into each one of the songs is absolutely astounding. Having owned both H.A.A.R.H.T. and City for years now, I still occasionally run into new details upon repeated listens. This is one of those records that, while sounding incredible on your home stereo system, requires headphones and advanced concentration to fully appreciate and experience.
Gushing about the stellar production quality reminded me of a quote from an interview with Trent Reznor shortly after his “With Teeth” album was released. When asked about the difference between the technology he used for the “Pretty Hate Machine” and “Downward Spiral” albums, he replied that the technology had indeed changed and that he could not use the same “tricks” as he did back during his (undeniably better) albums. I always found this to be a bit odd. The technology improved and the ability to create a much wider variety of sounds increased, so that restricts your ability to create complex and aurally dense songs? However, for S.Y.L., a much more obvious (and plausible) explanation exists to partially explain S.Y.L.’s rather sudden and dismaying descent: the heightened need to produce (specifically for the Download performances). Thus, it is understandable to believe Devin’s reason for bowing out, given that he had grown tired of committing to S.Y.L. for obligational reasons. My take on the situation regarding their last album was that it was rushed, plain and simple (although of course I could be wrong about this).
I had attempted a track-by-track review, but those are always much harder to do than regular reviews, so I will do my best towards a semi-decent overview. “Heavy…” consists of blistering metal, tinged with many different industrial elements (in both the several programmed drum sequences and mix elements). “H.A.A.R.H.T.” is basically a in-your-face of the many elements of bipolar disorder (concerning the real disorder, not emo crybabies, dysfunctional high-schoolers, or cyclothymic iconoclasts like myself). Opening with a scathing barrage against the “corporate music industry” (“S.Y.L”) that he had been a part of until that point, it quickly shows that the record takes no prisoners, with the song’s blunt: “I FUCKING HATE YOU!!!” chorus. The music video for “S.Y.L”, interestingly enough, is also highly influenced by the music videos of F.L.A. (especially the “Millenium” video). Also, it is also important to note that, while Adrian White is no Gene Hoglan, he is definitely no slouch behind the drums either.
One of the interesting facts about this album is that, while most of the successive Strapping Young Lad albums would be relatively uniform, “H.A.A.R.H.T.” is wildly diverse. From the insane “Happy Camper” (in which a huge 670-word rant is somehow screeched out in three minutes) and the defiant “S.Y.L.” (featuring the child-friendly chorus of “I FUCKING HATE YOU!!!”) to the pensive “Filler – Sweet City Jesus” (featuring enigmatic samples discussing “the transmission and perception of sound) and the brooding “Cod Metal King”, this album is one of many hats. In addition, Townsend’ s voice itself is also highly processed effectively in many different ways, further adding to the menace and paranoia of the songs(unfortunately, they would never return to any of these treated vocal techniques in future albums, which is a shame). In particular, “Cod Metal King” sounds similar to a robot who is on the run from the police after grand theft auto and assault, while “Skin City” features an exercise on the upper tolerances of the human vocal chords (in other words, his distorted/layered voice screams a lot). If I had to pick the best song on the album (which is really difficult, as they are all amazing in their own regard, with the slight exception of “Goat”), I would have to choose “Drizzlehell”. Why? First of all, it has a great name, memorable riffs, fantastic lyrics, and a kick-ass overall presentation (I am rapidly running out of positive adjectives). Finally, the album ends on a strange note, the humorous “Satan’s Ice Cream Truck”. To me, the title says it all.
While this is not my favorite album, it is definitely not my least favorite (that distinction goes to their latest album “The New Black”). This album shows where all of the Fear Factory and Ministry comparisons originate, and also showcases many different avenues that S.Y.L. could have pursued (not that they made a mistake in their future development, but the potential was there nonetheless). In terms of metal albums, this one gets my highest recommendations. A masterpiece of intense musicianship, un-cliche bipolar angst, rage against the music industry, and yes…heaviness.
Questions? Comments? All greatly appreciated. 🙂
P.S. While the “Detox” video was a song from the “City” album, I included it because it stomps most music videos into the dust.
P.P.S. Is it just me, or is Century Media quickly falling into the mediocrity that Roadrunner Records and Earache have consistently peddled?
~ by John Lithium on July 2, 2007.