So, if you’ve read last week’s episode, you’ll know that I was originally intending for another album discussion to go up in that spot. Well, this is the one. Strapping Young Lad still remains one of the most beloved projects of prolific Canadian mastermind Devin Townsend, and for good reason. The mind-melting heaviness and eclecticism he and his bandmates unleashed upon the world over five albums between 1995 and 2006 still holds up to this day – nowhere is this more apparent than in the time-defying brilliance of their 2005 release Alien.
To (belatedly) celebrate that record’s 15th anniversary – it was originally released in March 2005 – I drummed up a team consisting of EIN editor David and staff writers Ashley, Robert, and Tyler; below, you will find their thoughts on this unrivaled force of destruction and ingenuity.
Devin Townsend doesn’t (or shouldn’t) require any kind of introduction. He is one of the most standout musicians in the prog metal scene. There are maybe a handful of musicians that come close to and/or surpass him on virtually every angle. Devin has given off serious signs of awesome since the very beginning. I believe that with the release of Alien, while he was fronting Strapping Young Lad alongside The Devin Townsend Band, he finally cemented his hallmark wall-of-sound blend of metal. Considering Alien is Devin’s eleventh overall record, one would’ve maybe expected this a little sooner. Alien is also the second to last album from Strapping Young Lad, with The New Black concluding this chapter in Devin’s career.
Alien is quite simply the culmination of all the previous Strapping Young Lad records, with their collective power condensed into one single, massive, and refined product. I honestly don’t even know where to begin with this monolithic beast. Spread across eleven songs, the album clocks in at a solid fifty-five-and-a-half minutes. If you haven’t heard this album yet, believe me that this is more than what most people would bargain for given the density of the music. I mean, I really love this record, and as much as I do love it, I don’t think I can handle more than a couple of spins of it at once.
The first Devin Townsend song I ever heard was actually “Love” off of Alien. I was instantly blown away. The riffs, the vocal delivery, the production, everything. It was something which at that time was totally alien to me (pun intended). I could not imagine that extreme metal can be like this. It was all the more surprising that, while what I was hearing was brutal and heavy, it was also quite digestible in a way. Of course I went on to binge on all of his material soon after devouring this album, but that’s another story.
Now, I’ve been debating for quite some time (both with myself and others) what Alien and of course the rest of Strapping Young Lad’s material would be more exactly from a stylistic point of view. I’ve given up a few times because there are so many things in this band’s particular blend, but eventually I reached a conclusion that I feel is quite fitting. We’re basically looking at a death- and thrash metal hybrid, filtered through an industrial delivery with heavy emphasis on texture and riffs more than on overall structure. This package is then catalyzed by the truly unique and insanely powerful vocal delivery. I mean, this style was already clearly defined in broad terms on City, but Alien finally made it sound the way it should.
Production is, I feel, one of the most defining traits of Devin’s works, and on Alien so much more so versus other works, since here is where you could hear a multitude of layers, bordering on being a cacophonous mess, which actually enriches the entire affair. It is also the first record where, besides the layering and the multi-tracking approach, we are greeted with a substantial depth in tonal nuance, which really makes the album breathe as if it were a living thing.
Strictly in terms of what the contents of the songs are, the record is basically a relentless mammoth that is hellbound on pummeling you into oblivion – but in a good way. The album doesn’t waste any time. As soon as “Imperial” opens up the whole journey, things instantly go from 0 to 100 and there is no space to breathe whatsoever. Only by the time we are actually nearing the end, when “Two Weeks” starts, are we given a little ‘break’. “Two Weeks” is actually highly uncharacteristic, since it sounds like it’s torn straight from the most laid back corners of Terria, but it really works somehow. I guess there’s an oddball charm to this stark contrast.
There are two other songs that sort of stray from the general formula of the record. One of them is “Thalamus”, which is also my all-time favorite Strapping Young Lad song. There’s just something so incredibly massive about it that can’t be accurately put into words. The vocal delivery on it is also absolutely epic. The other one is “Info Dump”, which closes the record on something of an odd note, so to speak. It’s basically a twelve-minute epic, but by epic I mean a lengthily wound drone that climaxes into some heavily distorted glitches and noises. I guess you could say its title is an apt description in a nutshell.
So yeah, Alien is a truly remarkable example of extreme metal, and I’ll always cherish it for being my gateway to the amazing works of Devin Townsend. I also have to say that it aged pretty well, not to mention that it was easily at the top of its food chain for its time.
Alien was my first introduction to the world of Devin Townsend. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. In a parallel universe, I had listened to every single record made by Mr. Townsend before jumping into Alien. It was still like nothing I’d ever heard.
The 2005 album is basically an enigma wrapped inside another enigma. By expanding his gigantic catalog on a constant ongoing basis, Strapping Young Lad became an ever-diminishing blip on Devin’s resume. Still, SYL remains a significant, but wild and enraged anomaly to the balanced tempers of his many solo records. Alien falls into this wormhole one yard deeper by being the odd one out of Strapping Young Lad‘s big five. It’s a beast unto itself.
Let it be said at this point that all SYL albums are a little bit different from one another, from the industrial venom of Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing and City, through to the heightened groovy production values of the self-titled Strapping Young Lad, and their final album, The New Black. They retain a sense of individualism, but also carry the same basic rules. Alien, which is number four in the SYL timeline, makes its own rules. It’s a sideways dive away from the Strapping Young Lad patent and is not afraid to show it. It’s defiant, monstrous, and so damn loud it’s hard to even fathom. What is Alien? We still don’t know.
The SYL project as a whole appeared to be Townsend’s endeavour to reinvent heaviness, to push the boat on low-end distortion out as far as it could scientifically go. Alien brought him several steps further in this quest. Being unafraid to use digital editing to cut, paste, and contort the initial instrumentation, meant that Devin had infinite scope with the album’s palette of sound. For a 54-minute barrage of noise, there is a lot to unearth. New audio trinkets seem to emerge with every listen.
Past that, I don’t know what the heck he did to make Alien sound the way it does. All I know is that it works. Every inch of it is designed to pulverise and astound, leaving even the most brazen moments of other SYL albums humbly in the dust. Let it also be said that the sonic barrage of production doesn’t mean that the material can’t be translated to a live setting. Case in point, “Love?”(a self-proclaimed reimagining of Yes’s “City of Love”, just to throw in a fun fact), one of the simplest and therefore cleverest numbers in the SYL archives. There have been numerous ongoing instances where Devin has brought this song back from the dead, and it remains as astounding live as it does on the recording. Opening tracks “Imperial” and “Skeksis” also rocked hard on stage, which I can attest to first hand.
However, the real treasures of Alien lie in the less accessible tracks, such as the sprawling progressions of “Shitstorm”, the skull-smashing powerstrums of “Tonight we Ride”, and the utterly cataclysmic movements of “Possessions”. On that specific note, an extra nod goes to the female choir vocalists who make a recurring contribution across the album. Wherever they appear, goosebumps follow. How also could we give this record praise without paying tribute to the synths and electronic nuances that elevate the music from the rugged metal subterranea and up into, well…space?
Alien could only have ever happened once in this universe. It was the brainchild of a creative genius who drank deep from the well of rage, fantasy, and adrenaline and reconstituted it into an album with grandmaster expertise. Even though there was still one more Strapping Young Lad album to go before the band’s demise, Heavy Devvy had never made anything this heavy again, and you know what? That’s okay, because as a peak of his aggressive creative streak, Alien just about dwarves every other mountain on the horizon. Bold claim, I know, but the proof’s in the sound.
Plus those vocals. He pretty much turned ‘fuck’ into a power chord.
Back in 2010, Between the Buried and Me announced a tour with Cynic and I was beyond ecstatic about it. I was 16 at the time, and I was just beginning to get into heavier music that I was finding online. I remember browsing through forums and reading tons of comments about the tour, but it seemed like Between the Buried and Me weren’t going to be the sole reason many of these fans were going. There was another opener named Devin Townsend Project, and everyone seemed to be so much more excited about seeing them perform. I’d never heard of them before, and there was obviously no harm in checking out some of their music before the show.
Well, ten years after falling down to the very bottom of the Devin Townsend rabbit hole, I can say with confidence that Strapping Young Lad had a massive influence on me as a person, especially in their 2005 album Alien. By the time I had discovered the band, Strapping Young Lad was no longer active, and as much as this bummed me out, I knew that they had left behind an incredible discography to listen to. However, I constantly was drawn back to the sheer intensity of Alien. It sounded huge and absolutely brutal, and I still feel the same way about it now.
I remember the adrenaline rush I felt the first time I heard “Love?” cranking through my cheap Sony headphones. It has such an insane amount of power behind it, and the main guitar riff still gets stuck in my head to this day. I’ve always admired Devin’s vocal abilities, and I feel like “Love?” combines all of the talents he has. He has the ability to scream like an absolute demon in the verses, but then the chorus contains a timbre you’d hear from someone singing a lullaby. Sure, many vocalists can do a harsh verse and then sing a clean chorus, but he can fluctuate between screams and cleans as if it’s nothing. It honestly blows my mind hearing the amount of control he has over his voice, and he showcases his skills flawlessly on Alien.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the unbelievable drumming on this album from Gene Hoglan. As a drummer myself, I always wanted to be able to play music that sounded like Strapping Young Lad, but my double kick skills were incredibly lacking (and I never spent the time trying to improve it). Listening to the intricate drumming that Hoglan wrote for Alien is absolutely mind-blowing, and it makes me wish I actually took the time to learn his parts. It truly adds so much to the onslaught of insanity that comes from the rest of the band, but it never feels like it’s too much. It doesn’t matter if the track is blazing fast like “We Ride” or heavy and groovy like “Shine”, Hoglan plays meticulously.
Alien was an album that just clicked with me. It was angry and intense, but it had this strange ability to calm me. Tracks like “Skeksis” and “Shitstorm” are definitely the furthest thing from easy-listening, but I think the aggression is exactly what I needed when I first heard the record. Strapping Young Lad had a very unique sound that I haven’t heard properly replicated, and I truly hope it stays that way. Alien left a huge mark on the metal scene, and I definitely would say it goes down as one of my favorite albums of all time.
In the long journey to become the aggressively progressive, thoughtful, and charming prophet of prog he is now, it’s easy to overlook Devin Townsend’s gremlin phase. You know, when he rocked a skullet of dreads for years, shredded guitars like no one’s business, and put angsty energy above most else. In other words, the Strapping Young Lad years. But it’s deeper than that.
SYL was a bit of an exorcism for Devin. He admittedly was harvesting a lot of anger at that point in life, something he looks back on with a tinge of disdain. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after the band’s inception. Also – at his own admission – that helped him understand his straddling of the two musical worlds he was in between SYL and the solo stuff in his own name, even though he would later heavily contest the validity of the diagnosis. Emotions ran high – a purge was needed. A nine-year purge. Depending on who you ask, the apex of Devy’s work with SYL is either City, their second album, or the album of focus today and the one he’s most proud of, Alien.
To make matters a little worse, Devin was (as was common at the time) consuming alcohol and other drugs faster than Gene Hoglan’s double bass footwork. He himself called the album and the process of recording it ‘toxic’ because of this and other factors. Anger was something that Devin contended with a lot, noting that he didn’t have a real healthy way to express it growing up, so it manifested into a defense. SYL music especially was so aggressive and sonically violent in an effort to out-rage all the things around him. Be louder and bigger than the bear you face, the bear relents…usually.
Much of Alien can be seen as either. Pretty much every song has driving and catchy guitar leads, monstrous drumming, angelic choirs, and a dense atmosphere – all telltale signs of a Devy album. Very metallic in nature and dusted with industrial accessorization. “Love?” is likely a song you’re familiar with, being one of the band’s greatest hits, and that’s just as well, as it shows a great smattering of skills from across the board. For me, “Skeksis” is the song for me, and yes, I’m pretty certain it’s named after the villainous bird race from The Dark Crystal. I like it because not only can I do a sick impression of The Chamberlain’s elated whimper, but it has outrageous vocal melodies, awesome riffs, and entropic lyrics about embracing infinity and a cosmic level of math that none of us have the galaxy brain for.
It’s moments like this – and in “Shitstorm”, “We Ride”, hell, most of the album – where Devin embodies chaos, a mind driven unstable in search for more, or the most. Battling demons of any kind will wear on you, and while you’re free to draw more direct comparisons between Devin and his art, it is perhaps a hyperbolic reflection of where he was at the time. As I am myself a proud agent of hyperbole, it’s almost refreshing to see someone handle personal issues in a way like this, to take things wildly far, but not too far, in an expression of emotion and an attempt to parse out or vent the mental environment someone is in. It’s especially refreshing when it sounds so damn good.
Fans of more traditional Townsend fare will find solace in “Two Weeks”, a calm break that runs parallel with some of the solo stuff he was, and would, produce. Acoustic guitars, clean and lovely singing, a serene mood – it truly is the eye of the storm that is this album.
Alien is a great name for the album, because while we usually visualize the extraterrestrial as humanoid figures that our mind can easily comprehend, it’s quite possible that the psyche and tenets they live by behind those eyes are quite different from the rest of us. Maybe that’s how Devin felt at this time, alienated by himself and others, reaching out for understanding, for stability, but only able to forge chaos.
The fact of the matter is Devin Townsend wasn’t in the best place, but, as happens sometimes, made some of the best art of his life with Alien. These are mostly unrelated things – artists shouldn’t have to be tortured in some way to create good art. The important thing is ever since the legacy of Strapping Young Lad, Devy seems to be in a much better place, not only striking awe in people with his gorgeous, massive music, but as a key personality in heavy music with his offbeat brand of humor and calming Canadian candor. What I’m trying to say is, he’s great, and so is this album. One likely couldn’t exist without the other.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Alien? Are you a fan of Strapping Young Lad, and if so, what’s your favorite album of theirs? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!