Is there anyone harder working in music than Devin Townsend? Not only does he seem to be perpetually touring around the world, but new double album Z2 is his 22nd album in just 19 years, as well as being his second of the year so far after Casualties of Cool’s debut was released back in May. To call it a double album is a little misleading, as it’s really two different albums in the same package, Dark Matters being the follow up album to the original Ziltoid the Omniscient, 2007’s concept album about the coffee mad alien, while Sky Blue is an album more in the style of Epicloud, with a suitably epic upbeat sound. What ties the two albums together is the universal choir – Devin asked fans to record themselves singing parts from the album, and at points there are hundreds of voices all contributing towards a glorious choir on both discs. The wonderful voice of Anneke Van Giersbergen returns for both CDs but is more prominent on Sky Blue than Dark Matters, contributing primarily towards the choirs on the latter rather than taking the lead. Sky Blue is much better than Dark Matters, but taking Z2 as a whole it has it’s moments and while a solid album, it’s somewhat disappointing compared to his other releases, there’s some songs throughout the release which just don’t live up to Devin’s lofty standards.
Sky Blue continues in the direction of Epicloud, sounding just as huge and epic, but with a lot more of the emphasis of the pop elements. Filled to the brim with poppy guitar hooks and synth melodies and the beautiful voice of Anneke Van Giersbergen, it’s definitely more of a pop-rock album than Devin’ usual progressive metal affair. Opener Rejoice has bouncy riffs and catchy vocal melodies with Anneke providing backing vocals in a joyous upbeat manner and Devin’s screams of “Rejoice!” delivered with catchy hooks. Even with the heavy bouncing main riff, the track is really upbeat and poppy. But it turns out this opener is the album at it’s most reserved, for Fallout ups the bombast ten times over, with the catchiest, sugariest of guitar melodies, Anneke taking the lead with her powerful yet sweet sounding voice, with Devin also using his operatic voice at it’s best, with the universal choir adding that extra over the top layer. With melodious synths, punchy drums and the warmest of bass sounds added to the mix, all combined with Devin’s one of a kind wall of sound production we have a track that’s almost as bombastic as it gets, until Universal Flame comes and kicks it up to 11, the huge wall of sound in that bombastic intro sounding fantastic, before the poppiest catchiest verse in the whole Devin catalogue comes in with him and Anneke duetting beautifully. The guitar solo just before the three minute mark has one of the cleanest most upbeat sounding tones ever and the whole track is constantly full of bombast – synths, choirs, heavy riffing all up to eleven at the same time in an EPIC wall of sound.
Midnight Sun is slightly less over the top, Devin singing softly against an array of sweet synth melodies and heavy riffs, delivered once again with a wall of sound production. Backed up by the universal choir and Anneke singing much softer, it’s a track that seems to perfectly blend the more ambient side of Devin’s work with his progressive tendencies, emotional guitar solos, and sense of the epic, sounding like Ghost, Epicloud and Terria all rolled into one great song. A New Reign has a lot of focus on moody soundscapes, with the synths and backing vocals giving it a vast spacey feel, lead guitar scales adding to the mystical feel, while those simple powerful riffs keep it grounded. Special mention has to go to Anneke on this, some of the high notes she hits in the backing vocals are ridiculous, she’s the best singer around and really adds so much to Devin’s sound.
With Warrior we have a vocal centric track, with Anneke leading a choir in what must be the heaviest gospel track ever, once more her vocals are simply beautiful in the verses, while in Sky Blue we have more of a soft dancy electronic track, showing Devin’s willingness to experiment even at this point in his career. Electronic beats and melodies with some of the softest vocals he’s ever done give a setup to a dance/rock chorus with Anneke singing in a rich velvety voice. Silent Militia continues the same vibe in a heavier cheesy electronic track, almost sounding like upbeat ‘dance metal’ but after that the album has a dip in quality. Rain City and Forever are rather dull, there just seems to be a lack of good ideas compared to the other tracks, and with the former being rather long it does disrupt the flow of the album a little. Before We Die picks it up, another upbeat rock track, with over the top choirs over the catchy guitar riffs and melodies. It’s a good way to close the album – or would be except rather than ending on an epic sounding finale, Devin drags it out unnecessarily with a few minutes of ambience before the choir comes back over the top on outro The Ones We Love, rather dull when used by itself.
Besides the underwhelming few tracks on the second half of the album it’s a really good album from Devin, showing great experimentation mixing his heavy sound with pop and even dance elements and varied vocals from himself, Anneke and the huge choir.
The second disc Dark Matters is the follow up to 2007’s Ziltoid The Omniscient, Devin’s concept album about the coffee obsessed alien warlord Ziltoid. It was an album with a lot of humour but also had great music across it, especially with the sullen Hyperdrive as well as the progressive greats The Greys and Colour Your World, while also flowing well as a whole. In short, his humorous concepts didn’t get in the way of writing a great album. But that’s where the problem with Dark Matters lies, Devin seemed to focus far more on his concept than he did on his song writing. The narrative of the album is humorous, with Ziltoid facing off against Warrior Princess Blattaria after stealing one of her children – with Earth as the battleground, and the sound effects throughout the album make it pure fun ridiculousness. Thing is, the narrative completely dominates the music to the point that the music seems like an afterthought rather than cohering with his story like on the first Ziltoid album.
From the start of the album the choirs seem too much, they dominate over practically everything, and Devin’s guitars are mostly lost underneath them, though a lot of the riffs are just chugged and fairly unmemorable. They even dominate over Devin’s own vocals on the first song Z2, and continue in this way for most of the album. As mentioned already, at times the music just seems to be ‘there’ and isn’t really all that interesting, just providing a background for the narrative – which while humorous shouldn’t be a substitute for good songs. Anneke is also used a lot less on Dark Matters than on Blue Sky, though at the points when her voice does crop up it’s typically gorgeous, sounding somewhat celestial underneath the choirs on the opener. Rather than sounding fantastically bombastic as on Sky Blue, the wall of sound on the first few pieces sounds messy, very untypical for Devin, the guitars simply lost under the choirs and the punchy drums a lot of the time – in fact the first interesting riff is about 10 minutes into the album, halfway through Ziltoidian Empire. Following track War Princess’s lyrics are really repetitive, but there’s some good spacey riffs to go alongside the punchy riffs.
There’s not many tracks that stand out on their own outside of the concept, but the two which do are Deathray and Earth. The former has great vocals from Devin, shouting in his usual epic style in a track with catchy riffs, silly sound effects and a great chorus, and its a lot of fun. At nearly eight minutes Earth is a really good spacey track, with a psychedelic guitar intro creating a spacey ambience, before the best use of the universal choir on the release builds up to pounding riffs and drums. It’s bombastic, spacey and shows Devin’s mad song writing perfectly. The final few tracks serve to complete the story against more ridiculous bombastic walls of sound, before the final track Dimension Z showcases the universal choir in all it’s over the top glory, used to probably its best extent here over the double album.
Overall, the album has it’s weak points, but it’s better than the sum of it’s parts. It flows so well from start to finish, it has it’s moments in Deathray and Earth, and the humour is so good that it’s really endearing. Compared to other releases from Devin it’s a bit of a disapointment, and the songs don’t stand out much on their own, but it’s still a lot of fun and a good deal more unique than a lot that’s out there. Dark Matters is probably only for the hardcore Devin fans, but there’s enough about it to be a fun listen.
Taking Z2 as a whole, it’s a little bit of a let down compared to both Epicloud and the original Ziltoid the Omniscient, but Sky Blue is a very good album on it’s own merits, and with the crazy fun of Dark Matters it’s still enjoyable despite it’s flaws and any Devin Townsend fans should give it a listen, though it probably won’t win over others.