Ginger’s Secret History of Rock’n’Roll (pt.14)
As our Metal issue hits the stand, Ginger recommends ‘the holy grail for lovers of heavy music’… Check out Ginger’s past Secret History Of Rock’n'Roll entries.
STRAPPING YOUNG LAD
1997, Century Media Records
POWWW, KERRRRASHHHH, BOOOOM, GGGRRRRRRR, AAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH, RRRRROOOAAARRRRRRR…
And that’s just the sound of the CD being lifted from its case.
For lovers of bludgeoningly heavy music this album is surely the Holy Grail: dense and huge, precise and pissed off – and still funny. Devin Townsend’s Strapping Young Lad are everything a fan of sonic warfare could possibly wish for, and this album is their Operation Shock and Awe.
I had the pleasure of touring with Devin when he sang for Steve Vai in the mid 90s, some kind of contractual agreement wherein he got to release his solo album (SYL ‘Heavy as A Really Heavy thing’, an album that combined Devin’s winning sense of humour with bi-polar intensity) on the proviso that he behave himself and act duly professional throughout his tenure with the self-loving guitar god.
He, of course, went the opposite way and became a surging dervish of chaos that escalated into further unpredictability as the tour progressed. Soon afterwards he was playing guitar in The Wildhearts but soon left to further pursue the last word in majestic noise, assembling the classic line-up of Jed Simon (guitar, b/vox), Byron Stroud (bass, b/vox) and Gene Hoglan (drums) and The Lad were finally born.
With Strapping Young Lad establishing a stable line-up the next stage was to see if this sheer brutality of sound could be captured on record.
And holy fuck did they capture it.
Taking the blueprint of the ’95 debut and fleshing out the carcass until it aurally resembled the collective size of the band members, ‘City’ is simply a monster. Wildhearts drummer Ritch and I have subjected more people to this album than is rightfully fair, and still those opening moments pack a wallop that is impossible to describe without actually playing the thing.
click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click….hey, BOOOOOOOOOOOOM!
Probably the greatest intro to an album ever, ‘Velvet Kevorkian’ is so large that it’s sometimes necessary to revisit this beast of a track, just to make sure that your imagination didn’t help create this monstrous wall of sound. And as The Lad pummel you senseless with their primal onslaught they give no time for breathing as track two, the majestic ‘All Hail The New Flesh’ implausibly increases the power.
This song is so gloriously unhinged that the very foundations of your sanity are put on trial, and herein the weak of heart are left quelled before its awesome invective. This is no place for the meek.
The devastating might of drummer Gene Hoglan (formerly of Death and Dark Angel) is now in full attack mode: pounding flat the ground before him, he drives forward like an machine devised to crush and terminate with extreme prejudice.
Nothing prepares you for the obliteration that this man is capable of bringing. The greatest drummer in Heavy Metal? It’s so obviously true as to be fairly insulting.
And as ‘All Hail The New Flesh’ vaporises your comfort zone with unbridled riffage and a chorus larger than the Nuremberg rally, building into the most outrageously massive mid-section ending in what can only be described as the most awesome use of the word ‘motherfucker’ ever recorded, the heat is once again raised. With a segue that exclaims, in a German accent (of course), “Well gentlemen, a great deal of money has been invested in this project and we can’t allow it to fail” the mighty Hoglan ushers in ‘Oh My Fucking God’, a song so preposterously behemothic that any other title would be a great disservice. You think you’ve heard heavy, I know you do, but dear reader you simply haven’t, unless you own this album and have been subjected to these first three tracks back to back, as they are, with no respite, no surrender.
It’s like being thrust under ice while simultaneously facing the flames of Hell. Disorientating and unholy, and downright fearsome. With a smile.
‘Oh My Fucking God’ is the sound of joy made heavy. Armed with the greatest middle section ever dared to be attempted by a heavy band, this song will have you wondering if you’ll ever come out of this experience fully intact. And the answer is yes you will – in fact you will come out of this experience twice the person you went into it being. So comically heavy is the attack that you’ll laugh at the size of the chunks of ceiling falling onto your floor.
‘Detox’ is almost a break in intensity, and while still being ball-bustingly crushing in its own right its galloping lurch almost comes as a relief after what has gone before. With one of the greatest riffs ever waiting to spring almost 3 minutes into the track, this – the only single from the album – is a gloriously familiar stomper that shows the band off as the musical powerhouse they are often overlooked as being. True, with such intensity it can be difficult for the average listener to fully appreciate the intricacy of the arrangements, and the genius of Townsend, but when The Lad settle into a groove as warming as ‘Detox’ the musicianship on show rivals anything in the world of heavy music.
And as ‘Home Nucleonics’ reopens the cellar door the demons return en force bringing with them the fury that superseded the lull. And all Hell, once again, breaks loose. Double bass drum bedlam propels the band into more deranged abandon and Devin screams like a banshee on very bad drugs.
As dark as all this sounds, however, The Lad never lose their infectious sense of rapture that makes every hook as catchy as an ABBA chorus, albeit a filthy marauding Viking version of the Swedish pop combo.
Ludicrously tight and feverishly energetic, ‘Home Nucleonics’ makes way for the far more languid, yet no less gargantuan, ‘AAA’. Super cool samples swoop in and out of this lumbering monolith like dark, misshapen bats creating a shadow drenched brute of a thing that seems to rise from some dreadful steam filled stench with Devin riding its horny back, roaring in blissful melody.
‘Underneath The Waves’ mixes death metal rhythms with a chorus of incredible theatricality as church-like keys lift the song into a dark cinematic world of sound where classical grandeur meets classic thrash.
And then a surprise cover version, in the shape of Cop Shoots Cop’s ‘Room 429′, allows the Goliath that is The Lad to get mellow (almost) in a sensational trip through even more cinematic heights. What could have been an awkward choice of direction, at this point, in the wrong hands, ‘Room 429′ merely shows off the range of The Lad’s collective musical savvy. Stirring and beautiful, this is a rare, and very welcome diversion of sorts that deftly sets up the finale, the sumptuous ‘Spirituality’. Resembling the kind of material that Strapping Young Lad, and Devin personally, would go on to explore on later albums, ‘Spirituality’ closes this remarkable album in stately fashion. Satisfying and definite. The perfect end to a meal far too large for dessert.
Quite unlike anything else before it, Strapping Young Lad’s “City’ marries elements of the greatest moments in the history of heavy music. There are hints of Master Of Puppets’ finest points, touches of Marilyn Manson at his most classic and deranged, but mostly it is the diverse and undoubted talents of Devin Townsend that make this such a brilliant album. And the players are every bit up to the task of making Devin’s vision spring to multi dimensional life.
This is the sound of one man’s frustration but this is also very much the sound of a band unified in determined spirit.
Seldom do we ever get both so lovingly delivered with such expert handling and understanding of the genre.
It is a monster, for sure. And yet it is as accessible as it is uncompromising.
For lovers of extreme music as well as a perfect introduction to the more challenging face of heavy metal, ‘City’ delivers. And the world is a much better place for it.
Check out Ginger’s past Secret History Of Rock’n'Roll entries.