Steven Wilson, Mikael Akerfeldt, Devin Townsend...National treasures for the elations of their metal nations, they are.
The word genius shouldn’t be thrown around too lightly, but these cats are just that...At least in the world of heavy music, each taking their thoughtful fan base on trips confident that they will follow the routes and slake of their lessons.
The obsessive Canuck of that trio, Devin Townsend—fully 30 records into an astonishing career—has now just raised the stakes, bringing us to a conclusion of a journey started 23 years ago, in the form of a new double album incorporating multimedia and a cross section of what he can present as an artist. A search for answers and the discovery of fruitful solutions, through the new project carefully called 'Devin Townsend Presents: Z²'.
The master class in Spector-mad production and composition worthy of Cheap Trick in the ‘70s is essentially a follow-up to 2007’s ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’—but on the hallowed heavy scale of epic-ness, the new record couldn’t be flung further afield. “With the old ‘Ziltoid’ record,” muses Hevy Devy, “I wanted to make a point that I could do things for $500, you know, with a drum machine and one microphone and a Line6 pod. But now, listening back to that record, in many ways it sounds like a glorified demo. They say every seven years you cycle through a full change, and ‘Z²’ (‘Ziltoid Squared’) is the original idea magnified extensively.”
Magnified indeed. Feasting upon ‘Z²’ is akin to immersing oneself in the arcane creases of the Devin Townsend Project catalogue vis-à-vis layers of bludgeoning heaviness and angelic melodies living under the cathedral of Devin’s more contemplative solo vision. Following on the heels of his crowd funded 'Casualties Of Cool' project, Ziltoid is more in line with a “typical” Devin release: militaristic rhythms and musical puzzles to be solved by the listener, combined with a full second disc of music to follow-up the last DTP album, ‘Epicloud’.
The two new discs on ‘Z²’ are individually titled 'Sky Blue' (DTP) and 'Dark Matters' (Ziltoid).
“I ended up in a scenario where I was presented the opportunity to fulfill a life goal of making complicated music aside complicated puppets, composing strange music, and doing it without compromise due to the success of our recent crowd funding. It has been an absolutely furious few years, and as a result of the amount of stimulus I have ingested, the outcome of ‘Z²’ was steeped in overcoming fears of success and failure and interpreting that recent chaos. Ziltoid as a character is essentially just a funny 'Alien', but the role of the character gives me an outlet to present avant-garde style heavy metal ideas without those ideas being the strict focus. When I think of movies such as 'Star Wars', they are essentially simple stories with scenarios complimented by complicated music. Ziltoid gives me an avenue to explore that.
On recommendation of a friend, I went to a hypnotherapy session and through some self analysis, recognized that my creative path has always been split, and that it was important for the conclusion of this period of creative density for me to do not only the ZIltoid album, but a separate album of more straight ahead, DTP-style music as well." Continues Townsend, “I just went for it— and I wrote 50 songs, maybe more. And then, predictably, every step of this project turned out to be a massive task. There’s been not one element of it that’s been as simple as, ‘Okay, I guess we’ll go in and, for example, record bass now.’ No, we had to get a studio specific for the bass player, as for the sake of time, I was in LA tracking Ryan with his engineer brother. Dave and Mike St-Jean tracked in another studio, and I tracked in various places. As complicated as this sounds, it was not only for the sake of time, it also just seemed appropriate to experiment. Another 'experiment' was The 'Universal Choir' that we did online, and yet another example of a massive task for ‘Z²’: we designed a website that allowed fans to upload themselves singing parts of the album, and we then took their files and assembled it into a 2000 person strong, 'fan choir'. After the massively large digital sessions, the choir eventually ended up on the songs 'Z²', 'Dimension Z', and 'Before We Die'. All said and done, it’s just been a massive project, down to the engineering to facilitating how do we do it, and how do we deliver it. I would have to say it has challenged me in ways I didn't even realize I could be challenged.”
American orchestras, an orchestra in Prague, and then there’s the happenstance that the actual Ziltoid is...a puppet. “The puppets took a year to make, as we went through one revision at first. It cost me a ton of money but ultimately I wanted to make sure that the look of this project from minute one was what it is. There’s no messing around with it. For the voice actor, I hired a friend of mine who has a very recognizable Hollywood style voice to do the narration. On the first ‘Ziltoid’ record, we had my buddy pretend he was the narrator, where he narrated a frankly ridiculous story. And on this one, I tried to write a story that was a bit simpler that provided an outlet for complicated music while still being sort of cinematic. In a way, I was hoping to achieve a sort of '50's radio play' brought up to today’s heavy music standards.”
The effect is lush, full-range, cinematic, and expressive-sounding. “It’s a lot more 'West Side Story'-influenced, I think, than the first one,” notes Devin. “Ziltoid-style music comes fairly readily to me. These complicated statements are things that I really enjoy doing. And to be honest, I'm not at a Leonard Bernstein level of composition, but I believe that shouldn't curb the ambition to try. As always, the creative process is 5% of my efforts on a record and the rest of it is actualizing. I think that what I’m hoping is that the music part of this will represent that I do want to make orchestral music one day—I love that. I love the idea of what Andrew Lloyd Webber and all those guys did in the ‘70s. I can’t really stomach it now because it’s so dramatically over-the-top, but musically, I love it. I love being able to take complicated, sort of avant-garde music, but not have it unto itself being the focus. But that sort of avant-garde stuff really provides a theatrical backdrop for dramatic activities. When you listen to ‘Star Wars’ or any of these big John Williams-type scores, it’s Stravinsky-esque sorts of things that illustrate complicated scenes, in my mind; it rationalizes writing really complicated music without going so far up my ass for it to be simply, ‘Check out my complicated music'. It’s a backdrop for something that’s hopefully engaging for people. I hope that the point that I’m trying to make with Ziltoid and the metaphor behind it, isn’t lost in just a sea of absurdity.”
Addressing the creative tension between the two discs, Devin explains, “I really worked to make sure it was the best DTP record I could do at this time and the best Ziltoid record I could do at this time. And the way it relates to the prior album is that Ziltoid was born as a result of sobriety, the life change, kids, all these sorts of things, and the character ended up becoming a personification of part of me that I was confused by. And now the story ends up that it’s DTP…the 'humans' against Ziltoid, and it’s a 'battle' of sorts. I find that my motivations for my work are rarely apparent to me during the process, and it typically makes sense in hindsight. I would say that ‘Z²’ is a direct result of the stimulus that I have ingested as a result of a savagely busy few years. The DTP and Ziltoid side of my writing has evolved to where this statement was necessary and undoubtedly inevitable. The battle between the two seems like a great way to proceed to the next chapter of my work.”
As noted, Devin Townsend is cognizant—as well as hopeful—that his fan base is studious and perceptive enough to figure all this out, to explore life and life cycles with the man and bring these hearth lessons back into their own domestic situations. But while they probe the bare and spare humanity of the ‘Z²’ record, tracks like the geometric “Earth” and “Ziltoidian Empire,” plus the panoramic and muscular “Rejoice”—a replenishing form of spiritual stadium rock if there ever was—will kick their asses with the metal madness that Dev uses and knows his audience enjoys. Reflects Townsend in closing, “I really enjoy my job, and I really want to continue being able to be creative. And this project offers me an opportunity to present myself in ways that I haven’t before: as a writer, as an orchestrator, as somebody who’s able to provide soundtrack stuff, as a puppeteer, as a multimedia artist, dubious comedy, all these things. I’m hoping that ‘Z²’ really provides an outlet for people to see that I’m capable of a lot of things, but even more so, I hope it will inspire other artists to reach for things that maybe seem a bit out of reach. I'm not out to be the biggest and the best, I'm hoping to achieve artistic freedom, and hopefully one day a sense of calm on a personal level. I can only hope that reaching for things that are maybe unusual in this scene will inspire others.”
On an admittedly nerdy last note, the record ‘Alien’, by Devin’s prior band, Strapping Young Lad, contained a piece called “Info Dump” that was basically structured noise containing a morse code for a math equation. “During that recording, I had happened to watch a NOVA Television special about a mathematician named Andrew Wiles who had solved something called ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem' - a problem thought previously insolvable with a very elegant solution: X2 + Y2 = Z². Although I'm far from a mathematician, I enjoyed the thought that two opposing ways of thinking could be linked by a simple equation. I was just struck with that during the ‘Alien’ time, and it just so happens that ‘Ziltoid 2’, ‘Z²’, is an answer for me—of how to proceed. It just seems to tie up everything, including Strapping, in a way that I think is satisfying—silly, but satisfying (laughs).
In the spirit of adventure, we present to you 'Z²'.
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