Strapping Young Lad: The New Black

SYL frontman Devin Townsend has made public his intention to take a break from making albums following the touring cycle for The New Black. It’s not unreasonable, given the body of work he’s amassed over the last several years. Between Strapping, the Devin Townsend Band, his production work and the fact that he and his wife are about to have their first child, the guy could probably use some time away from the studio.

In that context, the first half of The New Black is understandable. The guy’s had a rough go lately. And it’s not that songs like “Decimator,” “U Suck” and “Monument” aren’t either heavy or well-written, but the leap in craft from 2003’s SYL to 2005’s Alien just isn’t there. Townsend, drummer Gene Hoglan, guitarist Jed Simon and bassist Byron Stroud tackle issues of their own commercialization in “Antiproduct” and proclaim their metallic dominance in “U Suck,” but parts feel phoned-in, particularly in “Monument” and “Wrong Side,” which, in their side by side position, create a lull right where the record should really be taking off.

“Hope,” ironically enough, is the turning point. Townsend sings with less abrasion on this record than ever before for SYL, but “Hope” has a purely progressive groove that wouldn’t have been at all out of place on DTB’s Synchestra, released earlier this year. Leading into “Far Beyond Metal,” which previously appeared on the live album No Sleep Til Bedtime, it sets up both the heaviness and the musical exploration to come.

By the end of “Far Beyond Metal”—which features a guest appearance from Gwar’s Oderus Urungus—it’s apparent that the gears have shifted. “Fucker” takes commercial metal head on (is that a dig against labelmates Lacuna Coil I hear?), with a riff that’s laughable on purpose and lyrics like “They’ll play it tough and play it slow, just play this shit on the radio,” while “Almost Again” is a rock buildup with expansive keyboards and complex timing. Again here Townsend scales back his vocals and concentrates on the melodies, at least for the first minute till Hoglan’s blast beats kick in.

Fans will recognize the central riff of “Polyphony” from Synchestra. As that record played off Alien, so it seems The New Black is returning the favor, in more than just this instance. There is a more intellectual, thoughtful attitude permeating the whole effort, a cautiously blooming refinement. Townsend doesn’t seem content to bombast for the sake of being bombastic. On the final and title track, he takes an epic, militarized marching riff and sets to it an impressive array of vocals before the eventual (and far too early) fade into electronic noise.

It’s already been essentially admitted that the only reason this album got made was because the band needed something to promote on Ozzfest this summer. Given the odd timing of the recording and the rush to deliver, it’s not surprising that this isn’t SYL’s strongest work ever, but it does accomplish every goal it sets for itself and reflects a shift in attitude and approach for the band. And hey, if nothing else, it will be hilarious to see Townsend sing “Fucker” in front of the mallrat Ozzfest crowd.

In An Assessment: Still Better Than Everything Else