Devin Townsend Project
27 October 2014
by Ruth Booth
Since Devin Townsend returned to music four years ago, we’ve seen nearly all sides of his diverse output reimagined and revitalised under his “Devin Townsend Project” moniker. All except one that is – Ziltoid The Omniscient, titular star of Townsend’s 2007 record and the musician’s malevolent alien alter-ego. Seven years on, we finally have Z2 – the spiritual follow-up to ZTO’s screed on creativity and caffeine addiction – but with a difference this time.
For starters, it’s not all about the pernicious puppet. Z2 is split into two discs – power rock/dance/experimental mashup Sky Blue, and the Ziltoid musical Dark Matters. So the question becomes less whether this is a Ziltoid record worth waiting for, and more whether Z2 actually works as a coherent pairing.
Sky Blue is the more conventional metal album of the two, thematically summed up by the question asked by guest vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen in ‘Fallout’ – “If you could say anything you wanted, / what would you say?” Sky Blue shares much with the upbeat side of the original ZTO, though Townsend’s falsetto is largely replaced by van Giersbergen’s crystalline pealing tones. Completed by the rest of the line-up behind Addicted!, they pound out melodic powerhouse rock – and later, quasi-Republica dance beats (‘Silent Militia’) and sunset ambient chillout (the title track is begging for a house remix). It’s like a more diverse take on Mark Trombino’s production work with Finch and Jimmy Eat World in the early ‘00s.
As you’d expect from a record reflecting on the creative process (‘Fallout’), self-sovereignty (‘Universal Flame’) and anxiety, as Sky Blue goes on, that positivity is tempered. The lullaby of triumphal church bells in ‘Forever’ gives way to muffled screams and night terrors, punctuating the track’s mantras of wisdom in the wee small hours. ‘Before We Die’ and the dreamlike ‘The Ones We Love’ offer reassurance as the album drifts off, but Sky Blue is a more complex record than a straight day-night split of the titles would suggest.
Likewise, second album Dark Matters has an interesting name for a more bombastic record – one last seen on Townsend’s post-New Age record Ghost. A space opera with a cast of literally thousands (via the Universal Choir, Townsend fans who provide backing vocals on both discs), Dark Matters is not a straight sequel to ZTO, nor one that requires loving the alien beforehand (although a glance at Townsend’s recent YouTube series will flesh out the start). This time Ziltoid has inveigled himself with the humans as an intergalactic celebrity, but his arrogant actions behind the scenes anger a far greater threat…
As ‘Deathray’ shows, it’s a gloriously indulgent comic book confection – Deconstruction-like orchestration, mixed with Townsend’s penchant for musicals, sci-fi and fart gags (plus both the worst Deathray and the best evil plan ever). The castings of Chris Jericho as Captain Spectacular and Dominique Lenore Persi (from Stolen Babies) as the War Princess are inspired. Led by our sinister narrator, the music soundtracks this journey in a similar way to Jeff Wayne’s musical of War of The Worlds. I found it worked best when listened to start to end, like an audiobook – unlike the flipside, it’s hard to jump around it like a bunch of singles.
Considering Townsend’s recent tendency to split his work roughly down genre lines, combining these two is an unusual choice. Arguably the creative context to Dark Matters is summed up in its first two minutes anyway, with its buzz of industry disintegrating into the terror from which Ziltoid emerges. However, breaking down the Z2 story into two expansive halves avoids the biggest problem with its predecessor. ZTO neatly crammed both the Ziltoid story and human context into one record, but as a result ZTO came across as rather self-conscious, and the reveal at the end almost apologetic. By separating the two, Z2 is a much bolder record. Sky Blue gives us the life behind the creation, then, with the metaphysical out of the way, Dark Matters is free to indulge – confident of the context it’s set into and what it’s saying.
The irony of splitting off the two sides is that they’re seen as separate entities. Z2 (or Z Squared, to spell it out) is actually two dimensions of the whole – a portrait of an artist in rough shapes of external social daylight and internal creative night. One provides the necessary context to the other. This allows us to have it both ways – one record of upbeat power rock to casually shuffle through, and a second album of storytelling indulgence for those long Winter nights. If this is the result of the world’s finest bean, maybe we should all be drinking what Townsend’s having.
Sounds Like: GWAR, Starlight Express, Euphoric Clubland Volume 1
Standout Tracks: Universal Flame, Rain City, From Sleep Awake