There are some albums that you just get straight away because they reveal everything about themselves right upfront. Devin Townsend’s albums have never been like that. There’s too much going on on a whole bunch of levels: emotionally, conceptually, orchestrationally, texturally. And there’s a lot to digest with Z2. It’s made up of two very different albums, Sky Blue and Dark Matters. Sky Blue is the Devin Townsend Project, and Dark Matters is the sequel to 2007’s sci-fi metal opus Ziltoid The Omniscient. And some tracks feature the vocals of thousands of fans, invited to participate online in what has been named the Universal Choir.
In terms of Townsend’s previous output, Sky Blue feels like it’s related to Epicloud, Addicted!, Accelerated Evolution and Ocean Machine. It’s immense in scope, veering from stomping groove (“Rejoice”) to driving power (“Fallout”) to spacious moodiness (“Midnight Sun”) within the first three tracks. These three songs don’t tell the whole story, but they do seem to set up a few of the musical personalities that recur in different forms throughout the record. Some of the material comes off as almost – almost – radio-friendly in their melodic hooks, like “Sky Blue” and “Universal Flame.” Several tracks end in a quite different place to how they start. And although the final track of the disc is “The Ones Who Love,” it feels rather like the album begins to wind down halfway through “Before We Die,” when the triumphant melodies and the immensity of the Universal Choir give way to gentle ambient soundscapes.
On a surface level Sky Blue’s melodies suggest reflection and contemplation. On a deeper level there’s a darkness to this album – not the aggressive kind of darkness that permeated Strapping Young Lad, but a more mature, nuanced realisation that darkness exists, tempered by the optimism to deal with it rather than try to ignore it. It’s not an easy listen – in other words it demands your attention rather than lets you get away with popping it on in the background – but it’s a rewarding one, with new layers and subtleties revealing themselves on repeated listens.
Just as Sky Blue seems to have a few different levels upon which to view it, Dark Matters also has simultaneous multiple personalities. On one level this album is most definitely about Ziltoid’s latest adventures. But on a deeper level, Ziltoid isn’t really about Ziltoid. In a way this album is actually about what it takes to make an album like, in the sense that no note is just a note; it’s all part of a carefully constructed whole, and when you listen to it you’ll be aware of how much work must have gone into it. It’s an immense record full of tiny details, huge sounds, deliciously hammy voice acting, cinematic sweeps and the power of the Universal Choir.
Without giving too much away, the story involves Ziltoid momentarily enjoying the adulation of the people of Earth (and their representative Captain Spectacular, played by a suitably valiant Chris Jericho), until he does something that incurs the wrath of the War Princess of Titan. Sonically the experience is like hi-def, widescreen smellovision, and the compositions take all sorts of twists and turns in service of the plot. There’s nothing on here that can really stand alone outside of Z2 in the way that “Hyperdrive” did on the first Ziltoid record, but Sky Blue fulfils that function quite nicely anyway.
At times the story can be a little hard to follow as it gets swallowed up in the immensity of the music, although I’m sure it will all become clear with a lyric booklet and the accompanying comic. Stolen Babies vocalist Dominique Lenore Persi does a great job of embodying the War Princess’s pantomime-like villainy, both spoken and sung, and Ziltoid remains as quotable as ever.
Dark Matters is a wild, fun, occasionally silly experience which plays off nicely against the much more serious Sky Blue. It feels like both albums need each other: Sky Blue goes so deep that it requires the levity of the Ziltoid disc to balance it out, and Dark Matters‘ sense of vaudeville benefits from being able to lean against the drama of Sky Blue. Devin has described Z2 as a war between Ziltoid and the DTP, but they seem to work together rather than against each other. Neither disc is an easy listen because they both ask a lot from the listener, but they both reward you for paying attention in different ways, and they both add up to a very satisfying, immersive experience.
Z2 is released on October 27 in Europe and October 28 in the US via Hevy Devy/InsideOut Music.