All Your Coffee Belongs to Us! — A Review of Z2
Greetings toilet dwellers. ChuggaChuggaDeedleyDoo here — notorious gear whore and intermittent ToH commenter/contributor. Luckily, I’ve had the privilege of handling the ToH review for Z2, Devin Townsend’s sequel to his 2007 concept album, Ziltoid the Omniscient. I listened to Ziltoid the Omniscient (which I’ll refer to as “Z1”) in its entirety immediately before listening to Z2, so this review, for the most part, is a comparison between these two albums.
Ziltoid’s first adventure was largely lambasted by the critics back in 2007, yet has managed to become a cult classic in its own respect. In the years since Z1, Devin Townsend has also become one of the most diverse and divisive artists in metal. People tend to either love his post-Strapping Young Lad stuff or hate it, and there’s really not much middle ground. Regardless of how you feel about his music though, the man is undeniably a musical genius.
With that in mind, I’m not going to be appealing to either the Devin haters or the Devin fanboys in this album review. Rather, we’re going to take a stroll down musical memory lane in comparing and contrasting Z1 and Z2, touching on some of the changes in the industry, changes in production choices, and changes in Townsend’s career that make them two very different albums.
Holy shit, the first Ziltoid album was released more than seven years ago?
The fact that it’s already been over seven years since Z1 was released makes me feel really damn old. A lot has changed since 2007. Just think about what the metal musical landscape looked like back then: people were still buying physical CDs, the New Wave of American Heavy Metal/Metalcore was thrumming, and Nu Metal was gasping its last dying breath. Hell, even Myspace was still a thing back in 2007. In the interim, we’ve seen the rise of Spotify and subscription-based streaming media, djent has been a thing for a while now (not something I’m particularly fond of), Metalcore is yesterday’s news, Myspace has become irrelevant, and incredibly, we’re starting to see the first signs of a Nu Metal revival (barf). Long story short, I’m conflicted about whether things are actually better or worse now vis a vis 2007.
At any rate, one of the most important developments in metal, and really the music industry at large since then, is that it has become easier and cheaper for virtually anyone with access to a computer to create decent sounding audio recordings. Through the use of Digital Audio Workstation software, and plugins such as Toontrack’s EZ Drummer, pretty much any ponytailed neckbeard can put out a respectable sounding demo and make it available to the entire world from the comfort of his dorm room and/or his grandmother’s basement.
What makes Z1 notable is that this was exactly the way that Devin recorded the album, just when “Prosumer” computerized music creation tools really began to take off. Long before the AxeFx craze, Townsend recorded the majority of the album essentially at home using exclusively programmed drums from Toontrack’s EZ drummer, and the guitars via Peavey’s amp simulation program ReValver (or whatever it was called back then). In fact, Z1 was written, produced, tracked, and mixed entirely by Townsend on his own, which is a big reason it still has a “personal” feel to it, despite its zaniness (more on this later).
In contrast, armed with a record deal and an actual recording budget, Townsend is back to using real amps and real drums for Z2, and has the entire Devin Townsend Project (DTP) behind him, including contributions from long-time DTP collaborator Anneke van Giersbergen, as well as Dominique Lenore Persi of Stolen Babies fame. Townsend’s “Universal Choir” (which was comprised of vocal contributions recorded by hundreds of fans) as well as a healthy dose of other vocal layering largely dominates the Z2 mix, and pushes Townsend’s signature “wall of sound” production technique to its logical extreme.
While Townsend was only in the nascent stages of sharpening his mixing game without having to rely on sound engineers with Z1, he handles the Z2 mix with aplomb. And trust me, this kind of shit is next to impossible to mix.
When we last left Ziltoid…
Getting back to Ziltoid’s first adventure, Z1 was written and recorded during a big transition in Townsend’s life. The guy had shaved off his trademark skullet, he had just kicked his addictions, he just had a kid, and he was in the wake of breaking up Strapping Young Lad, much to the dismay of a great deal of SYL fans (myself included).
What resulted was an album that no one was quite expecting—a quirky space opera concept album about an alien named Ziltoid in search of the universe’s ultimate cup of coffee. It was an homage to 50s sci-fi, while incorporating elements of Strapping Young Lad and Townsend’s solo work alike.
As Townsend would later acknowledge, the origin of the Ziltoid character was rooted in Townsend’s struggles with the expectations people had of him to continue to write heavy music, coupled with the fact that writing SYL tunes required him to tap into a dark place within himself that he no longer had any interest in revisiting. The solution was to create a faux caricature of that negative energy in the form of a skullet-sporting hand puppet. And while the subject matter of Z1 seemed light hearted on the surface, it was essentially a satire and an allegory for one man’s personal feelings about his place in life and struggles within the musical industry. To this point, after Ziltoid’s grandiose plans of ominversal domination always seem to go awry, he asks the universe what the true nature of his existence is, to which the universe (i.e. the Omnidimensional Creator) replies, “you’re a puppet.”
Over time, the Ziltoid character took on a life of its own, becoming a fan-favorite aspect of DTP shows, and eventually spawning further developments of the Ziltoid character such as Townsend’s ZTV. This growth of the “Cult of Ziltoid” also came alongside Devin’s post-Strapping Young Lad career development, in which Townsend released six DTP albums in the span of only a handful of years, the most recent being this year’s Casualties of Cool.
It should suffice to say that Devin Townsend isn’t the musician he was when he wrote Z1, and he’s grown considerably since then.
Z2 is really two separate albums, one of which is entirely a Ziltoid album entitled Dark Matters, and the other of which is a DTP album entitled Sky Blue. I imagine there was some strong encouragement by his label to include some DTP material, since I’m not sure whether Dark Matters holds up on its own the way that Z1 did. Taken as a whole though, it’s a pretty epic sonic experience.
Technically this is the second disc on the album, but Imma talk about it first anyway. My short description of the Dark Matters portion of Z2 would be “a metal version of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, with the plot and dialogue of a Saturday morning cartoon.” If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea (or coffee in Ziltoid’s case), then you’re going to have a hard time with Dark Matters.
Certainly the dialogue that was peppered throughout Z1 has been ramped up in a major way for Z2. Dark Matters seems to incorporate almost thrice the amount of dialogue as Z1, so much so that there’s a bonus CD which includes a commentary-free version of the album. It does seem to clutter the songs when there’s a dialogue break every few minutes, but the underlying point of the album is essentially to be a musical.
The standout barn burners on Dark Matters are “Deathray” and “Ziltoid Goes Home,” the former seeming like a heavier version of the DTP song “Gaia,” while “Ziltoid Goes Home” is a little more on the SYL side. The album culminates with the epically ambient “Dimension Z,” leaving the listener with a “To be continued…” message at the conclusion of Ziltoid’s latest adventure.
In contrast to Z1, Z2 is decidedly a DTP album. Whereas Z1 highlighted Townsend’s uncertainties in the wake of breaking up Strapping Young Lad, Z2 exudes a confidence of an artist who has created his own genre of “pop metal” with DTP in the seven years since Z1, and has demonstrated an ability to write in a wide variety of musical styles.
At the same time, what’s missing from Z2 are the more introspective breaks from the absurdity of the storyline that were prevalent in Z1 in songs like “Hyperdrive” and “The Greys,” which are two of my favorite Devin Townsend jams ever. In fact, I feel like several of the songs on Sky Blue could have been folded into Dark Matters in this way (“Midnight Sun” in particular), but then again, it would have detracted from the “Rodgers & Hammerstein musical” quality which Townsend was clearly gunning for. While the Z1-era Devin Townsend might have felt as if he was a “puppet” of the industry as mentioned above, clearly Townsend is the one pulling the strings with Z2.
Overall, Dark Matters is a fitting follow up to one of the more interesting concept albums I’ve ever heard. It’s campy, it’s absurd, it’s fun, and it will be interesting to see how Townsend incorporates the Ziltoid character into different artistic mediums such as ZTV in the future.
The first disc on the album, Sky Blue, is essentially an amalgamation of DTP jams, which builds on the “pop metal” sound Townsend explored on the 2012 DTP album, Epicloud.
While the songs seem a bit disconnected from each other, I actually like the jams on Sky Blue better than Epicloud. For me, the first three tracks, “Rejoice,” “Fallout,” and “Midnight Sun,” are standouts on the album. Sky Blue also features that groovy, electronic dance influenced sound prevalent on some of Epicloud‘s jams like “Save Our Now.”
Devin and DTP really seem to be solidifying a sound with Sky Blue, and it’s an advancement in the progression of a cohesive DTP sound that features catchy songs and deft songwriting. On the whole, it’s something that I’d expect even non-metal fans can get on board with.
The TL;DR Summary
While Z2 is not exactly Townsend’s magnum opus, both Dark Matters and Sky Blue represent a significant step forward in the sense that the DTP sound is really coming into its own. Whereas the previous DTP outings since Z1 all seemed like explorations of somewhat independent musical ideas, the overall Z2 sonic experience incorporates elements of all of these albums into a cohesive whole.
My only qualm about Z2 is that the Dark Matters dialogue is a bit over the top at times, and I feel like the same vibe could have been conveyed without having a dialogue break every few minutes. That’s what the bonus CD is for, I suppose.
If you’re a Devin fanboy, then I don’t know why you’re even reading this—you’ve already bought the album anyway. Those of you who are unfamiliar with Townsend’s work might need a little more of an introduction to the idiosyncratic nature of Townsend’s post-Strapping Young Lad music before diving into Z2, but if you’re feeling particularly omniscient, I recommending pouring yourself some coffee and checking it out.
Z2 is out now. Get it here!