Artist: Devin Townsend Project
Album: Sky Blue & Dark Matters (Z2)
Label: Inside Out Music
There are few albums that I can say I actually “listened the shit out of,” but Devin Townsend‘s epic 2-disc dual album, Z2, is definitely one of them. This was by far one of my favorite albums of 2014.
So for starters, there was some controversy over the quality of the Sky Blue half of the album. Dev has mentioned a few times that the label didn’t think Dark Matters was marketable on its own, so they asked him for another Epicloud to go with it. That would be Sky Blue. Okay, Mr. Townsend is never at his prime when he’s not working on his own agenda, so some people think that Sky Blue was just his best effort to do what they asked so he could release the album he actually wanted to release. As a result, it seems the fans either think Sky Blue was no good, or that he actually succeeded in spite of this. I’m one of the latter.
[This review has been backdated from 2016]
Listen with me, won’t you?
To get started with Sky Blue, first off, I dig the album art. I love the pale colors and the somewhat watercolor-y image is lovely, perfectly reflecting the album’s title, concept, and feel. “Rejoice” is a perfect starting track and Anneke van Giersbergen is once again at her best collaborating with Townsend. This track blends perfectly into “Fallout,” which is one of my favorite songs of 2014. There’s a few versions of it floating around, one with mainly van Giersbergen singing, one with Townsend mainly singing, and I think they’re all really great. Everything about that song, from the lyrics, vocals, instruments – everything – is perfect. These first two tracks are awesome openers with great energy and I give them both full scores.
“Midnight Sun” is a bit of a hiatus, as a pretty decent but slower track that’s also less eye-catching. It’s also at this point that I begin appreciating Townsend’s ability to blend tracks together. They move so smoothly it’s almost hard to tell where one song ends and another begins. I totally dig the echo-y sound of Townsend’s vocals in this too. Also, the concept of midnight sun is a bit of a thing in Finland (midsummer!) so there’s another reason to appreciate this song, even if it’s only a 4-star track. “A New Reign” is next, which is quite similar in quality to “Midnight Sun,” staying in the ‘strong and ambient’ category but not in the ‘stand-out’ category. It’s a nice song with nice lyrics, but doesn’t do much to grip you or intrigue you to listen to it outside the context of a full-album listen-through.
“Universal Flame,” however, is another 5-star track, which gets me hyped up every time I hear it. This is a feeling that is apparently shared with Townsend’s son, Rainer, as I believe the reason it got played at the Royal Albert in London was because Townsend the Young requested it as his favorite song. I can’t blame him. There’s a few more Dev screams and the harmonizing and vocal trade-offs with van Giersbergen are top-notch! Townsend occasionally has the vocals turned down to the instrument level, like in the former two songs, and this is one of the ones where the vocals are foregrounded to their full potential. “Warrior” often sounds to me a bit like a spiritual follow-up (as well as literal) to “Universal Flame,” as it mirrors the latter in style and flow a bit, though admittedly isn’t as good. At this point, the album seems a bit divided into what seem like inspired songs and easy-going filler to carry the vibe along, of which “Warrior” is the latter.
The next up is the title track, which is another full-score track from this album for me. I love the lyrics in this song. There’s a lot going on and it’s beautiful, and while on the surface it seems like a more relaxed song, it’s actually very strong on all fronts and not that slow. It’s also another reason why I think Townsend and van Giersbergen were made to sing together. The choruses of darker lyrics from Townsend and lighter follow-ups from van Giersbergen are perfect. It builds up just so nicely too as it reaches the end, then again smoothly transitioning into “Silent Militia,” I’ve never quite been able to decide if this is a 4- or 5-star song. I like the guitar work in the beginning, I like the singing, I like the tempo, and I like Dev’s screaming. The chorus is fun and catchy. However, it’s still not quite up to snuff with the other good songs. Maybe 4½/5 will have to satisfy me for this one.
“Rain City” is the true slow song on the album. It’s pretty, a bit like a light summer rain in atmosphere, and I often wonder if the lyrics relate simply to being an actively good person. It smoothly transitions into “Forever”, which is a nice, soft, but unremarkable song. The epic finale is “Before We Die”, which manages to be both powerful and rather chill at the same time, through some Townsend-related magic. I like the almost-chanting at the beginning and the energy, as well as the choirs, which I often find off-putting. I find this song feels quite good with “Rain City” and “Forever” as a kind of trio, which may or may not include the last song on the album. Also, nice little solo at the end, though it could’ve maybe been a little longer.
The album is concluded by the questionably necessary cool-down track, “The Ones Who Love”, which, frankly, is not a necessary conclusion. It certainly works, but you can stop the album with “Before We Die” and miss out on nothing. The song seems to be about death or mourning, but with an overall positive message. In fact, I’d be inclined to refer to this as an outro track rather than a song in and of itself. Still, a decent way to end things.
3. Midnight Sun
4. A New Reign
5. Universal Flame
7. Sky Blue
8. Silent Militia
9. Rain City
11. Before We Die
12. The Ones Who Love
All right, now that we’ve dealt with Sky Blue, we’ve still got one album to go! It’s time for what you probably actually came here for: Dark Matters. First of all – niiiiice, on the album title. Very clever. Also, again, I’m a big fan of the artwork and the update in Ziltoid image quality.
I enjoy the upbeat, pleasant eeriness of the intro, “Z2“, as well as the ominousness of the narrator’s voice. I’m not sure I get the choir’s lyrics here, but it is certainly intriguing and they do a nice job of it. The addition of Ziltoid saying, “INDEED,” is also thrilling nearly every time you hear it, just because it somehow gets you really excited for what is to come. This is where Captain Spectacular has his introduction as well. Also, thanks to the story part of the album, I’ve always thought the point where this song ends and “From Sleep Awake” begins is a little strange. One might argue that they don’t really even need to be separated into two songs. It feels honestly like the music in “Z2” never actually ended and starts up again a few seconds into “From Sleep Awake.” The two work best as a unit, with or without the story, I feel, and one point of credit to Ziltoid #2 is that the story is far more coherent, right from the beginning.
The story really gets going when “Ziltoidian Empire” begins, as it’s the initial incident where the listener finds out that Ziltoid has taken a Poozer from Planet Titan, which them promptly escapes. The Ziltoidian collective wants to see it, but alas! Before I get into the further story at the beginning of “War Princess,” it’s worth mentioning that without the narration, this is the first song on my list of tracks off this album that I refer to as ‘instrumental bonanzas of weird’ without the narration.
So the story continues and the Poozer tells the War Princess that Ziltoid has come to earth for the sake of coffee, and she rallies her troops for an invasion. “War Princess” is definitely one of the highlights of the album, with Dominique Lenore Persi as the War Princess absolutely fucking destroying her part. I often wonder why Townsend collaborates with other vocalists than van Giersbergen because they make such magic together, but shi-at! Okay, I need to give more people a chance, because this lady is wicked! The song perhaps borders on being a tad too long (not an uncommon issue for Townsend, time to time), as it can get a bit repetitive if you listen to it a lot. Regardless, it’s still one of the best songs on the album!
Following this is “Intergalactic Deathray”, which took a while to grow on me. Part of me wishes it was called “Poozonian Overlords,” but with them name of the next track I understand why it’s called what it is. Another +5 points for Ziltoid’s use of the word ‘fetid’ again as well. I don’t this is a five-star song, but it’s got a lot of that nice screamy hevy-Devy sound and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. It’s maybe a bit of a ‘radio hit’ type of song, which might be why it took me a while to get used to it, but ultimately I like its energy, particularly in the chorus with the build-up in, “No returns, no answers, everybody pays! Show me your own resource, intergalactic deathray!” Thematically, it covers the preliminary assault by the War Princess and the Poozers on earth, which ultimately turns people into… more Poozers? I wonder why they call it a ‘deathray’ then…
I’m not really sure how to get into my thoughts on this next track. “March of the Poozers” might be my actual favorite song from 2014, which has everything in the world I could ever want from a Dev song: marching beat, wicked vocals, heavy sound, makes me want to jump around like an idiot, that “ah-ah-ah” chanting stuff, amazing interlude by Persi, fun lyrics, and overall epicness as a combined result of it all! It was my immediately favorite song on the album from the first moment I heard it, and has stayed in that spot across many, many listens. I give this song 10/5 stars, if such a thing is possible.
“Wandering Eye” is a bit of a strange song to follow it up. I like the spacey sci-fi futuristic sound that goes through this song, though without the story aspects, not a lot is going on. A bit of props though because the music in this song reminds me of the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and I love that game. Also, Herman gets his first mention here! Gotta love The Planet Smasher. This is also the second song that turns into a very bizarre nearly-instrumental track without narration. Second question: what is the wandering eye anyways?
Regarding Herman, “Earth” is the big build-up to him coming down from, what I am presuming is Ziltoid’s ship hiding behind the moon (unless those three videos Townsend released (below) aren’t album-canon), which is pretty fun, especially when you learn that Herman is the cutest little thing ever, but again the song is pretty weird (and really long and repetitive) without the narration and dialogue.
“Ziltoid Goes Home” is a strangely-named song. Where is ‘home’ for Ziltoid and why exactly is he getting there at this point in the story? As well, the lyrics are very strange in this setting, dealing with love and whatnot, making this overall a rather strange track. This song fits in with the album as a whole musically and certainly keeps the story going, but doesn’t do much to stand out on its own. It might again be due to the quietness of the vocals. The story picks up in “Through the Wormhole” though, giving us some goofy background story and tragedy, as we learn that Captain Spectacular is Ziltoid’s half brother who holds the ultimate coffee bean, but then gets murdered by the War Princess. We also learn (if you didn’t learn it on the original Ziltoid album) that Herman reeeeally hates musicals.
The conclusion to this album, “Dimension Z”, works perfectly. The choir again makes a cool song into a powerful outro, doubled by the fact that they are singing hopefully in a “celebratory, blissful” manner, as the narrator puts it. And then, naturally, it closes out with Ziltoid waking up on a desolate moon with nothing but Blattaria and a single bag of coffee. To be continued, we hope!
2. From Sleep Awake
3. Ziltoidian Empire
4. War Princess
5. Intergalactic Deathray
6. March of the Poozers
7. Wandering Eye
9. Ziltoid Goes Home
10. Through the Wormhole
11. Dimension Z
So, that’s it for Sky Blue and Dark Matters! They’re very different albums but both certainly have their place. Townsend is peculiar in that many of his albums appeal to different styles of people. I have hardcore SYL fans who hate Addicted while more moderate fans love the album. Opinions tend to be a bit divided on Sky Blue but I would consider the album a success as a whole, as it seems to be comprised of about 50% great tracks and 50% perfectly decent filler. Dark Matters, on the other hand, seems to appeal to the goofier Townsend fans. I particularly love the radio adventure story style that the narration is done in, and even if the songs don’t necessarily work well on their on without the story (thus making it hard to pick a few songs off this album to listen to out of context), as a whole it’s a funny, light-hearted story about war and coffee and double-crossing, which ultimately makes for an excellent listen.
Rating: 9.5/10, 5 stars.
Text: Amy Wiseman