Devin Townsend Project
27th October 2014 – HevyDevy
03. Midnight Sun
04. A New Reign
05. Universal Flame
07. Sky Blue
08. Silent Militia
09. Rain City
11. Before We Die
12. The Ones Who Love
Sky Blue, the first disc on the Z² record – yet ostensibly its own album – finds Devin Townsend in an odd position. Disc one, as it stands, was done more or less as a dare from Devin’s record label. A “could you do it?” task, seemingly to give all fans of Devin something to latch onto.
You see, those who love Devin’s back catalog, and his heavier material in particular, might be more likely to cling onto Dark Matters - the package’s second disc, the ‘Ziltoid side’, and the record’s true namesake – but on the other hand, people who have just recently began to enjoy his material might find the more electro-pop based rock songs on Sky Blue more tantalizing, as it sits closer in line with the pop-metal that Devin has most recently put out on records such as Epicloud. It is a nice sentiment, and definitely not something completely unexpected, as most of Devin’s output tends to line up in a double album style; whether it’s a regular CD with a full bonus disc of extras, or releasing two albums under different band names as he did when working as The Devin Townsend Band and Strapping Young Lad. However, Sky Blue, and its placement in the greater Z² album, feels a bit off.
The album begins with the eastern influenced “Rejoice“, which starts out with what sounds like a synthesized sitar, playing out a very wonky eastern melody, backed by high-pitched, and layered backing vocal harmonies. It only lasts about half a minute (luckily it does come back and dominate the chorus sections of the song) before the melody is over-taken by the efforts of the full Devin Townsend Project band, pumping out pretty straight forward heavy metal music, with Devin belting out his vocals with his familiar scratchy scream, which is yet again in contrast with the returning Anneke van Giersbergen. Following this is the the bombastic “Fallout“; a rockingly heavy song that feels like classic Townsend, albeit with a little less ambience and a bit more pomp and flair.
These two opening tracks hold very little back, and throw the listener right into the thick of things – something that a Townsend album hasn’t done in a long time. They give you something to latch onto before the album steers itself into softer, more melancholy waters. Unfortunately, that’s when the album gets weird.
The introduction of heavier, synthpop-influenced ambient sounds amidst slower, softer songs has produced tracks akin to what was heard on the more mellow moments from Epicloud, and the less inspired moments from Ghost. Sometimes these are interwoven with well-written songs like “Universal Flame“, where they take a backseat and guide the melodies and act as a nice little padding without adding or subtracting much from the composition. In the case of the phenomenal title track, they act as their own component, sandwiching the middle, more rock-oriented sections, creating a beautiful juxtaposition that listeners will be going back to time and time again. The addition of these elements with the heavier sounds heightens the already well written songs, and lends itself wonderfully to the anthemic and bombastic nature of Townsend’s music and creates an uplifting, if somewhat somber vibe.
Unfortunately when the electronic or softer ambient sounds take center stage, like on “Rain City“ or “Midnight Sun“, the album loses a bit of its charm. “Rain City” in particular, sitting at nearly ten minutes in length, and seeming like the would be climax of the album, feels like a missed opportunity. It plods along its run time with a very forgettable guitar riff under a mix of ambient electronic sounds, trying to evoke a sense of melancholy peacefulness like that of many Townsend songs, yet it never really goes anywhere new or exciting. It does ramp up towards the middle section, teasing the listener until it eventually falls back into the same pace and rhythm in which it started out.
Similar things can be said of a few other tracks, like “Forever” and “A New Reign“. The individual sounds that make up these songs are enjoyable, and Townsend’s continued experimentation with electro-pop sounds, especially on his vocals, are a shocking delight, but the overall package leaves the listening wanting.
The other big downside is that album closer “The Ones Who Love” completely dismantles what would have been an otherwise beautiful and natural end point for the album. Track eleven, “Before We Die“, is an almost perfect Townsend song, evoking all of the best aspects of modern Devin Townsend: big, vibrant riffs and drum fills explode amongst the full brunt of The Universal Choir – the crowd sourced addition to the album – with Anneke and Devin trading off delicate vocals in an almost hypnotic fashion, before Townsend leads into the chorus, an impossibly catchy hook yet again backed by the Universal Choir, with the occasional flair of guitar wankery from Devin, including a tasteful yet painfully short solo. Soft ambient keyboards filter in and out of key parts of the song, before Townsend and the choir quietly fade away, with Anneke gently putting the song to bed, as a buzz of feedback and ambience fades outward for the last two minutes. A perfect ending to a rocky album…
…and then “The Ones Who Love” picks up for what amounts to nothing. Hazy vocals from Townsend and Anneke amidst some forgettable ambience. It feels tacked on, pointless and just ruins the drive and emotion found in the previous song.
When all is said and done, Sky Blue is enjoyable. It has a lot of positives, and some truly amazing stand-out tracks. And while some of them rival, and ultimately outshine a few of the best moments found on sister albums Addicted and Epicloud, the overall experience is a little less cohesive and direct. There’s no clear point for the album, and its highs are matched almost equally with its lows, and some of the new ideas tend to feel like less entertaining, and less thought out versions of previous ideas. As a bonus disc to the Ziltoid sequel, it’s worth the listen, but its placement as the first disc on the record puts a bigger spotlight on it, and a higher standard of output is required. Regrettably, it doesn’t quite rise to the occasion.