‘Strapping Young Lad’ shows why Devin Townsend is gifted

I’m sure most of you have talked about people who are gifted when it comes to music. The names people tend to think of first are usually Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven and Michael Jackson.

Why are they gifted?

Reasons vary, but for me, I like to think it’s that they can go beyond the mechanisms of writing words, composing the music and performing, and touch other human beings with a piece of themselves.

Someone, maybe a little less famous, I’d add to this list is Devin Townsend of several different projects, one of which, Strapping Young Lad, will be our focus today. Their 2003 self-titled album to be precise. 

Townsend, according to his punk project Punky Brüster is a self-described “middle class white Canadian guy.” That itself is enough to turn a lot of the music snobs, who claim to seek something “authentic” off. But, you know, eff them, nobody likes music snobs anyway.

Sure, Townsend may not come from poverty, a broken home or a violent youth, but he doesn’t need to. He pulls his connection to his listeners from somewhere else: His tumultuous battle with depression and substance abuse, which he has been very public about.

Strapping Young Lad might have been Devin Townsend’s music and words, but that piece of him that drove the fury and sense of sadness behind the music also touched a generation of other young people who felt this uncontrollable storm of emotion that they weren’t able to control.

SYL is no more, and that’s fine, if one embraces a dark path too long, it often consumes them. Townsend turned his life toward being a father and a husband and still produces great music. Unlike the days of SYL, though, we can feel like he’s going to be around quite a while longer — long enough for our kids to hear new music from him when they’re teenagers themselves.

No matter what happens with the rest of Townsend’s life, we will still be able to relive that music that touched that cord. The legacy of SYL is here to stay and heavy music is the better for it.

Despite what one would think with someone who had a reputation for being volatile, SYL’s lineup was solid throughout its existence. The band on Strapping Young Lad is the largely the same as its prior albums with Townsend on vocals, lead guitar and keyboard; Gene Hoglan on drums; Jed Simon on guitar and backing vocals and Byron Stroud, the only one who didn’t play on the first album, on bass and backing vocals.  

The album

After the slightly-over-a-minute intro, “Dire,” SYL kicks in its trademark intensity with “Consequence.” For those unfamiliar with SYL, “Consequence” may come as sort of a shock. After all, Townsend gives in to a roaring rage with his voice, backed up by fury with the rest of the band.

Of course, for those of us that know SYL, things only get kicked up with intensity with the second song, the aptly called “Relentless.” “Relentless” is a definite standout, with Townsend singing with the clear vocals that caught audiences’ attention when he hit the scene with Steve Vai.

Now, if you think you’re going to get a breather after the pummeling of the two songs, think again. Things kick up even further with “Rape Song,” a crushing number with vocals that sounds like Townsend is at the verge of ripping all the flesh off his throat.

Aftermath” is another standout that gives you a grinding groove throughout. It’s about as slow as you can get on an SYL album. Townsend gives a great and clear vocal performance in the middle of the song, which will give that listener that sort of “wow” feeling. At more than six minutes, it’s also the longest song on the album.

Last Minute” is another standout. Its rapid fire melody and bludgeoning verses make it one of the biggest sounding songs on the album. It uses keyboards as they should be used in heavy metal, not as a lead instrument, but an enhancement to the music that’s there. In this case, its the guitar’s melody.

The closer, “Bring on the Young” is another standout, starting with just bass, guitar and vocals. All of them are clear and the band is rather restrained, feeling like there’s something under the surface about to break through. When Hoglan kicks in, they still keep the slower pace, which is unusual for SYL, though, there are smatterings of some double bass throughout. In a way, I’m kind of reminded of the Scorpions song “Winds of Change” during sections of this song. Things build up to Townsend’s roars of “Bring on the Young” which lead to the climax of the song, a melody which will stay with you after the album ends.

The verdict

All in all, Strapping Young Lad is a good album. Now, the other tracks that I didn’t list as standouts aren’t bad songs, they just didn’t speak to me like the ones I selected.

Would I recommend Strapping Young Lad? A definite “yes” for metal fans, especially those that like Townsend’s work. It’s also good for casual metal fans who are looking to expand their boundaries.

For others, it may be a bit too much.  

Like many other metal albums with gifted musicians, it Strapping Young Lad strays form the easy to swallow verse-chorus-verse-chorus songwriting and challenges the listener. For those who like instant gratification, they just won’t get it.

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