Friday Full-Length: Strapping Young Lad, Alien

At the risk of being Dude On The Internet With Opinions™, I’ll profess to having strong feelings about Strapping Young Lad‘s 2005 opus, Alien. Specifically, about the version of the song “Love?” that appears on the final record.

Sometime between when Century Media sent out the sleeve-promo CDs for review and when the album was actually released, both now 19 years ago, there was an edit made to “Love?” that took out just over a minute of runtime. What’s actually missing — and yes, it is very much missing — is a section of muted chugs, a turn back to a tremolo riff and an “Awww shit/Fuck it.” The playlist above has both versions — the longer one is tacked onto the end, along with the concurrent Melvins cover “Zodiac.”

And I acknowledge that if you’ve never heard the record before, or maybe didn’t hear the original version of “Love?” as part of the original 11-song/55-minute tracklisting coming out of “Shitstorm” and going into “Shine,” then maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’ll tell you honestly, I took the CD from the jewel case I eventually got and put it in the sleeve, and took the one from the promo and put that in the jewel case. That’s the album in my mind. The other “Love?” sounds butchered to my ears.

Having that association, and “Love?” as part of what I’ll put forward as one of metal’s most righteous opening salvos regardless of microgenre — the intro “Imperial” and “Skeksis” and “Shitstorm” merrily blasting away and running through a litany of power-declarations and complaints; to wit, the lyrics of “Shitstorm”: “And I don’t want to fight because I don’t know what’s WRONG or RIGHT/But I’ll do ANYTHING just to get some FUCKING sleep tonight/And I can’t even EAT/And I can’t even FUCKING PISS/All I’ve been doing is thinking about GOD and DEATH/Infinity” in founding guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist/producer/principle-songwriter Devin Townsend‘s trademark conversational-with-self style — all drawing up to the exhaled single word question, “love?” and the immediate snapback answer, “Children!”

And that’s where you find out what the purported shitstorm is really about. Having a baby. Underscoring all that initial tumult as Townsend, guitarist/backing vocalist Jed Simon, bassist Byron Stroud and megadrummer Gene Hoglan tore away at the fabric of the universe while dropping references to Jim Henson’s legit-terrifying-to-a-five-year-old 1986 film The Dark Crystal was insecurity about procreating, thinking about love and the power dynamics of relationships (“This love, it’s about control”), the direction of one’s life in the face of one of the most major changes one can make to it. Dude was scared having a kid would wreck is life.

Townsend‘s correspondingly brilliant solo follow-up, 2006’s Synchestra (discussed here), worked under a similar thematic and tied to Alien in its lyrics and music. The two are very much complements, but Strapping Young Lad were unto themselves in catharsis, and that’s audible in “Love?” (either version, admittedly) and the from-void screams of “Shine,” which follows and the gallop-thrash charge of “We Ride” strapping young lad alientrying to see the upside of life outside the band from within its cycles while a little bit making fun of Pantera in the solos, the way the wretched-but-funny shout at the start of “Possessions” becomes the opening line that unfolds seconds later into chugging impact and a build of tension as Townsend grapples lyrically, “Children and money and family and DEATH and TAXES and CAREER and PICKET FENCES…JUST GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!!/TAKE IT!!!/FUCK IT ALL!!!”

“Possessions” makes it even clearer early on, “”…And being HUMAN is FUCKED as it is./With all these questions of FAITH, and of…KIDS!!!/So what do you wanna do now baby???/Do you wanna have a fucking BABY?!” The answer that comes in the song is an immediate and emphatic negative. As I understand it, this is a traditionally masculine point of view — reproduction as subtracting from (your life) rather than adding to (your family) — but stereotyping it undercuts the honesty of expression throughout Alien, raw language used to convey raw feelings. Backed by a choir for its push-pull, ugh-pop hook, “Possessions” prefaces some of the more accessible turns SYL would make on their cobbled-together 2006 final LP, The New Black, but is a highlight in context as Alien plunges deeper into its second half, giving over to the acoustic-led Floydian escapism of “Two Weeks.”

Remember vacation? “What do you wanna do now, baby?/Should we take the day, maybe go to the beach?” The opening lines set the scene: easy breezy, no need to be anywhere and thus able to be everywhere. Compare it to “So what do you wanna do now, baby?” from the song before, and it’s clear there’s a different kind of life being represented here, at least in ideal. Freedom of movement and a claim to one’s own time. “Two Weeks” drifts and drones in preface to what the closing 12-minute experimentalist sample/synth excursion “Info Dump” will bring, but before the band gets there, “Thalamus” begins the culmination by returning — gradually, considering how prone the band was to plunge headfirst at this point — to the onslaught with its verse and more melodic chorus, releasing some if not all of the jaw-clench before moving into an almost operatic but still definitely metal procession and “Zen” finding its peace, such as it is, in Hoglan‘s endless double-kick and resolve, the line “Connect now and emerge” calling back to “We Ride” before it all comes to a head and gives over to “Info Dump” at the finish.

Toward the end of that extended drone piece, a machine static takes hold and is willfully abrasive — I guess after so much blowout, that’s what a blowout might sound like. I’ll admit I don’t always listen to “Info Dump” in its totality, but it’s usually a couple minutes before I realize I’m in it because Alien front-to-back leaves you so mesmerized and/or punchdrunk. As regards heavy metal, it’s one of the best records I’ve ever heard, and even before I had a kid, its tales of terror were vividly relatable. The better part of two decades later, they remain such.

I won’t attempt to summarize the varied directions of Devin Townsend‘s career since. You’re on the internet. You can look it up. But for me, while Strapping Young Lad‘s early-career industrial-metal-let’s-do-FearFactory-but-less-robots-and-more-personality take holds a special place, Alien is a pinnacle among several in Townsend‘s catalog. For something more recent, less aggro and perhaps working from a similarly over-the-top point of view, hit up his 2019 Empath album, though genius abounds in the discography, the label-needs-a-single “Love?” edit notwithstanding.

Either way, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Next week is Freak Valley Festival. Flight is booked for Wednesday, but I don’t know that I’m actually going to make it. My mother was scheduled to have knee surgery this week, had to postpone, now it’s slated for — you guessed it — this coming Wednesday. The Patient Mrs.’ take was, “You seem like you could use some time standing in a field with people you like.” She is correct, but what’s a boy to do.

That trip hangs pretty much in the balance of timing. If her surgery is early in the day, I can be there to support her and my sister and then go to the airport and embark on a few days that I very much consider as supporting myself. If it’s afternoon, which it was gonna be this week, less. But my mother is in her late 70s and getting her knee replaced has been years in the making and she’s finally willing to do it because basically she can’t walk anymore, so if it’s happening, I don’t have much choice. Certainly I’ve been that selfish in the past — what’s the point of being the youngest kid if you can’t? — but this is my mother, and she is both my only remaining parent and the only one I ever connected with on any human level.

It is… complicated.

Or maybe just sad.

This is a long weekend. The Pecan is off from school today (it’s coming on 7AM, she should be up momentarily), Monday and Tuesday for an extended Memorial Day giveback of snow days worked into the calendar apparently without need because it doesn’t snow here anymore. Definitely used to. The Patient Mrs. wants to go north to her mother’s place on the beach in Connecticut — The Cottage, we call it — and either tomorrow or Sunday she’ll take the kid and head up.

At her suggestion, I’ll stay home for another day, do as much of Monday and Tuesday’s writing as I can stand, and then likely spend the rest of that day in a stoned stupor playing the already-at-100-perecent-complete Tears of the Kingdom, slaughtering Lynels and picking mushrooms in pursuit of restorative boredom, loin-girding for following them north on Sunday or Monday, staying there I guess until Tuesday so we can all come home and be tired going into the shortened school week and the arrival of June with all of its what’s-that-black-dot-on-the-ceiling little jumpy spiders and emergent Northeastern humidity.

The dog needs a bath. The kid needs one more. I could use one myself. We’ve been extra-extra-broke this just-ended semester, and today’s payday, so Costco’s in the offing and maybe Job Lot if we can keep it together long enough to hit two stores. Big if.

As implied above, I’ve got stuff slated for Monday and Tuesday despite the long weekend here. There’s news to catch up on from being in the Quarterly Review, and premieres and all that throughout the week, regardless of my travel situation. Fuck I hope I get to go to that festival, but — and I know this won’t surprise you if you’ve ever spent more than five minutes on this site — I’m not optimistic about my chances.

Whatever you’re up to (or not), I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Watch your head, be safe, all that stuff. And thank you for reading, as always.


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One Response to “Friday Full-Length: Strapping Young Lad, Alien

  1. some other dude on the Internet with opinions says:

    “CITY” all day every day, brother! I don’t even remember “ALIEN”…nice write up, it was fun to revisit.

    Go to the festival, your Mom isn’t going anywhere, you will be seeing her a LOT in the future. She loves you, she’ll understand, man.

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