originally written by Chris McDonald
Between Strapping Young Lad, his own solo albums, and The Devin Townsend Band, Devin Townsend has released a lot of really great music of all shapes and sizes over the years, with SYL’s landmark City and his first solo outing, Ocean Machine-Biomech, being two of my all-time favorite albums. But amidst Townsend’s brilliant and prolific output there have definitely been a couple of duds; last year’s Strapping release The New Black in particular stood out as a contrived and shallow album clearly well below the abilities of Devin and those involved.
Well guys, I hate to say it, but the word “dud” is exactly what comes to mind when I think of Ziltoid The Omniscient. While I’m glad to see that Devin is making music that brings him personal enjoyment again (as opposed to the Ozzfest-pressured rush job that was The New Black), Ziltoid is simply a mediocre album musically and only mildly (and briefly) entertaining as a concept and story.
For those who haven’t heard, this album is a concept album telling the story of an alien named Ziltoid, who travels to Earth in search of the ultimate cup of coffee. The album’s tracks are interspersed with spoken word interludes of Devin playing the various characters to move the plot, and while these can be mildly amusing they can also be kind of irritating, particularly when you have to wait through a long narrative before the actual song even starts properly, such as in “Planet Smasher.” I realize that Townsend was going for a musical theater-type vibe here, but I honestly think that the album would have been better had the story been relegated to the lyrics only, with maybe one or two skit-type tracks to flesh it out. As for the story itself, it rarely enhances or matches the mood of the music and is often confusing, with new characters and events seemingly introduced at random (who the hell is Captain Spectacular?) and with little regard for cohesion or narrative flow. I know this might sound like unreasonable criticism; this is an album after all, not a book. But with all the emphasis that has been placed on the conceptual element of this release, one expects something more interesting and less distracting that what is offered here.
Despite my problems with the presentation of the album’s story, I honestly wouldn’t have cared had the music side of things been up to snuff. But alas, this is the area where Ziltoid truly disappoints. The majority of the material here comes off as aimless, cut-and-paste fluff severely lacking in the spirited and memorable Devin style that has made the man’s previous discography so amazing and unique. Sound wise, this could be considered a blend of The Devin Townsend Band and Strapping Young Lad, but much like The New Black, Ziltoid lacks the primal energy of SYL and much of the catchy melodic drive of DTB and ends up stuck somewhere in the middle with the lesser aspects of both bands. A lot of the instrumentation, while skillfully played, gets muddled and trips over itself at times, resulting in convoluted and wanky passages that sound forced and are forgotten as soon as they end. There’s a lot of filler here, and tracks that were obviously meant to be the main pillars of the album, such as “By Your Command” and “Solar Winds” simply meander along in a fragmented manner and always lose me halfway through. “Color Your World” gets off to a great, energetic start (with an Ocean Machine quote, I might add) but then quickly loses itself in its unconvincing melodic passages and bloated track length, while the final (musical) track “The Greys” floats on by with almost no real substance and closes things on a feeble note.
The album isn’t a complete waste by any means, as pretty much every track has at least a couple of good moments amidst all the fluff. While some enjoyable heavy riffing surfaces in songs like “N9,” a number of the album’s best segments come when things quiet down and Devin’s sublime clean singing and trademark spacey guitar leads come into the mix, or when all the off-the wall instrumentation is toned down to a more reasonable and digestible level that gives the compositions some room to breathe; “Hyperdrive” in particular is a catchy, melodic rocker that brings the best moments of Accelerated Evolution to mind, and the closing chorus of “Planet Smasher” is a classic Devin moment. Production is great as always and while Townsend programmed the drums on this one, he doesn’t overdo it to the point where you are constantly aware that the drumming is computerized (though there are a couple of unrealistic moments). But for every enjoyable segment on Ziltoid, there are two or three more that are boring, overblown, and just plain forgettable. Ultimately, it sounds as though Devin was trying to accomplish too much at once here. What should have been a fun little project ends up being overly long and too jam-packed full of different elements, both music and story related, that just don’t work well together.
I confess that I am quite confused regarding Devin Townsend’s thought processes as of late. He has stated in interviews that the entire creation of this album, from conception to the finished product, took only a couple of months, and it really shows in a bad way. I find it very strange that someone who recently broke up both of his flagship projects because he was “burnt-out” would then turn around and crank out a whole new full-length album in such a short amount of time, and only a few months after the completion of his last solo project, the ambient work Hummer (which was excellent by the way). Why not take a year or so, relax, and really create something substantial and memorable at a more reasonable pace? I’ve been a Devin fanboy for years, but between this album and The New Black, I’m beginning to worry that the man may be running himself dry. Hopefully his next solo outing will be more fully-realized and worthy of the legendary reputation this guy has earned for himself. As for now, you can safely pass Ziltoid The Omniscient by.