To say Strapping Young Lad is intense is like calling a Maui sunset “pretty.” The description may be correct, but it doesn’t even begin to cover the details. Not by a long shot.
The band’s sixth release, The New Black [Century Media], shows that SYL is still a few million light years away from mellowing out. The new album is a frenzy of over-the-top, in-your-face musical rage that celebrates uber-metal clichés while simultaneously clawing far beyond them.
The brainchild of Canadian vocalist and guitarist Devin Townsend—who first gained public attention as the vocalist for Steve Vai’s Sex And Religion album and tour—SYL blew open the industrial-metal genre with 1995’s Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing. Townsend played most of the instruments on the band’s debut, but a more collaborative lineup was established for 1997’s City—a release many metal fans consider to be one of the heaviest albums ever recorded.
But while SYL can rightly claim “innovator” stature for its extremely aggressive, polyrhythmic keyboard-driven metal, the band has not rested on its reputation, or mired itself into a stylistic mud bath. The New Black, for example, ricochets between genres—even launching some jazz- and classic-rock-like moments—with depth and intelligence, courtesy of the punishing, melodic, and textural guitarcraft of Townsend and co-guitarist Jed Simon.
Your albums are so brutal and dense.
Townsend: This is actually some of the most listener-friendly, least complicated material I’ve ever done! Alien, for example, was an impenetrable mass of technicality. The New Black is a record that works for the Ozzfest crowd, but it’s as caustic as we’ve always been. It’s ugly, but it’s fun.
So what’s up with the clever, but extremely sarcastic lyrics?
Townsend: On the surface, I wanted The New Black to sound like a big rock and roll party, but, thematically, it’s about how banal and stupid the whole thing is. I love music, but there’s no glamour or mystery to the music business.
I’m curious as to what kinds of experiences forged your ability to produce such a creative, unique, and uncompromising sound?
Townsend: [Laughs] I’m a nerd! I mean it—everything I do is drawn from a musically geeky background. I started playing when I was four years old, and I devoured every single music opportunity my schools offered—vocal training, choir, guitar, tuba, jazz combo, honor band, and so on. To this day, I still love to listen to Broadway musicals like Paint Your Wagon, Phantom of The Opera, and West Side Story. I didn’t get into heavy music until later. The change came about when I saw a Judas Priest video, and realized how revolted my parents were. I also learned a lot about audio production, touring, and what I wanted—and didn’t want—in my music from working with Steve Vai when I was 19.
What about your influences, Jed?
Simon: My inspiration is from the ’70s. Aerosmith and Cheap Trick were huge for me, and Kiss’ Alive! changed my life. Then I discovered Exodus, and how they just kept getting heavier with each record. My industrial-music insights are from being a member of Front Line Assembly. I enjoy musical aggression. I’m an amalgamation of styles, but I also believe in keeping music simple. Tom Petty is my hero in that regard.
It’s important to note that I was originally a drummer, and drums are still my favorite instrument. I think it’s helpful to hear things from a percussive perspective, and this is why I really appreciate good rhythm-guitar playing.
Given that Devin is the band’s visionary—and he is definitely capable of doing an album by himself—what role does collaboration play in SYL?
Simon: There’s a fair amount of give and take. For example, I’ll sit at home, compose my 30-second masterpieces, and then subject my work to the band’s musical “HEPA” filter. Devin is the main guy, but, in the studio, we do get to show our personalities, and I think our musical ideas blend really well.
Townsend: I am a control freak, so I’ll typically show the band songs that are almost complete. The members can build some parts on their own, but I have a lot of ideas of how I want things to be.
What gear do you use to get such a huge sound?
Townsend: I’m playing a custom ESP Horizon 7-string baritone. It has a mahogany body and neck, a maple top, and EMG-81 pickups. My amp is a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier loaded with EL34 tubes. I tune down pretty low—my lowest string is tuned to G, and then it’s fifths all the way up. I use big, 0.72-gauge pizza-slice-style InTune picks, because I love having a lot of pick under my fingers.
Simon: The Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier with EL34s is absolutely the core of my sound. My guitar is a custom ESP V-shaped 6-string with EMG-81s. I love wah pedals, and I’ve been using a Silver Machine Automagic Wah, because it has such a huge sweep. I also have a Rocktron delay pedal, and I use the large triangle Dunlop picks. As far as tunings go, I’m all over the map.
As aggressive as you are musically, is there any band that strikes fear into your heart?
Townsend: I’m really a very calm person! I’ll even listen to various music-for-meditation CDs, ambient bands like Zoviet France, and dance-pop acts such as Denmark’s Aqua. But, in our world, I’d have to admit that Meshuggah is the best metal band on the planet. They are so profoundly good it’s depressing.
Any indication what the next evolution of SYL might be?
Simon: At 42, I’m the grandpa of the band, and I’m set in my ways. I want to get back to my roots—old thrash metal with no keyboards.
Townsend: In the past, anything from the Young Gods and Sigur Rós to Stravinsky and Mozart would be a big influence on my sound. But now, I’m finding myself going back to players like David Gilmour who say so much with just one note. So far, though, I’m just taking some time off. I put my guitar in the closet after I got home from Ozzfest, and I’m not going to pick it up again until I have a renewed lust for it—and a whole new set of influences. Who knows? Maybe nature will inspire me. After all, it’s the ultimate technology.