Are you listening?

The impact of music on a life defies logical explanation. Tightened canvas and plucked wire coil happenstance into memory, its outsized fingerprints smudged forever on that crystal of perspective. A recent reunion with friends and acquaintances disinterred the casket of a life left behind, unsettling all of the regrets and flounderings of an angry young man. With that pain comes Strapping Young Lad‘s City. The authenticity and aggression; the frothing pace; the ramblings of an unhinged mind; Devin Townsend’s finest work lifted my spirits during my darkest days. Even now, I know no purer form of mental bloodletting than Heavy Devy’s scream-alongs and Gene Hoglan’s trampling double bass.

When City first stomped along in 1997, it certainly was not heralded upon high. My own brief but still vivid introduction to SYL ends with a remark to my roommate that I had no idea where this band had been my whole life. It was love at first listen. I had spent years awash in murder worship and sacrilege, scouring the ruins of burned churches and napalmed battlefields for an outlet for the turmoil of youth. City so directly translates inner tumult into cathartic noise that these forty minutes were all a growing boy needed. I suspect a young Devin Townsend knew a little something about the release hidden in his music. The foibles of his nascent career demanded it.

So here’s all my hopes and aspirations, nothing but puke.

“Before SYL, Devin Townsend was perhaps best known as the ex-vocalist for Steve Vai‘s band, performing on his ill-fated 1993 Sex & Religion album. Realizing that he was not suited for frontman sex symbol status, Townsend left the Vai band and, after a short stint with The Wildhearts, began recording demos of his own. Eventually, some of these demos saw release as Strapping Young Lad‘s 1995 debut, the somewhat undercooked and very Fear Factory-influenced Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing. This album did not exactly light up the charts, and Townsend soon found himself working in Century Media’s mail room while crashing on a friend’s couch in L.A. It was during this time that he would compose both City and his debut solo album Ocean Machine: Biomech.

Meanwhile, the late 90’s found metal in a transitional phase, reeling from the explosions of two new subgenres: industrial and black metal. While never sounding like either one of those, City certainly takes cues from both. The atmospheric keyboards are similar to what Emperor was doing at the time, while some of the harsher production choices recall Front Line Assembly or even Nine Inch Nails. City also features ideas that would become Townsend trademarks, such as open guitar tunings and writing songs in major keys (an approach not common in metal). Heavy Thing explored some of this previously, but City brings it all together to create a sound that is unique to Townsend and SYL.

Though certain aspects of the mix have not aged well, the treatment of the keyboards and especially vocals proved incredibly influential, and spawned many imitators in the early-00’s metal scene. It’s crazy to think that City‘s mix job – probably a quick, low-budget affair – created the sound of an entire generation of metal, and led to Townsend’s (brief) second career as producer of bands like Lamb of God and Darkest Hour.” – Dr. Fisting

Hating, burning, waiting, falling.

In my mind, City exists outside of music at large, freed from extraneous list-making and ratings debates. This album serves a purpose. The lunatic ravings of “Oh My Fucking God,” the vulnerability of “Detox” and the pitilessness of “AAA” are meant to bridge the twelve-inch infinite between heart and brain. Loony bin ramblings stride proudly through the halls of City, filled with invective and insight. The faux tough guy bullshit we lament nowadays? The Five Finger Death Punches of the world? SYL topped all of their machismo, from pierced septum to shriveled scrotum, in 25 seconds of “Home Nucleonics.” Devy, broke in a dirty way, would break a pair of pencils off in their eyes before shoving the remainders up his own nostrils and barking like a walrus. In City, SYL records a straitjacket fantasy. They testify to their own – and humanity’s – potential for permanent derailment. What separates City from countless pretenders is that, by the end of the ride, you feel like you might be going a little mad too.

“Boom, boom” is the beating that I hear in the night, but no one hears, so no one knows, and…

“The subject of gateway albums often crops-up in metal circles, as we try to identify the albums that bridged the gap between more palatable, mainstream-aligned tastes and the dark and challenging realms of extreme metal. While my own experiences weren’t necessarily defined by just one album, Strapping Young Lad‘s phenomenal sophomore album City was a hugely influential release in my formative metal years. I consider the album a quintessential stepping stone in my own metal evolution. By its release, drummer extraordinaire Gene Hoglan had already risen to impressive heights hammering the skins on high-caliber albums from Death and Dark Angel, adding a crucial human element to the complex, mechanized, percussive assault that defines the record. The songs on City were imbued with a weird accessibility, melodic counterpoint and catchiness belying the more extreme and challenging nature of the album. Devin’s quirky, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor pierced the album’s tough exterior with rays of electric light. It is this element of fun that makes City such a blast to listen to.

In the end, it was an elusive, undefinable element to City‘s stylistic construction that set it apart from the masses and confirmed madcap leader Devin Townsend as one of modern metal’s most compelling composers and eccentric personalities. Incorporating elements of industrial, thrash, death, and even hints of black metal, Townsend’s unique and experimental songwriting abilities and maniacal vocals, combined with a mix of paranoia, emotion, unhinged lunacy, humor and hatred, created an intoxicating listening experience unlike anything else in the metal universe.” – L. Saunders

I’m sick of lying. I’m sick of trying. I’m tired of waiting for fucking nothing.

From the start, City clearly had an aura around it. While later albums adequately serviced the industrial thrash mold, they felt lacking, always in search of that final drop of potency. Perhaps cleaner productions scrapped off too much grit; perhaps the near-immediate hiatus that followed City‘s release kneecapped their momentum; perhaps Townsend’s other projects siphoned off too much of his incalculable influence. I suspect, however, that this special feeling cannot be explained by a simple time-and-place rationale. Though I would not discover the album until it was nearly a decade old, my relationship with City aligns with the takes of my fellow writers. City has withstood the deluge of music that has come to define our lives.

If this is all there is, if this is it, won’t someone tell me?

“Like the discovery that typing “58008” on a calculator and turning it upside-down spells “BOOBS,” we’ve all experienced a profound, epoch-defining moment at some point in our lives. Mine was in early 1997, when an impromptu visit to a record store upended my understanding of what music represented and how a single album could shake one to their very core. Strapping Young Lad‘s debut was wryly titled Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing, but it is in City where light dies and atoms collapse. Soon after purchasing the album, I forced it upon my fellow metalheads, hoping to convert them to my cause. By the time “Underneath the Waves” breached their shore, the CD was shoved back in my hands with the solemn declaration that it was “too heavy” for their tastes. Too heavy… a quaint notion, but no other album in the intervening years has drawn such a response from the mouths of veterans.

It’s hard to put into words what I experienced that day. All I know is that when Devin screamed “I will never be afraid,” something fundamentally changed inside of me. City filled a void I didn’t know I had, offering enlightenment through taut riffs, inhuman percussion and Devin’s transcendent wails. I knew in that moment that metal would never be the same, that when it came to expulsions of anger and frustration City would be the standard all albums would be measured against. City stands eternal, its paint unchipped, its steel untarnished, a monolith of grinding gears that will spit fire until our sun perishes. For that, I will be forever grateful.” – Treble Yell

“In my eyes, City is the ultimate gateway metal album and perhaps the finest hour in Devin Townsend’s stellar career. In the 20 years since it first graced our ears, it still sounds as fresh and exhilarating as it did upon release.” – L. Saunders

For me, City stands alone – not as something so neatly defined as a personal favorite, but as something more, a record built to enrage and delight, to transport the mind and embolden the soul and, if asked, to help a lonely kid on a train find his way.

Are you?


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  • Wes Allen

    Back when Devin Townsend had hair, albeit not much.

  • AlphaBetaFoxface

    Y’all might find it funny to know that SYL-era Devin is typically the first thing to come up if you image search “bald dreads”. I’ve tried this on a few devices in two different continents and the results have been the same.

    http://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1694c47eb673c830d05039f23996612bcb0cd4f7b830ff231f99605e0fa03698.jpg

    • Diego Molero

      Why would you do such thing?

      • welyyt

        Why wouldn’t you?

      • Strapping Old Fart

        … on two different continents? Some serious dedication at any rate.

    • DIMENSIONAL BLEEDTHROUGH

      Haha and Travolta in Battlefield Earth is way up there too. Awesome.

    • hubcapiv

      Seems fair. My introduction to SYL was seeing a video on Headbanger’s Ball with a hugeous great fat man on drums and a glorious balding eagle on guitar and vocals.

      And I thought, “this is quite a thing, is what this is.”

      • Constantijn Blondel

        ‘glorious balding eagle’ <3 :D

    • GardensTale

      Many men rocked the skullet. None rocked it like Devy.

  • Planex

    IIIIIIIIVE GOT A FEEEEEEEELIIING

    This album changed my life, I hold it as close to my heart as I possibly can. The range of emotions and messages buried beneath all the FUCK YOU and car-crash-esque instrumental moments astounds me with each listen. After highschool I started college but was getting very stressed and depressed. Strapping Young Lad got me through my first year of college, with probably 2 full listens per day minimum. City is nothing short of a complete masterpiece.

  • Planex

    Oh yeah and give the only true SYL follow up album Alien a try. I don’t think it tops City, but Alien somehow manages to be just as, if not more, compositionally dense as City. Devin has said it’s one of the albums he is the most proud of.

    • Agreed. I listen to Alien a lot more than City these days.

      I think Devin Townsend Band’s Deconstruction is also a good listen if you wished that SYL were still producing records. I like to think he made that album for all the fans begging for more of the ol’ crazy stuff…

      • Planex

        Deconstruction is fantastic, even if it is slightly flawed and gets a little too silly near the end. It took me a long time to really enjoy it, but it’s been my favorite album of the Devin Townsend Project.

        • Yeah, took me ages too. I was only six months after it released that it clicked for me…

  • André Snyde Lopes

    There are periods of my life when this is the only album I can listen to.

    • I’ve been trying to find something else…

      Its the only thing that helps me cope with that existential dread, when I get in these moods I wish I could find something else too.

  • Diego Molero

    I don’t remember how I first discover this album, but I remember it was on my early days as a “real” metalhead when I didn’t really know shit about metal. I was so obsessed with City, I would listen to it again and again and again. This is a real masterpiece.

  • Diego Molero

    Why is there no embedded song? I would go with “AAA” or “Oh My Fucking God.”

  • GardensTale

    City is still an absolutely monstrous record, but for all its extremity, it is still shockingly accessible. That, I think, is what belies true elegance and depth: not just complexity and layers of meaning, but constructing them in a way that you can glide into it like a hot bath, and peeling back new layers of realization at every spin. You can enjoy the simple pummeling catchiness, or you can focus and catch the true depth hidden behind the veil. City is magistral at this, and will always be one of Devin’s finest works.

    • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

      Your comment is so great that I think it could/should be added to the review text.

  • Shrümpelstiltskin

    In my opinion, City is the heaviest record of all time. It may be olde, but it never gets old. It’s blasphemous how powerful that record remains.

    • blighty

      Well, Through Silver in Blood has been proven scientifically to be the heaviest album of all time(came out around the same time actually, ’96 I believe. Man what was in the air then?), but City comes as close as any. I remember i bought this when it came out after reading some hype for it in Metal Maniacs(dating myself pretty horribly lol). I brought it over to my (Green Day and Beastie Boys loving friends’ house) When that intro goes: “tinktinktinktinktinktink HEY OHHHHHHH” My one friend actually fell down (in his defense, we were playing it at unsafe volume and he was really high). They ended up loving it. It is definitely that catchiness that several commenters have already remarked on, coupled with a rare to behold intensity that proves so gripping.

  • Nukenado

    Shit, this might just be what gets me out of wanting melody in my music…
    Oh My Fucking God is weirdly enjoyable for me…

    I have no idea where this band have been all my life.

    • Diego Molero

      And now is when your real life begins…

      • The Akerstache

        Wait… I had a life before hearing “Shitstorm” for the first time?

        • Diego Molero

          Probably not. I know I didn’t!

  • This record is fucking sweet, nuff said

  • Matt Vogt

    Probably my favourite album, all time. And certainly, together with Biomech, holder of the rarely contested ‘best pair of albums in disparate genres created by the same guy in the same year’ title.

  • Wilhelm

    This CD was pure lunacy. I never listened to it much, perhaps because I just preferred my metal not very industrial but saying that it is one of the angriest albums I’ve heard without resorting to the macho man jock metal of the time.

  • Thatguy

    Yes, yes and yes. When I first heard this I couldn’t hear it as music, but I listened again and again…

    Thanks, guys. What a great – and important – album this is.

    • Strapping Old Fart

      “This is fucking terrible. Play it again!” I remember listening to Symbolic that way back when I knew nothing of death metal.

  • Grymm

    One of the most extreme yet accessible albums ever made. So much awesomeness and chaos, and yet still barely reigned in. It holds up so damn well.

    “I’m lost, I’m freaking, and everybody knows. Everyone’s watching.”

  • GrimStilt

    Is this how these posts are going to be from now? May be I haven’t checked them all but I don’t remember so many of AMG staff chipping in on one entry. Or may be it’s just a staff favorite. Anyway, thanks for this. I’ve been wanting get into SYL for a while, now I know where to start.

    • Dr. Wvrm

      When the topic of City came up, I technically had dibs but so many other people were interested that I thought that it would be cool to have everyone weigh in on what was clearly a crowd favorite.

      • GrimStilt

        That’s cool, actually enjoyed this post more than the others to be honest because of the inputs.
        PS Didn’t know that ‘dibs’ exists among AMG staff considering how often I see writers whining about getting an undesirable to review.

        • They just like to complain.

          • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

            Well, complaining is free!

      • Planex

        This is one of the best posts I’ve seen since I started reading here last year. I love this format.

  • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

    That skullet looks so great, now I know what to do if I start going bald.

  • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

    I wonder what a collaboration between Steve Vai and Devin Townsend in 2017 would sound like. I really would like to hear that.

  • The Akerstache

    Strapping was an incredibly special band. They blended ferocious instruments with real emotion to create a blend of extreme metal whose gusto has yet to be topped. They’re quite possibly the heaviest band to ever exist, despite other bands being more extreme or faster, no one has done it like SYL. City (and Alien) introduced me to extreme metal, and to this day everything I listen to is held to that flawless standard. While there are bands I love more, nearly nothing has been as important to my growth in the genre as this group of maniacs, amazing album from an amazing band.

  • beurbs

    I recommend every fan of City check out his live film The Retinal Circus, they do an absolutely crushing version of Detox

  • Noobhammer

    This album defined my high school life. Not because of the angst, which is extremely cliched, but rather it opened up my love to the extreme and technical. I was always a huge power metal and Gothenburg fan and would only listen to the powerful melodies of Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, and Rhapsody, and the melodic sweeps of Dark Tranquillity and In Flames.

    Then I remember wandering into Hot Topic, hoping to somehow find a shirt, and stumbling up Century Media’s “Metal for the Masses”. I had no idea what was waiting for me, because I became hooked on the Century Family at that time of listening, with my obsessions becoming a little member of Century Black known as Rotting Christ, and of course SYL.

    The album had 2 cuts from City, and upon listening I made it my mission to find this album and just absorb it. To me, it will always be the perfect record. I still spin it a couple times a month, and never get tired of it. From there I moved to his other releases, which at the time I became obsessed with his Biomech’s “Ocean Machine”, but that is a whole ‘nother story. I am extremely grateful to Devin for helping me find a broader horizon in music, and helping me in rough and good times.

  • Drew Music

    That .gif makes me more proud of Devyn every time I see it. Dude’s at least part cartoon, with the rest of his genetic make-up being a combination of alien and god.

  • Drew Music

    Also, while we’re on the subject of awesome metal weirdness, Slugdge’s discography is available NYP on Bandcamp. I don’t know enough words to accurately praise those sluggy bastidz, but everyone needs to get on that, crank the speakers, throw them horns up and bow to Mollusca ASAP.

    • dude Slugdge owned me as soon as the vocals kicked in on that first track on the first album.

      • Constantijn Blondel

        As of 1 minute and 42 seconds ago: me too!

        Thanks for the tip! :)

    • Strapping Old Fart

      Your comment is correct.

  • Bortman Begins

    To me, City has always been an aural representation of a bipolar episode. It starts with the manic and destructive elation of All Hail The New Flesh which builds to a sheer white noise of mental activity in Oh My Fucking God. Then the doubts and fears of Detox set in which in turn leads to the lashing out of Underneath the Waves and AAA before culminating in the collapse/comedown/defeat of Spirituality.

  • City had a huge impact on me. I listened to it religiously on my way to- and from school. I discovered Devin Townsend with City and I still listen to his music. I’ve seen SYL live at Dynamo Open Air in 98 or 99 and it was crazy. This album still sounds fresh today.

  • mtlman1990

    Great album. Im a bigger fan of the SYL album though. I hope they all get remastered one day.

  • My experience with City is I read the review in Metal Maniacs and then promptly sought it out…instant love. I got to see them on the Stuck Mojo/SYL/Testament tour that took place at that time. I felt as though I was the only person who had heard of them. When SYL played their set, by the time they had finished they had a shit ton more fans. DT introduced the set by screaming “hello to all of you cross-armed people!!!” I was fascinated that SYL went on tour with Testament AFTER Hoglan had recorded their Demonic album around the same time as City, but he picked SYL as his main band, so Testament went with John Dette, who played Hoglan’s Demonic parts admirably. Funny how he’s the man in Testament now!

    I think City stands the test of time because not only was it unique at the time of it’s release and still a very unique album today, but the raw emotion on that album you can just tell it’s all true. Even though the lyrics are cheesy most of the time, when DT screams at you you believe every damn word. And when you have “familiar” heavy metal elements channelled through Devin’s powerful and real emotional gate, you have music that is built to last!

  • Mollusc

    This made me inordinately happy.

  • Strapping Old Fart

    Oh, I don’t like it that much.

  • Yanick Lajoie YL

    After 8 years of living in Vancouver my sister came back to live in Quebec City.
    She gave me a copy of City in 2000 telling me she had seen the band live in a small venue of Vancouver. She told about how the singer was intense, good, goofy and entertaining. She also told me she had never seen such a “fat” drummer playing so fast and effortlessly before that show. I later made links with Vai, Death and so.

    On the first second of “tinktinktinktintink Hooooo Hoooo” and at the end of the chorus “…New Fleeeeeeesh” I felt my sister just came back 4500 km from the west coast as a messenger with a timeless masterpiece “Oh My Fucking God” message.

    Too extreme for my headbanger friends, I alone enjoy the rage and emotion of that metal landmark that since follow me everywhere I let Devin’s works get me through.
    I’ll wait 10 or 15 years for a live set of SYL. We know it will happen

  • SuzyC

    Already a fan of the Really Heavy Thing, I was 29 when City came along. It knocked my socks off as thoroughly as Ride the Lightning did when I was 16.

  • Felchmeister777

    I miss Devin…

    This newfound sober side is working well for him commercially, but he’s nowhere near as interesting and creative as he once was unfortunately…

    His recent verse/chorus/verse/chorus pop metal epics are extraordinarily boring…

    City, Ocean Machine, Infinity, Terria & Ziltoid…

    That’s Dev…

  • Patrick W. Dunne

    “Like the discovery that typing “58008” on a calculator and turning it upside-down spells “BOOBS,” we’ve all experienced a profound, epoch-defining moment at some point in our lives.”

    My favorite part of the review.

  • I was introduced to Devin Townsend through Accelerated Evolution when it came out in high school. I am not the biggest fan of SYL but I really loved that album and also remember getting a big kick out of Ziltoid the Omniscient.

    I’ll have to go back and give City another listen because it’s probably been 10 years since I listened to any SYL and I don’t even remember what albums I heard.

  • probably my favorite album of all time.

  • DeadHead

    Thank you for writing this review. I thought no one else out there felt the same way I did about this album. To this day most my metal friends, what few I have, still think this album is too heavy for them haha.

  • somnambulist

    One of my favourite metal albums, for sure. This was my introduction to Devin, and although I only really like SYL, Terria, and some of TDTP, I do really love the guy.

    Like others have said, this album got me through some tough times growing up; I’m also glad I just saw this, as I haven’t heard it in years, and I think I know what I’ll be listening to on my drive back home soon.

  • Nukenado

    Quick note, this is listed as American Metal instead of Canadian Metal.