Yer Metal Is Olde: Strapping Young Lad – City

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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