In writing about Devin, then, I have to figure out where in his extensive and varied discography I want to begin. Knowing that I may introduce quite a few of my readers to Devin for the first time causes me to hesitate whenever I set out to write about him. There's so much difference between his tracks that I'm never sure where to best begin.
Which, in part, stems from a place of insecurity. I relate strongly to this music, and as a result I invest a lot of myself into the question of whether or not others accept or reject this music. I get defensive, get caught up in the act of proving that what I like has value, proving that I have NOTHING TO BE INSECURE ABOUT, DAMMIT! Metal is totally legitimate, and Devin is a wonderful artist, and no I'm not touchy about this at all! Pussy! I'll fight you!
I was pondering this, and the hypermasculinity that shows up a lot these days in geek culture (gamer culture, in particular), and the hypermasculine posturing in Metal, and I finally hit on the best way to approach Devin's music in an article here.
I'm going to write an article on an album about an alien who destroys the Earth when we give him a sub par cup of coffee.
No wait, wait, wait, I promise this will make sense by the end of the article, trust me. The thing is, Ziltoid the Omniscient, the album in question, is kind of semi-secretly about insecurity and power fantasies and how metal fans like me, faced with the threat of scorn or mockery for our admittedly often quite goofy music with bravado and rage. But at the same time, it's nothing as simple as a straight deconstruction or mockery of the genre. There's a lot in this album that reaffirms what makes metal great, despite or even because of its occasional goofiness.
That interplay between sincerity and self-effacing humor is what I want to get at with this article, and I think the best way I can do that is to lead you through the album and pick apart what's going on, and, as they say, what's REALLY going on.
Luckily, this whole album is on YouTube (and should be easy to find elsewhere if the video I'm embedding here ever gets taken down) so let's listen together as Ziltoid the Omniscient searches the Omniverse for the ultimate cup of coffee.
I love the beginning of this album. It's the best possible signal of where the album is going to go. Remember that formalists like me (when I'm wearing my formalist hat, anyway) really dig beginnings and endings, because they give the most pronounced signals to the reader of where the themes and ideas are going or have ended up. This is a concept at least a century old but I think there's quite a bit of scientific validity to it. I haven't done the extensive reading on this subject that I should (I'll save that for when I'm actually attending Grad School and it's my job, effectively, to do those sorts of literature reviews) but last I heard, we were finding that people remember not just endings but beginnings much better than they do middles. First and last performances tend to have an edge in competitions.
Anyway, we start with this giant, bombastic opening heralding Ziltoid's greatness, accompanied by the ludicrously over the top scream that punctuates the first metal growl of his name, and a declaration of his demand:
"Greetings humans, I am Ziltoid...the omniscient.
I have come from far across the omniverse.
You shall fetch me your universes ultimate cup of coffee...
You have five Earth minutes,
Make it perfect!"
All of this is intoned totally straightfaced, with a whispered reverb to give special emphasis to "BLACK," the color of METAL.
...Which is then followed by Ziltoid's cheery "Make it perfect!" You can practically hear the smilyface emoticon there.
That pretty much sets the stage for the album's bipolar tone--it jumps between totally sincere progressive metal epic affectations and ridiculous parody at a moment's notice. It's an album constantly undercutting itself, divided in focus. And unlike, say, The Dark Knight Rises, it's this interplay of humor and sincerity--these contradictory elements--that give the album its power.
I think it might be best summarized as an exploration of how absurd metal posturing can emerge out of, ultimately, a very real sense of pain and anger--narm that masks deep sincerity and struggle. It's about how we put on these airs of badassery to cope with pain.
And that comes out in the ostensibly triumphant first song, "By Your Command." This is sort of Ziltoid's great villain song where he declares his perfection to the weak and puny humans. Listen, though, to his monologue:
My command!So, that's kind of weird. We start with the same self-aggrandizing bluster that we heard in the album's overture, but the screamed first lines are undercut by the melodically sung (internal?) monologue: "Hide me, guide me/dry my tears/slowly taking back the years..." Ziltoid here is already kind of tipping his hand as to what's to come. He's imploring, here, to an unknown listener for a way to hide or ignore his own emotional distress. He's suppressing that which makes him uncomfortable, and asserting his own dominance in a way that makes up for what apparently he considers wasted time.
Memory, heart and all opinion,
Hide me, guide me,
Dry my tears,
Slowly taking back the years,
By your command,
By your command!
Which results in him being the shittiest customer ever. Long story short, the humans give him the coffee he asks for, he hates it, and the result is a giant space battle ending with the destruction of the planet.
This is another place where the album should be totally ridiculous, but the music is actually poundingly engaging. It's forceful, bombastic, energetic, and catchy as hell. If this was just about being goofy it wouldn't be listenable more than a handful of times, but I can put this album on and rock out any time I want to, because the metal really is solid, headbanging stuff.
But again, Devin can't get too far in here without undercutting the epic atmosphere. Ziltoid, during all of this, makes two gloriously silly declarations:
"You have not convinced mighty Ziltoid,
I am so omniscient; if there were to be two omnisciences
I would be both!"
"Check this out!
I am the greatest guitar player ever to have lived! I am Ziltoid!"
The second bit there is accompanied by a gratuitously shreddy guitar solo. Ziltoid is just showing off his wanking powers, essentially (I'm getting that term from Devin himself--it's helpful to note here, probably, that Devin tends to not have a lot of respect for extraneous ostensibly impressive guitar solos). The sheer epicness of his solo cows the people of earth and the Ziltoidian Overlords are able to invade and conquer the planet, easily wiping out the stunned population.
This is kind of the ultimate metal power fantasy, right? The ability to destroy shit simply by shredding, to see all stand in awe, powerless before your ability to run a pick across a bunch of metal strings at dizzying speeds? And thrown in there is that refrain of "We're coming to your town!" Better be scared of us, squares! We're METAL! And we will fucking OWN YOU!
Like I said above, this wouldn't really work if the songs weren't legitimately entertaining to listen to. There's credibility to the power fantasy, in a way, because Devin plays so well. If he wasn't capable of pulling off that solo or writing a legitimately danceable metal tune, it would just sound like he's making fun of more talented people, or that Ziltoid is just a strawman parody with no depth. Ziltoid plays well, so it feels much more meaningful when he spouts something idiotic like the bit about being two omnisciences. It's kind of like Meat Loaf--if I didn't have some respect for the guy's music (at one point in his career anyway) it wouldn't have been so groan-worthy when he started incoherently spouting pro-Romney conspiracy bullshit. If you want to bring your hero low, you gotta build zir up a bit, yeah?
And Ziltoid's about to be brought low for sure.
See, it turns out that not everyone is awed by Ziltoid. Captain Spectacular, and his intreped crew, know Ziltoid's secret: he's a total nerd. He's a dork! A dweeb!
And once they know that, his guitar powers lose their strength.
The lesson here is that no matter how epic you are, no matter how badass of a metalhead you are, ANYTHING can undercut your power. ANYTHING can turn you into a wuss or a nerd. In fact, this is how masculinity reinforces itself: if the nonmasculine is seen as lesser, any display of nonmasculine traits becomes a sign of lesser personal value. Masculinity thus becomes a self-perpetuating spiral of shitty posturing and one-upmanship as each participant attempts to secure their identities against all threat. Being a metalhead works much the same way.
"Words are used for weapons," indeed.
This is another of those parts that weirdly fluctuates between sincerity and absurdity. It's hard to take the space opera declarations of Captain Spectacular too seriously, but on the other hand the music here is genuinely stirring and fascinating, no matter how many times I listen to it. (I must have listened to it at least 15 times or more in the past weeks while working on this article off and on...)
It's no coincidence, I think, that some of the most emotional moments on this moment are the ones that show the greatest vulnerability and weakness. Beneath this song about the destruction of the planet there's a cryptic kind of musing about time as an uncontrollable, destructive thing... interesting, considering Ziltoid is supposedly a "fourth-dimensional guitar hero," able ostensibly to escape time's clutches. And once more, as Ziltoid's fleet closes in on Captain Spectacular, we hear his menacing declarations undercut by a hint of needyness: "Comfort me, you know I'm right!"
Hyperdrive's meaning eludes me, no matter how often I listen, partly because I have a hard time figuring out who is meant to be speaking here. It almost seems like a transitional song, meant to build the mood, like an overture to the album's second act, as though the whole thing is a musical. (That'll be important in a moment).
Ziltoid confronts Captain Spectacular at the Benevolent Hive Mind of Nebulo 9 (which is fifth dimensional, if you're keeping track... not that I'm sure it means a whole lot). This isn't my favorite track on the album, but it does have an important impact on the album's overarching narrative. First, it marks Ziltoid's first true defeat--he is rebuffed by the benevolent hive mind and forced into retreat. Second, the nature of the defeat is significant. Ziltoid is essentially made to feel emotionally vulnerable. As before with Captain Spectacular, once you strip away Ziltoid's fascade there's a whole world of discomfort and adolescent awkwardness.
So, Ziltoid does exactly what you'd expect.
He decides to destroy shit.
What follows is one of the most intense songs on the album, and one of my favorites. Ziltoid awakens The Planet Smasher, and engages in what turns into a kind of battle of wills as the Smasher gives a long, somewhat abstract lecture, which concludes with his angry growl:
"Tell me what you want from me!"
The tension builds to this moment and then bursts as Ziltoid, with a brutal blast of drum beats, declares his aspirations for absolute power. The two begin a truly epic battle back and forth, as Ziltoid screams out demands for destruction and domination while the Smasher replies with the koan-like "bow to the valley below!" Initially in sync, they eventually sing over one another in a jumble of violent and increasingly frenzied outbursts. Ziltoid seems to get the last word, with the prolonged howl of the Smasher's name, followed by a repeat of Ziltoid's declaration of power...
...And then the song comes to a close with the Smasher revealing that his name is Herman (Ziltoid apparently never bothered to ask, the prick) and that he hates musicals. Ziltoid has overplayed his hand again, and revealed to yet another being that he sought to dominate that he is, in fact, a nerd. This is the most brutal part of the album, and the fact that the bringer of that brutality--Herman, who seems to take on the mantle of Metal effortlessly--can so easily dismiss Ziltoid is crushing.
Ziltoid, plagued with doubt, seeks out the Omnidimensional Creator, who turns out to be a totally self-assured, stoned-sounding bro. Note the difference here between Ziltoid's ridiculous statements (like his "two omnisciences" bit earlier) and the Omnidimensional Creator's ("Long time no see! ...Although I see everything"). There's a hint of the self-aware in the Creator's dialogue, a hint that he's not taking himself too seriously, whereas for Ziltoid everything is deadly serious, even though to others he appears absurd.
Anyway, Ziltoid flips the fuck out and the Creator tells him to settle down, not unreasonably.
What follows is the album's moment of crisis, its great climax. The Creator unveils Ziltoid's past and true nature. And what we find is... well, effectively what we've been talking about all along. The lyrics are poetic and not as literal as maybe we would find useful, but we can suss out some meaning if we take careful note of some of the recurring themes. Once more we seem to be receeding back in time as the origins of Ziltoid's bluster becomes apparent. Initially, of course, he resists and we get another sort of battle of wills as Ziltoid rejects the clarity brought on by the Creator. In the midst of all that is one of my favorite lines (one that my sister and I recite to ourselves when frustrated or irate) in the entire album: "I'm Ziltoid! I don't give a shit! I live above Earth in a big rocketship!" I love the off-rhyme here, particularly. This is Ziltoid's attempt to secure his own performative identity against all encroachment--he repeats his name again and again, hanging desperately onto it as a signifier of his own power, but as the repetition of "The horror, the horror!" suggests, even that identity has become deeply uncomfortable and suffocating (as such identities must).
Unable to resist any longer, we see into Ziltoid's vulnerable, emotional core--the part of him that fears harm. Over top of this pleading voice we hear an echo, gentle at first and then forceful, of the recitation of his name and title that begins the album. In vulnerability, the music suggests, are the roots of bravado.
While the music goes instrumental here, let's talk a bit more about the sincerity of the album. This album would be dramatically different as a deconstruction if this section wasn't so gentle, so sympathetic toward Ziltoid. But it is, ultimately. Devin, as a metalhead, understands the plight of Ziltoid as someone hurt by the world, someone who needs the posturing swagger of metal to armor himself. Ultimately, the fact that his need becomes a trap does not discredit the need itself, exactly--his emotions are understandable and portrayed as such.
So, having been revealed as a nerd, revealed as an individual who fears harm, who needs comfort, the Creator reveals the final truth of the album:
We're all puppets. Puppets to our neuroses, to our weaknesses, to the roles and personas we design for ourselves to compensate for our perceived shortcomings...
Oh, and Ziltoid is also a literal puppet.
Yeah, he's a hand puppet.
I'll leave that up to you to decide for yourself, though.
And actually, I don't want to over-interpret this last song. There's some part of me that resists reading this section too closely, some part of me that sees this last song, "The Greys," as fundamentally personal. You've got to decide what to take away from this album, and how to view Ziltoid at the end, whether with mockery or sympathy.
There's one last thing to consider though, one last plot twist.
The last song fades out, we hear a babble of voices, and a voice, now singing to itself, is interrupted as another voice cuts in and begins berating the singer (a waiter at some high-end coffee shop) for not working harder.
This album ranks for me among the most compelling metal albums of all time, mainly because of the mutability of that ending. In some ways, it seems a deconstruction and satire of metal, but, like much of Devin's other work, it is so successfully heavy, so engagingly brutal, that it's hard not to see it as a celebration of the very thing it seems to deconstruct. (And I'm using deconstruct both in the pop term of breaking the genre down to its component parts to show where it falls short, and the more literary sense of the discovery of oppositions and their reversal within the narrative.) I don't think it's a coincidence that this album, fraught with uncertainty, came immediately after Devin released the very last ever Strapping Young Lad album, and directly before the creation of the Devin Townsend Project, a series of four albums exploring different musical interests and influenced. (One of the four is the dark folk album Ki and another is the soft, new-agey Ghost; neither, clearly, is particularly metal.)
It might be best to judge Ziltoid alongside Devin's most recent album, actually--Epicloud, which is stuffed full of songs about emotion and vulnerability, but marries that emotion with the bombast and authority of metal:
"Time has come to forget all the bullshit and ROCK." Sounds like a reconstruction to me. And it sounds like a pretty good way of closing off this exploration of an album that can't seem to quite make up its mind, but is paradoxically all the stronger for its indecision. Because ultimately this isn't an album trying to reconcile disparate, contradictory ideas and failing, it's an album about the act of trying to reconcile disparate, contradictory ideas and failing. The fact that the album can explore those ideas while still remaining engaging, brutal, entertaining, hilarious, and a blast to sing along with confirms for me the lasting power of Metal.
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