The year was 1993 and there was some dude standing next to Steve Vai on the inlay card of Vai’s new album, Sex and Religion. Now, we’re not saying you had to like Steve Vai back in the day but failing to acknowledge his abilities could result in a light stoning. Or possibly a stint in the stocks. So, Steve Vai’s new band – fronted by an unknown singer – was a big deal but who was this guy? Well, he was slender, clearly very young, bald as a plucked chicken and worst of all, he appeared to be wearing a PVC jumpsuit.
Yeah, you heard us right, a PVC jumpsuit!
Now remember, this all happened during the dying light of Thrash Metal. About a week, in fact, before Pearl Jam and Nirvana would dump those of us who survived in the nearest wheelie bin and slammed the lid. For those last few moments, men were still men. And women, off-licences, sheep and cars parked within two hundred meters of a rock venue were all pretty scared. We wore denim and biker jackets. We kept our hair long. Why? Because that’s what Metallica did, Slayer too for that matter and we didn’t wear PVC. Or fuckin’ jumpsuits!
Suffice to say, many weren’t particularly excited about this young Canadian, doing his upmost to worsen Vai’s already dangerously flamboyant image. Things got worse when we slammed Sex and Religion in the tape deck – that’s what we had before CD’s and downloads, youths of today – much worse. The bald dude’s vocals were over the top and theatrical and they seemed totally out of place in a world where bands were expected to swig from cans of Bud and roar down the mic while sweating colossally onto a Gibson Flying V.
After that initial exposure to the ill-fated Sex and Religion, many could be forgiven for not caring a jot about that singer with the bad outfits. Neither did many think much about a band called Strapping Young Lad in early ‘96 when their incomprehensibly fast and aggressive sound began airing on late night TV; well, not at first anyway.
Anyway, the man responsible for all this was one Devin Townsend. He had all but disappeared after the belly flop of the Vai album and ended up working in a pizza-joint back in his native Vancouver, massaging his pre-Vai Noisescapes project into what would become Strapping Young Lad. He was angry. He had moved to California on a job offer from the ‘world’s greatest living guitarist’ only to discover that the music industry was full of shit and with Strapping Young Lad, he sounded like he was going to tear the whole lot of them a new set of corn pipes. Townsend may not have made an immediate impact but Metal fans soon started to receive what he was transmitting, his reverb-bathed wall of sound, colossal, earth-shaking riffs and soaring vocals was starting to take hold and the journey was only just beginning.
19 years on, Devin Townsend remains an artist who wilfully subverts the accepted norms of metal culture, embodying it all the more for his refusal to take some of our conventions too seriously. To that end, Worship Metal turns the spotlight on his Ten Greatest Albums; accepting that to do so is to laugh, to cry and, most of all, to bang your fucking head at the sheer skull-crushing madness of it all!
Sex And Religion (1993)
Ironically, we start with Sex And Religion. Maligned with just cause and dead in the water by the time it was released, this is the album that Sony hoped would take Steve Vai to the next level after the unexpected success of Passion and Warfare but it flopped badly and resulted in the implosion of the band on it’s subsequent tour.
With hindsight, beneath some of the filler and lack of focus, there are reasons to like the album, not least of which is to hear the nineteen year old Townsend’s ability to match Vai’s growling, shrieking guitar with nothing more than his vocal cords and (presumably) a tight grip on his own testicles.
“Here and Now” and “Still My Bleeding Heart” may be a little silly but they possess a charm and dynamism that bridges the gap between 1980’s Metal and the Alt Rock that would dominate the 90’s.
As for “Dirty Black Hole”; just listen to Townsend’s breath control and schizophrenic delivery for early evidence that he had the ability to be Perry Farrell, Rob Halford and Phil Anselmo, often within the same verse!