I presented this paper at the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy at York University on June 3, 2017. I tweeted about the presentation – and Devin liked the tweet here.
After the conference, I was approached for publication: an extended version of the paper will be published by the University of Sydney’s Philament journal in February 2018.
Strapping Young Lad’s City belongs in the category of what Laura Taylor calls “cyber metal” records. These albums “concentrate on dystopian imagery and the impact of advanced technology, and share an emphasis on heavy low-frequency power, repetition, anti-virtuosity, vocal processing and other electronic effects, and synthesizer and/or sampler use” (Taylor 38). City – which Revolver Magazine named one of the greatest metal albums of all time – is the brainchild of frontman Devin Townsend, who wrote all of the music, inspired by “the ugly nature and relative inconspicuousness of cities” (Townsend). The record is a reflection on the imposition city walls, and other physical barriers which are products of the modern urban environment, thrust upon humans. Further, it is a rumination on the irony of rampant construction resulting in isolation, and not the opposite. It also warns of the oppressive potential of technology, which can stifle visceral human vitality just as overbearing architecture can physically stifle. By adopting these science fiction themes in its music and lyrics, City acts as a critical dystopia.
Critical dystopias differ from canonical dystopias. While the latter are “bleak, depressing… with little space for hope” (Chang 4), the former allow for “hope by resisting closure: the ambiguous, open endings… maintain the utopian impulse within the work” (4). They “challenge the distinctions between utopia and dystopia” (Sargent 7-9) and, in doing so, identify “the causes of future problems in the mistakes of today” (Fitting 156). Though critical dystopias are generally considered in terms of film and literature, music – particularly metal – can also depict these potential futures. As Laura Taylor argues, “the critical dystopia in metal represents one speculative strain of this musical genre’s broader social conscience” (3). Taylor’s own work focuses on two bands, Fear Factory and Voivod, and though she briefly mentions other albums (including Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve and Napalm Death’s The Code Is Red… Long Live the Code), City is entirely neglected in her analysis. Even in the grander canon of metal studies the album is overlooked. It is a jarring absence, given the record’s critical acclaim and unique approach to critical dystopia.
Indeed, City‘s critical dystopia differs from those of other cyber metal records in its use of humour. Most metal bands eschew humour, but Strapping Young Lad uses it as that utopian impulse defined by Chang. The record’s closing track, “Spirituality,” best demonstrates this. The song ends with Townsend whispering “I finally found a way out of here,” followed by thirty seconds of silence before a robotic voice unexpectedly intones: “Strapping Young Lad rocks my hairy anus” (City, 1997). Humour, then – presented here in a deliberately juvenile form – is the “way out” to which Townsend refers. Laughter is the weapon through which technological oppression can be combated since, after all, it is a fundamental component of the human vitality technology is attempting to stifle. Through Townsend’s seemingly childish co-option of this technology, the mechanized is made an object of ridicule; subsequent human laughter disarms the technological threat. Other humorous elements on the record, including the satiric voice samples in “Home Nucleonics” and “Underneath the Waves” and the rampant, intentionally excessive profanity throughout its duration, introduce levity to the proceedings, compounding humour as the utopian impulse and blurring the line between utopia and dystopia just as all critical dystopias must.
City further differs from other cyber metal critical dystopias in its focus on physical architecture, and the isolation such architecture imposes in its modern, overbuilt urban form. Townsend, who wrote the record while living in the “quasi industrial wasteland of Los Angeles” (Townsend), peppers his lyrics with references to the imposing planned environments of cities. “Room 429” features the lines: “I can see you standing / Alone against the winter / I can hear you asking, but the streets, they are not giving” (City, 1997). The city architecture – “the streets” – are anthropomorphized, actively refusing to acknowledge the request of the song’s character. Thus, the architecture is positioned in authority; the idea that a human needs to ask the streets for anything is a reversal of the assumed power dynamic. The human stands ‘alone,’ too, while the ‘streets’ are presented in plural, a united force. The physical environment is concerted, staunchly governing a disparate humanity who are isolated yet, ironically, close enough together to ‘see’ each other.
The record’s single, “Detox,” compounds this idea. In it, Townsend sings of the ironic isolation imposed by the overbuilt city:
I’m lost, I’m freaking
And everybody knows, everyone’s watching
So here’s all my hopes and aspirations
Nothing but puke
God, I’m so lonely… (City, 1997)
“Everyone’s watching,” and yet he is “so lonely.” Therein lies the irony of the city, in which human subjects are ‘lost.’ Indeed, the vision Townsend presents is one of ultimate dystopia: humans possessing the ability to bear witness, yet lacking the agency to assist. This nightmare scenario is elucidated further, later in the track, by a voice sample: “the human brain, an unbelievable complex of nerve cells… the passage of blood will continue even after it has been removed from the body” (City, 1997). The inclusion of this sample cryptically implies the brain has already been removed from the body and placed in the architecture of the city – the authoritative ‘streets’ of the aforementioned “Room 429” – and that, though the passage of blood in the humans continues, they are but shells, brainless, slaves to the oppressive will of their creations. “Home Nucleonics” similarly tackles this vision, with Townsend screaming: “Technology will be the second coming / and it will hit us while we’re looking for a plan / I warned you” (City, 1997). “Spirituality,” too, addresses the theme of machine-imposed isolation; in it, Townsend laments, atop whirring spaceship samples and chugging, mechanical guitar-work: “if that’s all there is /…if this is it / Won’t… won’t someone tell me” (City, 1997).
City not only embodies these themes in its lyrics, but in its music too. The instrumental tracks are dense, overwhelming, and ridden with samples. Futuristic blips and bleeps shift between speakers, left-to-right and back again, with dizzying speed; tempos are almost unanimously presto, if not higher; mechanical, industrial noises, including jet engines, static electricity, and glitching electronics, are buried, in science fiction-tinged musique concrete, beneath walls of layered, chugging instrumentation. Indeed, the record’s multi-tracked, repetitious instrumentals – courtesy of drummer Gene Hoglan, bassist Byron Stroud, and guitarist Jed Simon – adhere to cyber metal’s “mechanical rhythms” (Taylor 3); in so doing, they serve as symbolic for the city itself. The instruments, tools of technology, are united in force to construct a monolithic, calculated, terrifying onslaught, just as technology in a broader sense has united to construct an oppressive city architecture. Crying out over this assault is Townsend, whose hyper-emotive, animalistic vocal performance apposes the calculated, repetitive thrashing behind him. His vocals represent the human, actively repudiating technological, architectural imposition. The juxtaposition between his zealous vocals and the repetitious instrumental grooves demonstrates that blurring of the utopic and dystopic visions which Lyman Tower Sargent insists is the crucial component of a critical dystopia (7-9).
The fifteen-second sequence which begins the album opener “Velvet Kevorkian” microcosmically encapsulates this; that is, City‘s approach to critical dystopia. It begins with metronomic, solitary electronic beeping, before Townsend unexpectedly interrupts the beeping with a screamed question: “Can you believe this shit people?” (City, 1997) Through humour – which is expressed in that line through a combination of profanity and over-the-top delivery – the overbearing architecture of cities, which physically stifles human bodies, and the technology that allowed for the cities’ construction, which oppresses intrinsic human vitality, can be combated. Townsend’s vocals represent a hopeful humanity amidst utilitarian, plodding, overwhelming urbanity. For this blending of utopia and dystopia, the sonic universe of City qualifies as not only a critical dystopia, but a wholly unique one.
“The 69 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time.” Revolver, September/October 2002.
Chang, Hui-chuan. “Critical Dystopia Reconsidered: Octavia Butler’s Parable Series and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake as Post-Apocalyptic Dystopias.” Tamkang Review 41.2 (2011): 3-20.
Fitting, Peter. “Unmasking the Real.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. Ed. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. New York: Routledge, 2003. 155-166.
Sargent, Lyman Tower. “The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited.” Utopian Studies 5.1 (1994): 1-37.
Taylor, Laura. “Metal Music as Critical Dystopia: Humans, Technology and the Future in 1990s Science Fiction Metal” Diss. Brock University, 2006. Brock U Library. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
Townsend, Devin. City. Perf. Jed Simon, Byron Stroud, and Gene Hoglan. Strapping Young Lad. Rec. 1996. Century Media, 1997. CD.
Townsend, Devin. “City – Diary.” HevyDevy.com. Hevy Devy Records. Web. 25 Oct. 2016. http://www.hevydevy.com/discography/syl-city/