All Hail the New Flesh
The Making of Strapping Young Lad’s City
Devin Townsend’s discography eclipses that of a lot of record labels, but his journey to becoming one of metal’s most beloved (and perplexing) figures took off with an album written on a friend’s couch while eating spaghetti with margarine. The former Steve Vai singer channeled his myriad frustrations into SYL’s sophomore release, 1997’s City. In the process, he reinvented industrial metal, taking what Godflesh, Grotus and Fear Factory had started to its natural anime cyberpunk conclusion. It’s a primal scream from the mind of a restless genius.
The 24-year-old Townsend had already experienced a lifetime’s worth of industry bullshit by that point: brief stints in local Vancouver acts like Caustic Thought (with future SYL guitarist Jed Simon and bassist Byron Stroud); a memorable vocal performance on superstar guitarist Steve Vai’s darkest album, Sex and Religion; and SYL’s failed debut Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing. Townsend found himself at a crossroads. He only wanted Strapping to be a one-off thing. When he couldn’t find enough label interest in his other project, Ocean Machine, he decided to give SYL another shot.
He demoed the entire album himself. Then, once a mutual friend introduced him to man-mountain/drummer extraordinaire Gene “The Machine” Hoglan (who had just come off of critically acclaimed recordings with Death and Testament), Townsend called in his old buddies Simon and Stroud, and they decamped to Vai’s recording studio, the Mothership. After four sleepless days and nights—and some vocal recordings in Canada and a mixing session in Sweden with engineer Daniel Bergstrand—he had the album that truly launched his career. Kerrang!, of all places, gave it a great review. It made Metal Hammer’s Top 20 for the year. Even luminaries like Machine Head’s Robb Flynn and Metallica’s Jason Newsted were fans.
Townsend cites bands like Morbid Angel, Carcass, Foetus, Cop Shoot Cop and Fear Factory as influences. Those elements populate the city, sure, but Strapping Young Lad created a dense urban labyrinth of its own. Layers of samples and Hoglan’s hunter-killer drumming immediately signaled a change from the thin-sounding Heavy. “All Hail the New Flesh” demonstrates why Vai hired Townsend, as he effortlessly shifts from demonic roars to angelic singing. “Oh My Fucking God” commits deicide, “Detox” stomps all over the 12-step program, and even the Cop Shoot Cop cover “Room 429” locks you inside Townsend’s brain. It’s a snapshot of his life at the time—which maybe explains why things fell apart.
After some with bands like Testament and Stuck Mojo, Townsend stepped away from SYL for a variety of reasons: mental health issues, rehab, the desire to work on solo stuff. That decision curtailed the band’s rising stardom. They reunited a few years later for three more albums (including the equally Hall of Fame-worthy Alien) before calling it a day for good, something the non-Townsend members still lament.
The chaos surrounding Strapping Young Lad’s on-again off-again career perfectly mirrors the chaos of the records, and that chaos is what made the band so unique. In other words: Oh my fucking God, Strapping Young Lad’s City is finally in the Decibel Hall of Fame!
Need more classic Strapping Young Lad? To read the entire six-page story, featuring interviews with the members who performed on City, purchase the print issue from our store, or digitally via our app for iPhone/iPad or Android.