Forget for a minute that you've heard anything about STRAPPING YOUNG LAD cranking out this album under deadline in order to appear on Ozzfest. Forget also the hand-wringing angst about statements from mainman Devin Townsend that this could be the final SYL opus. Concentrate, for a moment, on the actual eleven songs in front of you. Does "The New Black" match up to the awesome legacy of this band, especially its 1997 milestone "City"?
At times, yes. There are some flat-out amazing moments here, where Townsend is singing in that multitracked demon's choir voice, Gene Hoglan is doing inhuman things to his drums, and walls of guitar are cascading in an impossibly heavy wall of rushing soundwaves. However, there's also the occasional misstep — the corny, vapid-on-purpose "Fucker" and the directionless, brooding title track being two low points.
The industrialized thrash sound that STRAPPING pioneered on "City" is arguably the most influential thing to hit extreme metal in the last decade (just listen to the production choices on most of your favorite Swedish bands' recent albums). So is it a sign of creative burnout on Townsend's part that the most “typical" SYL song here is the throwaway joke "U Suck"? Ridiculous as the song is, it's hard not to crack a smile as Townsend blares "tell me how much you fuckin' suck!" and a raging choir of hooligans bellow "hell yeah, we fuckin' suck!" (Fuck anything DISTURBED has to offer, that is gonna be the feel-good audience chant of the summer at Ozzfest!)
But if you're looking for prime STRAPPING YOUNG LAD at their most manic and hypercharged, look no further than "Wrong Side". "Monument" is an insistent, martial stomper where Townsend alternates between his scream and a soaring melody, before putting the two together in one of the band's best choruses to date. And how about "Almost Again", an exploration of the band's proggier side, with a forlorn and heartfelt vocal that crashes headlong into blast beats and swelling apocalyptic keyboards?
The point is, there are a few duds on this album, which is a surprising and rare thing coming from such a consistently awesome band. Maybe they rushed this record, and maybe Devin needs a few months off to take a long nap and have some soup. But it can't be denied that even sub-par STRAPPING YOUNG LAD material mops the damn floor with almost everything else out there. And most of this album can take its place right alongside the band's best work.
"The New Black" is one of those albums where the good moments are so good, they more than make up for the weak spots. It's debatable whether this material will resonate with anyone not already hip to the band's warped sense of humor and frenetic musical spazz attack. But who cares? I'm willing to skip the clinkers and give thanks for "Decimator", "Monument", "Wrong Side", the wicked "Far Beyond Metal" (featuring Oderus Urungus of GWAR) and yes, even "U Suck". All hail the (not so) new flesh!