I know, I know — how TOTALLY shocking that we’re turning this week into Devin Townsend week on Horns Up. What gave it away? The unabashed excitement over the release of Z² that we’ve shown in past episodes? The inclusion of Episode 3 of Ziltoid TV in yesterday’s Quickies? This tweet?
Regardless, with Z² coming out this week, y’all should have seen such bowing at the altar of our lord and savior Hevy Devy coming from a mile away. And I will continue to do so today, for our Retrospective–but not for the album you might think. While Z²‘s predecessor–2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient–would have perhaps made the most sense here, we’re going to spend more than enough podcast time on that this week. No, instead I’m going to jump back in time 18 years (!!!) and take a look back at one of my personal favorite Devin albums: 1996’s parody concept album, Punky Brüster – Cooked on Phonics.
Punky Brüster is striking right off the bat as an example of Devin playing against type. On the Strapping Young Lad albums that book-ended its release (Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing and City), as well as Devin’s subsequent solo material like Ocean Machine and Infinity, we saw him taking deep dives into different musical concepts, whether into pure, unabashed chaos (as on SYL) or more composed, melodic fare (his solo stuff). This, however…is a parody punk rock opera. It’s not deep. It’s not terribly chaotic. It’s not all that complex.
It is, however, a great deal of fun. The story revolves around a destitute death metal band called Cryptic Coroner that stumbles into an opportunity to reinvent itself (okay, “sell out”) as a punk rock band and become overnight music industry darlings. To me, it plays out not so much as an attack on the genre as a whole, but rather as one on falsity–on a genre that revolved so much around a particular attitude suddenly having completely lost that attitude and achieving success on the back of principles that, often, ran completely counter to its foundations.
With Punky Brüster seeing its release in the mid-1990s, as bands like Offspring and Rancid were hitting peak commercial success, punk was an easy target, and Devin pulled the joke off without a hitch. (At one point during the story portion of intro track “Recipe for Bait,” one Cryptic Coroner member even says “think Green Day–let’s go!” to describe their mid-show sound change.) With songs like “EZ$$,” lyrics like “we’re not metal anymore / we’re the punky rockin’ whores / born to make the girls go crazy,“—not to mention the band’s gradual adoption of high-pitched chipmunk voices during their assimilation into the punk genre–it’s all hilariously tongue-in-cheek, and it’s, frankly, very difficult to make it through the album without laughing your ass off.
But here’s the thing: Devin’s punk tunes actually hold their weight pretty well, too. To be honest, many of them do so better than actual punk songs from that era–whether taking on the genre’s poppier front (“Fake Punk”) or its edgier, more aggressive side (“Oats Peas Beans & Barley”). Which, I guess, was ultimately his point in putting this album together: if you take away punk’s hallmark characteristic–its attitude–and leave solely a relatively simplistic musical template, even a guy who primarily plies his trade in metal can jump in and put together a joke album that’s at worst on par with (but in reality, quite a bit better than) what was out there in the genre at the time. (Disclaimer: I actually enjoy punk quite a bit–even some stuff from the pop-punk era Devin’s poking fun at here–but you can’t tell me the criticisms he brings forth in this album aren’t at least somewhat accurate.)
Regardless of what you want out it–an opportunity to reconsider your stance on modern punk rock, or simply an incredibly catchy and fun album–Punky Brüster‘s going to find a way to deliver. Sure, Devin’s gone on to do bigger, better, and more ambitious things, but this is still more than worth your time.
That’ll do it for this week’s Retrospective. Check back later on for today’s Quickies!
Live. Love. Plow. Horns Up.