Many words have been used to describe Devin Townsend over the years. Oddball. Eccentric. Quirky. Canadian. To name but a few. Since exploding into the confused consciousness of metal fans around the world on Steve Vai‘s ‘Down Deep Into the Pain’ video in 1993, Townsend has gone on to create a musical legacy so uniquely unconventional that his career almost defies description.
From concept albums about a coffee-loving alien to records featuring experimental ambient soundscapes; from breathy tranquility to walls of impenetrable noise; from straightforward Classic Rock to the strangest forms of progressive metal, and from cyber-disco to space country, you have to wonder where he’ll take us with new album Empath (Inside Out/Sony Music).
Well, this time our journey begins with the relaxing strains of ‘Castaway’ as they place you gently upon the sands of an idyllic and uncharted island paradise. Palm trees bend in the warm breeze of the mid-afternoon sun, and waves lap lazily onto the shore as the tranquil, Hawaiian guitar and ethereal choir slowly segue into seven deranged minutes of every single idea Devin Townsend has ever fucking had. Madder than a sack of electric bees, ‘Genesis’ is a time and space where Dance beats meet Death Metal; Jazz and groove meet funk, and cows and cats play Space Invaders.
Welcome to Devin, folks. Buckle up and assume crash positions.
From one cataclysmic ball of genre-bending absurdity, you’d expect to be hurtled straight into another. But Devin knows you’ll be expecting that, you see, and continues instead with the more focused and serious ‘Spirits Will Collide’. Strings, choral backing vocals, Death Metal roars, and an epic chorus somehow all combine to make this uplifting track one of the only truly accessible moments on the record.
The Prog mayhem quickly returns with ‘Evermore’, a place where moods and soundscapes dissolve, explode and reassemble at will, like the scenery in some mad version of The Lego Movie. With castanets though, obviously. ‘Sprite’ begins with a children’s story and is scattered with moments where Devy seems to be preparing to jump off a cliff again, but it’s all just a tease this time, and suitably bizarre outro aside, it never really happens.
Voted “Song on Empath Least Likely to Feature Chad Kroeger” by readers of What The Fuck Am I Actually Listening To? magazine, ‘Hear Me’ is a churning, messy and utterly stupefying explosion of unrelenting inaccessability. Sort of like Strapping Young Lad blowing up the Death Star by throwing nightmares at it.
With Chad Kroeger.
The album continues, taking stops via a 1930’s Judy Garland movie, more Death Metal, riffs, stupidly gladdening choruses, saxophone solos, steel drums, some kind of intergalactic themed Broadway musical number from the Caribbean, and a short, dramatic instrumental which sounds like a film score. Actually, it’s Devin, so it’s more like three film scores at once.
The final track, ‘Singularity’ – all twenty-four minutes and six parts of it, no less – is the album’s showpiece and sounds like something Rush might have attempted after a night of Cannibal Corpse and hallucinatory narcotics. From the opening hints of ‘In Bloom’ by Nirvana, Devin’s vocals pitch and swerve with each section, sometimes adding contrast, sometimes creating balance, his voice soars, falls, ebbs and flows to tribal drum rhythms, computer game keyboards, angular and chunky groove-driven riffs, baffling interludes, choral arrangements. And cats.
As eclectic as it is ambitious, Empath is a mesmerizing jigsaw puzzle of musical contortion that will live long in the memory whether you want it to or not. However, such as its heterogeneous nature suggests, it’s also prone to occasionally tripping itself up in fleeting moments of puppy-like excitability. For the long-time listener, this will merely be brushed aside with a casual hand movement and “It’s Devin. What do you expect?” For the first time listener, however, this way lies madness.
Featuring guests such as Anneke Van Giersbergen and Ché Aimee Dorval, plus the aforementioned Steve Vai, and Chad Kroeger from Nickelback, there is simply no earthly way to absorb everything you hear on just a couple of listens, so don’t even try. Even those who claim to be unsurprised by its fractured, almost non-Euclidean nature, will surely find themselves in a state of bewilderment on more than one occasion.
Seriously, Death Metal and castanets, who does that? Oh yeah, that’s right.
9 / 10