If the last album from the Devin Townsend Project, the brilliant Epicloud (HevyDevy), taught us anything about Professor Townsend and his creative mind, then it was proof positive that, yes, he could pretty much turn his hand to anything he fancied, yet still deliver something uniquely “Devin”, irrespective of the often eclectic styles and byzantine layering of his music.
Epicloud was glorious, carefree and packed full of tunes. Earlier this year, his crowd-funded Space-Country experiment, the introspective Casualties of Cool (HevyDevy/Pledge) album was so warmly received by fans and critics alike that Townsend’s stock has rarely been higher – his forthcoming show at London’s Royal Albert Hall was an instant sell out, for example. In many eyes, he is currently the man who can do no wrong.
As a consequence, expectations are not just high but positively stratospheric for Townsend’s latest endeavour. Z2 (HevyDevy) is a double album (there’s also a limited edition triple CD for those of you who really can’t get enough Canadian in your life) split into two distinct parts. Sky Blue appears to be the natural successor to Epicloud, a record filled to its aural brim with infectious and joyous tunes straight from the heart and the drawer marked “top”. Dark Matters, its companion disc, is a radio play cum musical. However, it’s not quite “Wicked a la Townsend”. No, Dark Matters sees the return of everyone’s favourite fart loving alien, Ziltoid the Omisicient. We’ll come back to him in a bit.
Double albums are notoriously difficult beasts to grapple with. If there’s a suspicion of “all filler, no killer”, that’s perhaps understandable given some of rock music’s recent inglorious past when it comes to musical heft. The common consensus on this sort of exercise ranges from how to edit Use Your Illusion (Geffen) into one digestible chunk; realising that, yes, Fleetwood Mac really did do ALL of the drugs when recording Tusk (Warner Bros) and, frankly, even Corey Taylor must think that there is way too much padding on House of Gold and Bones (Roadrunner). Breathe easier, then, as this is not a sprawling, indulgent mess. Z2 is indulgent and there is a LOT to get through but Z2 is two records being issued simultaneously rather than some attempt at a single, 23 song epic.
Sky Blue comes out of the traps quickly with the chest-beating, fist bumping, anthemic surge that is ‘Rejoice’; long-time collaborator Anneke Van Geisberger is again in tow and there is a lovely, warm homely feel to it all. Well, as homely as crunching metal riffs and sweeping keyboard flourishes can sound, anyway. The pounding tenor of ‘Fallout’ swiftly follows and both tracks combine as an aural one-two to the solar plexus. This is thrilling power pop, bristling with guile and intelligence. ‘Midnight Sun’ is lush orchestration par excellence with more than a nod to the Twin Peaks soundtrack that Angelo Baladamenti conjured with David Lynch back at the start of the 1990s.
‘A New Reign’ continues in similar vein – it’s the yang, to ‘Midnight Sun’s Yin, if you will; both tracks are effectively a call and response to each other, built around a yearning mid tempo beat that comforts as much as its carries you along. ‘Warrior’, a song surely designed for closing credits of a Hollywood blockbuster with its swirling harmonies and cavernous chorus, sees Van Gisberger centre stage once again, her ethereal voice resplendent in the layers of complex yet deftly executed melodies. There’s a lot of metal love on ‘Silent Militia’ – it’s a sort of “Look! I can still do this heavy stuff whenever I like!” statement from Townsend just in case you thought the migration to the centre ground of melody had become a permanent one. That relatively lightweight piece gives way to an altogether dark atmospheric on the reflective ‘Dark City’ while its companion track the plaintive and haunting ‘Forever’ gives the listener as well as artist pause for thought, reflection and introspection. Reflection over, the defiant and defiantly life affirming ‘Before We Die’ wraps up another glorious slice of inspired and inspirational music, as only Devin can provide.
And then we come to Ziltoid. Or, rather, come back to Ziltoid.
Dark Matters is a genuine and brilliantly composed piece of musical theatre and requires the attention of the listener from beginning to end. It is rather akin to a radio play, wherein Devin has recast himself as a modern day Orson Wells and Ziltoid is the protagonist for this most unusual take on War of the Worlds. Those of you familiar with Townsend’s career to date will recall that he used Ziltoid as the bridging point between the early part of his career in Strapping Young Lad to the musical polymath/everyman that we know and love today. Ziltoid is doubly important as it has also given an insight into the mind and sense of humour of Townsend via a medium and backstory that is, at the very least, unusual.
Dark Matters reboots the caffeine addicted puppet as a real alien for this 2014 version. Eschewing the tale from the 2007 album of Ziltoid having attacked earth, we now find that Ziltoid has built a coalition on Earth through the gloriously named Captain Spectacular (hello there, Fozzy’s Chris Jericho). In amongst this densely packed extravaganza of kidnapping, alien planets and weird creatures called Poozers there’s a humble (ish) narrative thread around vanquishing kidnappers and continuing to find the ultimate cup of coffee.
Dark Matters commands your attention because there is so much going on and at a rate of spectacular knots. Whether it’s the architecture of the entire piece with its grandiloquent opening, the self-deprecating narration or some of the heaviest music he’s created in years – witness the serious head-banging proposition of ‘Ziltoid Goes Home’, for example – Dark Matters is a grand and never less than interesting experiment that tests the energy, innovation and creativity of its artist to its limit, and serves the listener with a complex, exhausting, energised and enthralling experience.
Dark Matters works but only in the context of itself – it is supremely indulgent but regard this as the indulgence of a deep long, warm bath or a gluttonous feast. Dark Matters is sometimes hard going but it is often grin-inducing listening. It’s admirable and occasionally genuinely funny. As an exercise in florid musicianship it’s hard to knock but you need to prepare yourself to be immersed- this is a record that commands and needs your attention. All of it.
Barely six months after self-releasing the wonderful introspective space-country Casualties of Cool project, Townsend’s creative juices appear to be in full flow with this latest release, a musical extravaganza that covers a quite astonishing range and depth of musical style and influence. From metal, hard rock, Euro-pop to the magnificent, scatological and barking mad return of Ziltoid the Omniscient, there really is something for everyone here. That old cliché of less being more has not only been thrown out of the window, it’s been pushed off a cliff, thrown to the wolves, run over by a train. On Z2, more is clearly more and this is a musical feast to gorge upon. If the adage “you can’t keep a good man down” has any ring of truth about it, then this must mean that Devin Townsend is a very good man indeed.