REVIEW: DEVIN TOWNSEND - EMPATH
Devin Townsend has always been one of my all time favourite musicians. Everything from his collaboration with Steve Vai on the seminal album Sex & Religion, his awesome metal opera Ziltoid The Omniscient and his extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad had a massive impact on me as a wee lad. So when in 2017 I heard the news that Devin was going to dismantle The Devin Townsend Project and, with the help of some old and new friends including Swedish drumming legend Morgan Agren (and two other drummers!), musical director and Zappa luminary Mike Keneally, producer Adam "Nolly" Getgood (most well-known as the former bassist of Periphery) and a lot of encouragement from none other than Nickelback's Chad Kroeger, create an album that combined all of his musical facets into one thing, I was very surprised to see what would happen. The result of that is Empath, an incredibly ambitious record that promises to be the Canadian mad scientist's magnum opus.
We begin the journey called Empath (and it really is a proper musical journey, as you'll see when you read on!) with "Castaway", a soothing, beachside soundscape over which Devin's guitar croons as if he’d obtained a Doctorate of Impassioned Austerity from the David Gilmour Institute of Elegiac Guitarmory. He adds Caribbean steel drums, ukulele, and even some pedal steel to the soundscape to ease us into what already promises to be a magnum opus before we’re left with only the shores, the waves, and a lush choir sounding like something off a west end musical.
After packing in more depth and emotion into a two-minute whisper of an interlude than many bands pack into an entire career, Devin then launches into the first proper track "Genesis". If tasked with summarising Devin Townsend‘s musical vocabulary into a single composition, “Genesis” does that job and then some. Opening with the same choir asking us to “receive this love” and a drum loop that could have been lifted from a a Swedish EDM record, “Genesis” soon sees its author confessing (behind the guise of some Great Creator, presumably) that “all of [his]words and fantasy worlds… at the heart of it all there was nothing.” This is a stunning admission from a musician who, more than any other since, has captured the jovial finesse and scope of Frank Zappa and gone completely insane with it. "Genesis" shifts from symphonic metal, eight-bit Nintendo melodies (which as a classic video game fan i went mad for), disco, the Caribbean influences from the album's intro, soul-crushing heaviness with some supremely fast blast beats (provided by Samus of Decrepit Birth, one of the album's three drummers including the aforementioned Agren and ex-Skyharbor and ex-Monuments sticksman Anup Sastry) and Americana reminiscent of the classic country singers. We're only two tracks in and we've already run the gamut of what Devin is able to pull off...
As if“Genesis” wasn't enough, Devin then launches into the arena-sized pop metal of “Spirits Will Collide,” an invigorating track (“don’t you forget that your are loved… don’t you forget that you are perfect…”) that has a lot of similarities with “Life,” from his debut solo album Ocean Machine or with "Hold On" from Epicloud. I can imagine his first impulse might have been to recruit his longtime collaborator Anneke van Giersbergen for the parts we hear performed by the choir, and I’d be remiss to say that such a simple melody (it’s only three notes) feels a little weird when sung by multiple voices. Ultimately, though, the choir will win everyone over and becomes an integral part of the verses, adding a flourish to a good validation that would be as appropriate on the open highway as you drive through the desert as it would be in your child’s bedroom as they drift into sleep. It’s one of the album’s highlights and it's definitely my favourite song out of all of them.
”Evermore” follows with Empath's overall theme of mashing various genres into one cohesive whole. What begins as a deceptively simple hard rock riff in an elementary 1-2 pattern is soon floating uneasily meters before ceding entirely to Devin‘s gentle lilt over his docile acoustic strumming, which then are cut off by a ballroom-worthy waltz that then morphs into the heavy weirdness we expect from Devin. All that happens in under a minute, and if you wait just a few more seconds, you get to hear Devin's take on 80s dance-pop. It is only then that the song’s tone is finally set, if only to be briefly shattered by a straight-up death metal break as its end approaches. “Evermore” is one of the most varied tunes on Empath, and the smoothness with which it transitions would be commendable for most musicans . But for Devin Townsend, it’s only the third song in!
Devin then choses to take a look at the past and revisits his personal national anthem on “Sprite,” where the slowed poem we hear in the middle of “Canada” (from Devin's seminal album Terria) is recited by a gentle English voice not too dissimilar to that of David Attenborough. “Sprite” seems even more a spiritual successor to Terria than Z2: Sky Blue or Ghost are, given its overall chill vibe in spite of the odd growl and requisite metric weirdness. This is followed by the overpowering heaviness that has long been Devy‘s forte with “Hear Me,” where we at last are sparingly treated to Anneke‘s angelic voice as it drowns in a turbulent maelstrom of death metal riffs and blast beats. There's even a blink and you'll miss it cameo appearance from Chad Kroeger in the backing vocals and a little callback to "Shine" from Strapping Young Lad's final album The New Black. This to me is the most nostalgia fuelled track on the album, as it's the most similar to classic Strapping Young Lad songs like "Detox" or "All Hail The New Flesh".
Up next is another standout, “Why,” quite likely the best waltz my two left feet have ever been tempted to dance to. An orchestral flourish at the start beautifully stages this masterfully composed number that could inspire a fair number of prog metal-minded couples to choose it as a first dance. A brief outburst away from the almost completely orchestral textures into Devin Townsend's usual sonic territory, punctuated by perhaps the most death metal growl ever heard on one of his records, quickly subsides to allow the orchestra to continue to promenade its audience down the nearest available aisle. The symphony gently builds up over the next verse with the band succinctly accenting the rising tension, intensifying the ardour inspired in the listener as Devin dramatically projects his famous superhuman pipes at the interlude, finally releasing over four minutes of tension with one of his signature screeches. If there ever existed a case study for excellence in the use of tension in songwriting, “Why” is the perfect example.
“Borderlands” sees the return of the goofy, playful Devin Townsend we all know and love. He manages to make an obnoxious air horn sample and one of the silliest bits of lyrics he's ever written ("got a little doggy and he's doing the woof woof!") endearing as "Borderlands" pushes his mellow boundaries into almost Hawaiian sounding guitar grooves and some great call and response lines between the male and female contingents of the choir. The short interlude "Requiem" sees Devin exploring film score-esque orchestral and choral arrangements, something he hasn't really done before on one of his albums. Then, as Alan Partridge would say, we shall let battle commence, because the album's main event is right around the corner...
The centrepiece of Empath is the twenty-something minute epic “Singularity”. Devin Townsend once again channels his inner David Gilmour by returning to the motif we first heard on “Castaway.” Tender acoustic strumming follows, Devy apparently inspired by the honesty Nirvana offered as the sun set on the excesses of the 80s. If that melody he hums isn't an overt nod to Nevermind's classic “In Bloom,” then there must be something in the waters of the pacific northwest (Vancouver isn't far from Seattle, after all!). Devy soon rides the orchestra’s tender swell into the first of the song’s many climaxes as it transitions ever so briefly into aggressive metal glory a la Accelerated Evolution. The light-and-shade play inadvertently gives way to perhaps the most brutal death metal Devy has ever lain to tape about ten minutes in, capped off by accusations of psychological, psychotropic, and psychosexual war. The absolutely punishing heaviness here must be heard to be believed; Devin's goofy weirdness is a cherry on top that does nothing to detract from the gravity of this part of the song.
Mellowness returns to "Singularity" with light free-form jazz drumming courtesy of Morgan Agren, some whistling and some percussive moves that bring Mingo Lewis to mind. This subtly morphs into some straight-up techno/industrial weirdness, with Devin‘s voice ingeniously layered over it until all we hear is his incredible voice. Some more metal savagery in some unspeakable time signature ensues as if marrying Epicloud to Sky Blue just for shits and giggles, and just when you think shit can’t get any crazier, Steve Vai lets his axe wail. Devin, his band and the orchestra then take the song out in glorious fashion. Nearly twenty-five minutes have elapsed and you don’t know where the hell they’ve gone! And just like that, it’s over. Baffled and befuddled, I then decided to play the album again, letting it run through my ears one more time to fully digest its awesomeness.
Empath is yet another career highlight for Devin Townsend. It truly is his greatest work to date and it'll be hard to comprehend what he's going to do as a solo artist to be able to top this. Maybe he'll finally top it with the symphony he's been hinting at wanting to create for years? Who knows. Like WWE's Becky Lynch is to pro wrestling, when it comes to progressive metal Devin Townsend is "The Man".
ROCKODILE RATING: 10/10
Words by Tom Da Silva