Where to go next as an artist when you are, effectively your own genre? This seems to have been the quandary for Devin Townsend as he approached this latest album. Having achieved new levels of acclaim with a steady roster of musicians as The Devin Townsend Project, he put that band to rest and set about starting over with a wider scope, a larger group of collaborators and possibly one of his best albums to date.
Disclaimer: at this point in my life I’ve been listening to the man’s music for longer than I haven’t, I distinctly remember hearing his first band Strapping Young Lad in the early nineties and being amazed at how something could be so heavy and so damn catchy at the same time. His music has been the soundtrack to large chunks of my life: I’m a big fan. Enough said.
Enter ‘Empath’, a new step forward, and though it does have all the trademarks of a Devin Townsend album; containing as it does a dizzying array of styles, across a spectrum that goes from the softest ambient lullabies to blistering tech-deth metal. There’s a sense of maturity and honesty, and perhaps a even grander musical ambition than we have seen before.
‘Castaway‘ opens with dreamlike tropical vibes, before a female choir segues the way into ‘Genesis‘, a proper benchmark for what is to come, with it’s stomping heavy stabs, leading to the first fist pumping ‘hell yeah’ metal chorus. Throw in some double kick drums, more choirs, some Prog guitar moments with gospel, and did I mention the grooves? It’s a calling card for Devin’s new chapter. Lyrically there’s much talk of darkness, light, monsters and the self which seem to be a running theme throughout the album.
‘Spirits will collide‘ is an actual ‘lighters in the air’ power ballad, a life affirming anthem, offering positivity in the darkness.
‘Evermore‘ is more playful, from it’s driving intro, which gives way to an acoustic segment which turns into musical theatre. One of those songs that is constantly keeping the listener on their toes, and another reason for repeated returns to this album. It’s too much of a smorgasbord to take in just one listen.
As the album progresses the lyrical themes develop but the music expands into every territory imaginable. ‘Sprite‘ melds a children’s story into more Prog fuelled oddities. ‘Hear me‘ is a full on assault in the vein of his Strapping Young Lad years, tempered by the sweetness of long time collaborator Anneke Van Giersbergen’s vocals to balance out the Rage. ‘Why‘ is classical and pastoral, you could almost imagine it on a Divine Comedy album.
The album closes with ‘Singularity‘, an epic song in 6 sections. it’s also a breezy 23 minutes long, and yet never feels like it’s overstaying it’s welcome. It features plenty of insane tech death metal drumming and Zappa like interludes; Ex Zappa guitarists Mike Kineally and Steve Vai both play on the song, but it also features more moments of beauty and light, celestial metal, screams, violence and monsters, that eventually give way to melodies by the end, It’s almost a mini album in itself.
The breath taking scope and scale of this album take some time to sink in, and it’s definitely one to be appreciated with repeated listens. Devin could have so easily kept a good thing going with the Devin Townsend Project, but reaching for new artistic challenges and taking the time to put together such a monumental project like this is to be applauded.
Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, the guy has drive and authenticity in spades. He may be his own genre, but even within that, he’s still striving to reach higher, to connect with the listener on so many levels, to push so many buttons. Simply wonderful.
Empath is released on 29th March through Inside Out Music.