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Devin Townsend – Empath (Album Review)

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Upon the dissolution of his eponymous Project, Devin Townsend openly stated that he’d been considering using his considerable skills to make something more marketable. While we’ve been conditioned to recoil at the thought of a beloved artist “selling out,” such a prospect seems more appealing than appalling from a character like Devin Townsend. This dude has, after all, tackled so many musical extremes with unflinching dexterity that I’m convinced he could collaborate with Cardi B and still walk away with something incredible. I might not personally like his “Cold Lake” or “Fight for the Rock,” but I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t suck.

It took a guy named Chad from a band the masses love to hate to convince Devin that he ought to throw caution to the wind and follow his true vision.

We begin the journey called Empath with a soothing, beachside soundscape over which Devy‘s guitar emotively  croons as if he’d obtained a Doctorate of Impassioned Austerity from the David Gilmour Institute of Elegiac Guitarmory. He expertly dashes in some hints of Caribbean steel drums, ukulele, and even some pedal steel to ease us into what already promises to be an opus both buoyant and reverential before we’re left with only the shores, the waves, and an impeccably celestial choir imploring if heaven is but a “game in vain” while at once reminding us that “[our]time lies in light divine” and that “if joy remains, then pain must stay. Surrender it all.”

After packing in more depth and emotion into a two-minute whisper of an interlude than many bands pack into an entire career, Devy then beautifully and expertly trolls his listeners with a single track that defiantly encapsulates every accomplishment he’s made. If tasked with summarizing Devin Townsend‘s famously illustrious career into a single composition,  lead single “Genesis” is the song to offer. Opening with the same choir asking us to “receive this love” and a drum loop that could have been lifted from an 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 colossal scope of Frank freaking Zappa and has literally gone completely nuts with it. To do so in a track that shifts from symphonic metal, eight-bit Nintendo melodies, disco, Caribbean wistfulness, soul-crushing Strapping Young Ziltoid heaviness replete with blast beats, Americana, and whatever the hell it is Devy does the rest of time seems too deliberate to not be a poetic reboot of an extraordinary career. And dig that refrain: “Let there be light/ Let there be moon/ Let there be stars/ And let there be you.” Is Empath a new beginning?

As if the moo-cow of “Genesis” weren’t enough, Devy continues to fuck with his listeners on “Spirits Will Collide,” an invigorating affirmation (“don’t you forget that your are loved… don’t you forget that you are perfect…”) that beckons “Life,” from 1997’s monumental Ocean Machine, in its introductory orchestration. 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 wins us over and becomes an integral part of the verses, adding an unexpected flourish to a guileless validation that would be as appropriate on the open highway as it would be in your child’s bedroom as they drift into sleep. It’s one of the album’s highlights.

“Empath” Album Artwork

Second single ”Evermore” follows with Devin‘s characteristic mashing of 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 over asymmetric 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 Devy‘s surprisingly danceable take on Madonna or Lady Gaga, and 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 artists. But for Devy, it’s merely track 3.

Devy revisits his personal national anthem, from 2001’s Terria, on “Sprite,” where the slowed poem we hear in the middle of “Canada” is recited without manipulation as the newer track opens. (It’s said that we also hear it on “SYL,” from the first Strapping album, but it’s hard to tell). “Sprite” seems even more a spiritual successor to Terria than 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 strapping young laddiness.

Up next is another standout, “Why,” quite likely the best fucking waltz my two left feet have ever been tempted to dance to. A symphonic opening and a mellow intonation beautifully stage this masterfully composed number that will surely inspire a fair number of couples to choose it as their first dance. A brief outburst, punctuated by perhaps the deathliest growl ever heard on a Devy recording, subsides quickly to allow the orchestra to continue tempting its audience to promenade down the nearest available aisle.  The symphony gently aggrandizes over the next verse with the band succinctly accenting the rising tension, intensifying the ardor inspired in the listener as Devy dramatically projects those superhuman pipes at the interlude, finally releasing over four minutes of tension with a characteristic screech. If there ever existed a case study for excellence in use of tension in songwriting, “Why” is it. Dayum.

Borderlands” sees the return of goofy Devin, a playful romp where he manages to make that godawful air horn effect endearing even as it pushes his mellow boundaries into the film score orchestrations and choral divinity of “Requiem.”

And then, the real fun begins.

The undisputed centerpiece of Empath  is the twenty-something minute “Singularity,” where Devy once again channels his inner David Gilmour 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 80s cock rock excess; if that melody he hums is not an overt nod to “In Bloom,” then I am forced to think there must be something in the waters of the Pacific Northwest that enkindles its muses. 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; the goofball progressive weirdness is merely a cherry on top that does nothing to detract from its gravity.

Mellowness returns with light free-form jazz drumming, whistling, and some percussive moves that bring Mingo Lewis to mind, and this subtly morphs into some straight-up techno/industrial weirdness with Devin‘s voice ingeniously layered over it until all we hear is that incredible singing. 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 a singular, glorious ride. 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, you make sure you’ve got this masterpiece on repeat so you can zip through the next hour+ over the course of a few intense, gratifying minutes. Fucking hell, Devin. I don’t know how you keep doing it, but you’ve outdone yourself again.

Released by: InsideOut Music
Released Date: March 29th, 2019
Genre: Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • Devin Townsend / vocals, guitars, synths, bass, programming
  • Nathan Navarro / bass
  • Morgan Ågren, Anup Sastry, Samus Paulicelli / drums
  • Mike Keneally, Steve Vai, Shaun Verreault / additional guitar
  • Anneke van Giersbergen, Che Aimee Dorval, Chad Kroeger, Reyne Townsend, Josefa Torres, Ron Getgood, Elliot Desgagnés, Elektra Women’s Choir / additional vocals

“Empath” Track-listing:

  1. Castaway
  2. Genesis
  3. Spirits Will Collide
  4. Evermore
  5. Sprite
  6. Hear Me
  7. Why?
  8. Borderlands
  9. Requiem
  10. Singularity
    • Adrift
    • I Am I
    • There Be Monsters
    • Curious Gods
    • Silicon Scientists
    • Here Comes the Sun!
9.0 Excellent

Devin has done the unthinkable and created the perfect career retrospective not by looking back, but by looking forward. Simply put, “Empath” is the culmination of Devin's life's work times fifty, creating yet another intimidating apex in a career rife with stratospheric highs. And to think we have Nickelback to thank for this

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9
  • Originality 9
  • Production 9
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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ulf Claesson on

    Well, what to expect? I have loved virtually everything Devin has made, and while I think it will be hard to replace Deconstruction and Casualties of Cool as my personal favourites, I feel confident this album will triumph!