DEVIN TOWNSEND – Lightwork (Album Review)

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The curse of crafting monuments is having to outdo them. I suppose we can’t blame Devin Townsend for following the career-defining “Empath” (and let’s be serious, that was not his first career-defining moment) with last year’s “Snuggles” and “The Puzzle,” neither of which even attempted the scope and breadth of their predecessor. I rarely speak ill of anyone, least of all such an accomplished artisan as Mr Townsend, but let’s just say that I often refer to the experimental weirdness on that pair of albums as “The Snoozle.” I’m sure they moved some of Devy’s fans, but they did not move me.

Expectations justifiably re-calibrated, I hesitated to drop the needle on “Lightwork.” In fact, I put it off for several days, and when I finally did, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed. It did feature actual, structured songs, and Devin was Devinning all over the place again, but “Lightwork” didn’t grab me the way “Transcendence,” “Epicloud,” or the aforementioned “Empath”  had. But I kept listening. And I soon realized that I was listening even without actually playing the damn thing. Godammit, Devin had gone and made another earworm, and my lazy, unsuspecting ears hadn’t even realized it until it was too late.

The deviously laid-back “Moonpeople” kicks Devy’s twenty-somethingth release off to a spurious start, its gently-paced and friendly-faced demeanor somehow wrangling many of the Crazed Canucklehead’s hallmarks: goofball interludes, densely layered voices, and a brief instance of that maddening pitched screeching. How Devy manages to scream in pitch is something of a mystery (I suspect he traded his soul to an evil, coffee-obsessed alien in exchange for this bizarre gift, and probably also a cheeseburger), and knowing that  harmonizing this screech-singing –  in fucking ballads ferfucksake – is but one of the many, uh, endowments this freak of freaking nature offers only cements my conviction that Devy really is the Frank Zappa of metal.

But I digress. “Lightworker” properly introduces us to the album that almost bears its name. Following a promenade parallel to “Empath,” “Lightworker” salutes its audience with alternating splendor and serenity; a soothing piano accompanied by clean and acoustic guitars barely greet us before the orchestra and the metal herald Devy’s return. The verses set the tone for most of the album’s mellow moments – more acoustic folk rock than metal – while the addictive, anthemic refrains remind us that despite all of Devy’s beastly talents, it’s his ability to connect with the human soul that really earns him the derference of his devotees. You know you’re impacting someone if your shriek can elicit tears.

Up next is “Equinox,” which incorporates techno ambiance, trip-hop drums, and brütal trem picking to give us a taste of easy-listening black metal before the vocal even kicks in at 0:43. Not a mere variation on the classic light-and-shade formula we’ve been hearing at least since Zeppelin  gave us their take on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” in 1969, “Equinox” bridges the void between beauty  and brutality in a manner you’d expect from a Dido/ Ihsahn collaboration, and does so with the ease and grace of a creator for whom this is just another day at work. It’s not “easy listening” per se, but it is very easy on the ears.

I’d forgive you if you insist that “Call of the Void” is easy listening though, with the caveat that unlike much of that sphere of music, this cut is actually uplifting. “Call of the Void” sees Devy in peak consolation mode, painting an open, expansive soundscape that he gracefully populates with his many instruments and voices without it ever feeling dense or overcrowded. It sounds the way the cover of “Sky Blue” looks, and I can only imagine Jim Barton and all the members of Queensrÿche 1.0 listening in both terror and delight as they realize that this goofy kid from that city just north of Seattle actually outdid what they accomplished on “Promised Land:” to make a record sound huge, spacious, and not even a little congested.

In fact, the MO on “Lightwork” seems to be both counter and lateral to “Empath” in that even busier songs like “Heartbreaker” – and holy shit, there’s a lot happening in that song – have room to breath, whereas the sound on “Empath” was so thick at times you could almost touch it. The totally, absolutely, and in no way at all (I promise) a Zep cover that is “Heartbreaker” does approach the mesomoprhic levels we’ve heard on, say “Deconstruction,” but it stops just short of physically pushing the listener out of their headspace. Likewise, the galvanic fuzz-chug on the almost danceable “Dimensions” threatens to lead us down a similar path.

“Lightwork” Album Artwork

If “Call of the Void” looks like the cover of “Sky Blue,”Celestial Signals” sounds like a continuation of that record. As much as I adore the high points on that 2014 album, they weren’t enough to really lift the rest of the album into essential territory, the ethereal vibe and mesmerizing artwork notwithstanding.  “Celestial Signals” revisits that era and elevates it, and is one of the several peaks on “Lightwork.” A+ on this cut, with extra credit added for that proggy keyboard break after the first refrain.

The empathic “Heavy Burden” is a weird trip down neo-proggy avenues that took several listens for me to really appreciate it; despite it not demanding the listener’s undivided attention, this is another wonderfully bizarre cut that feels like a busy but leisurely trip to some undetermined destination. “Vacation,” on the other hand, sounds like what people who have never heard James Taylor would imagine James Taylor doing if somebody gifted him some Caribbean steel drums.

Lightwork” closes with the ten-minute epic “Children of God,” an empyreal call for harmony that unites massive choirs, enchanting keys, that otherworldly screech, and delayed guitar textures that give a wry nod to Steve Rothery. Hell, the album even closes similarly to that hidden second groove on the Side 4 of “Brave,” and having never known Devy to extol Marillion, I can’t help but wonder if this is just an odd coincidence.

“Lightwork” is in many ways the opposite of “Empath,” a worthy reaction against that fabled feat of frenetic fuckery. Wall of sound firmly intact, it manages to be spacious rather than dense, and I can think of no greater way to service the sincerity Devy imbues into the songs themselves. Take away the trickery, and we are left with a delectable collection of songs that reach into the listener’s inner being. It soothes, assuages, and assures the Inner Weenie, and takes great delight in fucking with it every now and then.  But put that studio sorcery back into play, and we’re bestowed with a collection of songs that sound as unassumingly grand as they feel.

Order “Lightwork” HERE.

Released By: InsideOut Music / Sony
Released On: November 4th, 2022
Genre: Progressive Metal

Musicians:

  • Devin Townsend / Vocals, guitar, bass, synth, computer, orchestrations, co-producer, mixing

With:

  • Anneke Van Giersbergen / Vocals
  • Ché Aimee Dorval / Vocals
  • Morgan Agren / Vocals, drums, percussion
  • Mike Keneally / Guitars
  • Steve Vai / Guitars
  • Darby Todd / Drums
  • Federico Paulovich / Drums
  • Diego Tejeida / Keyboards
  • Nathan Navarro / Bass
  • Jonas Hellborg / Bass
  • Elektra Women’s Choir / Choir

“Lightwork” track listing:

  1. Moonpeople
  2. Lightworker
  3. Equinox
  4. Call of the Void
  5. Heartbreaker
  6. Dimensions
  7. Celestial Signals
  8. Heavy Burden
  9. Vacation
  10. Children of God
 
 

9.3 Excellent

There's not much left to say about Devy's creativity that hasn't been said already. The sheer scope of his musical ability and his mastery of every aspect of creation are unmatched in the world of metal, and to hand that responsibility over to another would be a disservice not only to Devy, but to the music itself. Even if you are not a fan of his work, the fact that Devy exists and is out there doing what Devy does benefits not only you, but the genre and all those who love it. “Lightwork” is yet another triumph in Devy's lengthy discography, and unless you operate on that same twisted, elevated frequency that he inhabits, you too might not realize this until you're given “Lightwork” several listens

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9
  • Originality 9
  • Production 10
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