Devin Townsend – Order of Magnitude: Empath Live, Volume 1 (Album Review)

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Rarely does a live album actually reach me these days. It’s not by lack of skill or passion of performance that I am often left unmoved. It’s simply because it’s become such a  common practice for a band to play every cut by the book, to a click, and with the accompaniment of backing tracks. And while I grant that hearing a song performed exactly as recorded is kind of sort of cool I guess, it leaves absolutely no room for surprises. The magic of an impromptu jam, the potential for transcendent improvised solos, and the rush of recognizing a wildly rearranged favorite completely vanishes in favor of hearing the cut exactly as you’ve heard it dozens of times already, with the added “benefit” of a disembodied choir, piano, or bouzouki being piped in  to further disorient the audience. Unless your band literally requires a full orchestra, I find it much more rewarding and exciting to hear those hard-to-replicate parts actually replicated. Otherwise, thanks, but I think I’ll just listen at home.

Leave it to Devin Townsend to give me a reason to quit bitching. As if his impossibly perfect “Empath” record weren’t monumental enough in its own right, Devy decided to tour the album with an assembly of freaks with whom he’d previously had little to no interaction. Comprised of alumni from  King Crimson, Haken, and Frank motherfucking Zappa, Devy’s band on “Order of Magnitude” is ready to tackle yet another ambitious feat right out of the fucking gate: performing “Empath” without those crutches I so detest.

Rejoice!

“Order Of Magnitude – Empath Live Volume 1” Album Artwork

Such a task is a near impossibility with the limitations of a quintet such as the Devin Townsend Project, so Devy the Omniscient did the necessary by doubling the size of his band, bravely recruiting mostly non-metal musicians but sagely making sure that they’re all fucking badasses. Expectations ever high, this ensemble faces perhaps the most daunting challenge of Townsend’s illustrious career. And holy shit, do they deliver. Those fortunate enough to have attended the North American “Empath” tour before COVID-19 prematurely extinguished it only got a taste of the sorcery heard on “Order of Magnitude,” where the legendary Roundhouse is treated to a performance so tight, so true, and so fiery that even the most attentive listener will question whether these sixteen cuts are really being performed without training wheels.  And lest you fear that this massive recreation of some of Devy’s most enduring cuts of the post-Strapping era is done at the expense of his famously wry and ridiculous wit, I invite you to sit through the fabulously unironic rendition of “Disco Inferno,” which richly rewards even the staunchest and most humorless hater of all things not metal.

Ah, but those rearrangements for which I’ve desperately pined since Mike Portnoy made his unexpected exeunt from Dream Theater? While I do regret that “Orders of Magnitude” does not have more of them, the two that do appear on this first of three anticipated volumes are plenty satisfactory. The symphonic waltz “Why?” gets a particularly impressive treatment that arranges all  the orchestral parts for keyboard, guitar, and four-person choir. It almost sounds too good, like some parts have to be getting piped in, but alas we are forced to rely on Devy’s admittedly good word, and I daresay that Nightwish, once of the few bands I’ll forgive for using backing tracks, could take a cue from the Mighty Canadien.  Meanwhile, “Spirits Will Collide” is at once barely tinkered with and completely re-imagined, with all semblance of metal stripped away, leaving only scant acoustic instrumentation and heartstring-tugging choirs that sound much more robust than on the original record. Really touching shit here, y’all.

Ultimately, the most impressive aspect “Orders of Magnitude” offers is also the most disappointing: the opportunity to completely wreak havoc on already-chaotic music is bypassed in favor of speaking without a teleprompter. Still, that’s a monstrous feat in itself, and literally every band out there will benefit from taking this looser approach to playing what is at its core good, dirty rock n roll. A band unparalleled in skill even by Devy’s standards finds itself unshackled only to converge with furor that’s somehow matched by his lovably grotesque sense of humor. Spirits indeed collide, and in so doing they somehow deliver on the bold promise of this album’s title. Like I said, rejoice!

Released by: Inside Out Music
Release Date: October 23rd, 2020
Genre: Progressive Metal

Musicians:

  • Devin Townsend / vocals, guitar, etc
  • Mike Keneally (Zappa, Dethklok) / guitar
  • Marklus Reuter (Crimson Projekct) / touch guitar
  • Nathan Navarro / bass
  • Morgan Ågren (Kaipa) / drums
  • Diego Tejeida (Haken) / keyboards
  • Che Aimee Dorval (Casualties of Cool) / vocals, guitar
  • Samantha Preis, Anne Preis, Arabella Packard / vocals

“Order of Magnitude” track-listing:

  1. Borderlands
  2.  Evermore
  3. War
  4. Gigpig Jam
  5. Coast
  6. Gato
  7. Heavens End
  8. Ain’t Never Gonna Win
  9. Deadhead
  10. Why?
  11. Lucky Animals
  12. Castaway/ Genesis
  13.  Spirits Will Collide
  14. Disco Inferno
  15. Kingdom

8.8 Excellent

Part comedy show, part sandblasting, and 100% intense, “Order of Magnitude” offers one of the most engaging concert listening experiences of recent years, and irrevocably demonstrates yet again that Devin Townsend is the Frank Zappa of heavy metal.

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9
  • Originality 8
  • Production 9
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