DEVIN TOWNSEND – Ocean Machine (Biomech): Live-Stream (May 1st, 2021)

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So let’s just get one thing out of the way: I am neither a TV nor a movie guy, and despite being an avid lover of live music, I am not a concert video guy either. How much of a not-visual-media guy am I? Well, I pre-ordered Nightwish’s “Decades: Live in Buenos Aires” Blu-Ray after giving it a very favorable review on this very website, and it still sits unopened in my bookcase a year and a half after its arrival. It’s not because I don’t love the band or that performance. I simply don’t like looking at screens.

So I just didn’t really bother with livestreams even as the Covid-19 pandemic made them necessary for touring musicians who were still interested in, you know, income. I did briefly tune in when Eluveitie singer Fabi Erni debuted her side band Illumishade last summer, but watching what amounted to a tech rehearsal (full production, no audience) just felt… I dunno, voyeuristic.  I tuned out after a brief while and simply haven’t bothered with the livestream thing since.

Until today. And how fitting that my first full livestream experience was from the same guy who gave me my last live music experience nearly fourteen months ago. Even for non-fans, his legendary wit, self-deprecating perversions, and absurd amounts of skill and raw talent make any performance from Devin Townsend full of surprises. And as much as I will yoink any reasonable opportunity to see the guy on stage, one thing that’s always rubbed me ever so slightly the wrong way is Devy’s reliance on both backing and click tracks. I get why they’re useful. But seeing a certain Finnish folk metal band play what may as well have been a karaoke set might have turned me off to the practice entirely.

Devy is a special case though, because Devy does not know how to suck. He’d also eschewed the clickybackytrack entirely for his “Orders of Magnitude” live set last year. So even though Devy’s famously searing YouTube playthroughs obliterate any doubt regarding his mastery of this obviously restrictive medium, returning to that just seemed like a step backwards. We already know of three other dudes in the Vancouver area who can and indeed have played “Ocean Machine” in its entirety anyway, so why not do that?

If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that a re-recording of “Ocean Machine” might be in the works.

Might be in the works.

M i g h t  be in the works.

This is strictly hypothetical, and I deadass won’t declare it to be the case until my  suspicions are confirmed. But the notion that Devin “Phil and Mutt Who?” Townsend took the time to revamp his “Ocean Machine” tracks to only use them for a single livestream performance is just silly. This isn’t just some goofy Canadian’s youthful solo album where he yearned to show his softer, gentler side. This is a goofy Canadian’s goddamn motherfucking Mission Statement, and as powerfully as it’s stood the test of time, its ambitious sonic landscape is twenty-four years out of date. Do you really think the mind that created such sonic masterpieces as “Empath” and “Transcendence” is gonna go through the trouble of giving even a rudimentary tweak to the album that’s become the de facto blueprint for damn near his entire discography for just a single livestream? Bitch, please. I’m envisioning a 25-anniversary re-recording… no… re-imagining of the first of his many bold artistic statements.

You heard it hear first. But don’t @ me if it doesn’t happen, because I’m really just talking out my ass right now. Also, I’m not on Twitter.

Anyway.

The cool part about this, his seventh, livestream being a backytracky playthrough is that Devin has the freedom to set up on the deck of The Farm Studios in rural British Columbia. The two camera setup was augmented by aerial footage via what Devy calls the “Most Malevolent Space Age Bug” (simps like us call it a “drone”), and holy shit I’ll be damned if those aren’t the most visually stunning rural landscapes that side of Puget Sound. There are Texas skyscrapers that would get dwarfed in these forests, and they make for a much more appealing set than an empty club would have. Hell, it even resembles the “Stormbending” video. Excellent move there.

Any Devin Townsend performance is multifaceted by virtue of it being Devin Townsend, and one of those facets is the incredible ease with which Devy does the impossible. Being able to see him fully lit, exposed to the elements, with no drunk dude in viking horns or exuberant crowdsurfing goth chick blocking the view gave the little short dude that is me his first real opportunity to appreciate how completely Devy’s craft consumes him. That’s not just a guitar to him. It’s a conduit that connects him, and us, to the human experience.

It was a little disconcerting, however, to hear the Leslie effects pumped into Devy’s voice during “Seventh Wave” as the aerial footage encircles the mighty treetops of British Columbia. This isn’t strictly an unplugged performance, though, so I’ll allow it.

Dev brought out a Telecaster (an instrument I don’t recall him ever playing on stage) for “3AM,” a cut for which the tweaked tracks, most notably the completely reprogrammed drums, are most clearly heard. If my speculated re-creation of “Ocean Machine” is indeed gonna happen, “3AM” itself would probably be worth the price of admission.

No Devy performance is ever complete without a heaping helping of goofball humor, and it’s during “Life” that we hear Devy take it just a bit too far for the first of many hilarious times. It’s pretty clear that having the pandemic bend him over for thirteen months straight has done something of a number on Dev. “Let’s see if I can nail this ending,” he mutters at song’s end only to drop his pick, much to the bemusement of the Chatbox Noodleheads. Dev’s nothing if not a consummate pro though, so he missed no cues for the start of “Night.”

Much of the performance was exactly what you’d expect from clickybackytrack playthroughs by a musician on this high a level. It was intense, flawless, and completely by the book. This is clearly nothing to sneeze at, but a degree of magic is lost if you already know what to expect. That said, cuts like “Regulator” and “Bastard” will never not completely flatten me, and it’s both heartwarming and harrowing to know that Devy still has the love and rage in him to do those compositions justice damn near a quarter century after committing them to DAT, or whatever. Also, big props for bringing out that semi-hollow body; never has “Funeral” sounded so alive.

Funeral” also featured the first appearance by surprise guest Cooper, a bigass black puppy who soon got nearly as much camera time as Devin did. Ever the pro though, Dev didn’t allow Cooper to distract him enough to not completely reinvent the riveting final minute of “The Death of Music.” Just wow, dude. Wow.

And again we find Devy rather goofily searching for that mosquito/ drone during one of the most somber songs on the album, the gentle ballad “Things Beyond Things,” where he punctuates the song’s tender second line with an earth-rumbling belch. This disrespects neither the song nor the audience, of course. This is Devy, after all. You don’t go to a Devy show to get all weepy and emo. You go to a Devy show to have your mind blown via musicianship, songcraft, and beautifully irreverent humor. In other words, you do to a Devy show to be happy.

“And the biggest middle finger you can give right now,” Devy reminds us, “is to be happy.”

Shoutout to Kim in St. Augustine.

DEVIN TOWNSEND Setlist:

Seventh Wave / Life / Night / Hide Nowhere / Sister / 3 A.M. / Voices in the Fan / Greetings / Regulator / Funeral / Bastard / The Death of Music / Thing Beyond Things

Encore:

Ocean Machines (Acoustic; Snippet)

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