March 28, 2019 Devin Townsend – Empath (Album Review)
Canadian musical mastermind and multi-instrumentalist Devin Townsend is back with Empath, due out on Friday, March 29th through InsideOut/Sony Music.
Never one to sit idly by, early last year, Townsend announced that the eponymous Devin Townsend Project, his main vehicle for musical output over the previous decade, would be placed on indefinite hiatus. Shortly after came the announcement that he was preparing Empath for his release, marking his first proper solo record since Ziltoid the Omniscient in 2007. Working with a list of musicians for the album, joining him are Frank Zappa alumni Mike Keneally as music director, as well as Morgan Ågren (Mats And Morgan, Frank Zappa, Fredrik Thordendal), Anup Sastry (Monuments, Periphery), Samus Paulicelli (Decrepit Birth, Abigail Williams), Nathan Navarro, Elliot Desagnes, Steve Vai, Chad Kroeger, Anneke Van Giersbergen, Ché Aimee Dorval, Ryan Dhale and the Elektra Women’s Choir. So who is ready to dive into the abyss with Devin Townsend?
Ten intense tracks in total, crashing waves and the distant tones of an electric guitar set the scene as “Castaway” opens, and the mood shifts as steel drums and a heavenly chorus complete the island experience. Thereafter, “Genesis” is the first proper song on the album, beginning with some screamed vocals from Townsend himself. The song then takes several detours, from whispered verses, to spacey interludes, to sounds often and best emitted by a traveling carnival, wrapping with soft words whispered and washed through a phonograph. In short, “Genesis” is something more of a title-track, as it sets a stern tone by introducing a number of the themes and styles that will be used going forward.
Epic guitar crunch, expanding orchestration, and a beautified chorus take turns flying by in the blink of an eye to open “Spirits Will Collide.” The chorus then alternates with the raspy vocals of Devin as the lyrics espouse almost crippling positivity and motivation: “Don’t you forget that you are perfect/don’t you forget that you are strong.” The track fades off into a warm mist of birds chirping and someone, perhaps running through a field, yelling, “I don’t care!”
This quiet calm is quickly broken by “Evermore,” which begins with an aggressive guitar, crunched repeatedly, followed by soft vocals decorating an acoustic guitar, before shifting again to an expansive chorus of vocalists with Townsend at the forefront. The track resumes its heavier escapades before breaking into almost prototypical Progressive Rock, before skirting the genres of Jazz Fusion and… Steampunk? Portions of the last minute hearken back to the Strapping Young Lad era of Devin’s lengthy career, before the air escapes and the song slips quietly away.
The lightly decorated “Sprite” begins first with a bit of a fairy tale, told with a soft, matter-of-fact voice that might be attributed to a childhood narrator. The story itself is perhaps tongue-in-cheek, as it tiredly recounts the struggles of a small anthropomorphic animal (a bird, in this case) scared into action by the local grumpy bear. Nary thirty seconds pass before the song itself takes a wild turn into a technical free-for-all, with every special effect from the cupboard being thrown onto the vocals and instrumentation.
Midway through the journey, “Why” introduces some spatial orchestral maneuvers, high operatic vocals, and an almost Willy Wonka-esque vibe in sound and detail. Additionally, a hilarious growled vocal about ninety seconds in helps lighten the mood even further, and also beats home the point that Devin can flex and use Heavy Metal elements at will and with the highest skill. The soaring vocals are especially perplexing later in the verses, as the lyrics complain of being “bolted to the ground.” Speaking of comic value, “Hear Me” may be a bit more of clandestine humor, as the track packs the loudest and densest punches of the entire track into its slim seven minutes.
Despite all these broad tangents and diverse adventures, or perhaps because of them, the oddities of “Borderlands” reach new heights. A cock crows to start what can almost be an ‘8os-era Pop hit, before the track ascends into a swinging Progressive masterpiece. Listeners who made it this far will be hard-pressed not to crash around the room as the chorus of “Borderlands” wraps around them. Even the steel drums from earlier make an appearance, as an airy chorus and subtle synthesizers carry the track to a soft tidal ebb as “Requiem” takes focus. Sporting a creepy Tim Burton/Danny Elfman tone, this track takes the listener on a quick, disturbing choral journal, before the massive “Singularity” takes center stage
Divided into six children–”Adrift,” “I Am I,” “There Be Monsters,” “Curious Gods,” “Silicone Scientists,” “Here Comes the Sun”–the final track opens as a loose bookend to the beachy opener, “Castaway.” Isolated guitar tones again reach back into the ’80s, quickly supplanted by acoustic mumblings and languid vocals. The lyrics again reach for collectivity and brotherhood: “They say, ‘We feel your pain, brother’/Yet they feel nothing for one another.” There are too many chord changes and genres to mention here, as would be expected from a twenty three minute song, but there are harmonized vocals, true Heavy Metal progressions, Math Rock interludes, a soft, New Age respite. The title is belied, or perhaps reinforced, as Townsend opines, “Through the meadow, through the field, Shine forever, shine for me!
Empath may have been announced just over a year ago, but, like most of the material by Devin Townsend, it has a sound best described as a mixture of careful planned meticulous work and frenetic energy captured within a brief studio moment. So what does that mean? It means the end result is both careful and chaotic. Simple put, this album may neither make nor lose any fans, but its scope and depth is impressively stout. For those willing to take the journey, the reward is worthwhile, and that is why Cryptic Rock give Empath 4.5 out of 5 stars.