Devin Townsend – Empath

The release of a new Devin Townsend album is always a bit of an event. The visible ripples of excitement from his notably dedicated fanbase, which greet the emergence of any new material from his corner of Canada, are all the more remarkable for just how common an occurrence it is. To put some kind of comparative scale on Devin’s prolificacy, he released the final Strapping Young Lad album, The New Black, back in 2006. This was the same year that Tool released 10,000 Days. In the period since, where Tool have been supposedly working on a single, solitary follow-up effort, Devin has released between 15 and 20 album’s worth of music, depending on how you count it. With those releases including hyper-chilled ambience, acoustic country and a comedic sci-fi opera as well as heroic amounts of sleek and shiny progressive metal. To say the man has been busy is something of an understatement.

But there is a price to be paid for maintaining such a high-intensity work rate and, following the conclusion of the release cycle for 2016 album Transcendence (the seventh  album in an originally planned series of four), something had to give. Not for the first time in his career, Devin picked up the Etch-A-Sketch drawing of how the Devin Townsend Project (hereafter referred to as ‘the Project) practically functioned, turned it over and gave it a damn good shake, wiping it clean and ready to start again. 

Such a move was unquestionably brave and bold, but not a complete surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to Devin’s career trajectory. First and foremost, there is precedent – by dissolving the Project, he is repeating the process he went through to create it in the first place when he put Strapping Young Lad to bed. Devin is also unstintingly open and honest in interviews and on social media, so had also been talking about the need for a change for some time. Finally, even the most ardent Devin fans must have felt that the Project albums were delivering less bang for their buck with each successive release.  The time was right.

Having taken the decision to make a clear and decisive break from his recent past, including the undoubtedly painful severance of several working relationships with the individual musicians who had served as his live band throughout the Project era, Devin had the opportunity to reassess not only what music he wanted to make, but how he wanted to make it.  In practice, this has led to Devin shifting from his historic role at the front of the pack, leading a team of facilitators, to placing himself at the centre of a much more complex web of collaborations with musicians hand-picked for their skill-sets, ready to be deployed at very specific points in the album, alongside a full orchestra and choir. With a refreshed working environment, Devin was able to work out exactly where he wanted to go next. Now that we’ve been able to hear Empath, we know that he decided he wanted to go everywhere, largely all at once.

It was the release of the triple-attack of City, Ocean Machine and Infinity in the late nineties that first alerted us to Devin’s desires to make music across a spectrum of genres simultaneously. This process was then repeated, refined and expanded during the creative spasm that generated Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost. There is a strong case to be made that Empath is the third iteration of this process, and one that finds Devin in a more mature and self-confident headspace, as well as one more ambitious than ever before. The widescreen scope of Empath covers more ground than those first four Project albums combined, but squeezes it all on to a single CD. Just. At 75 minutes in length, it is practically pushing its nose against the absolute limits of the physical constraints of the format.  There is an awful lot to take in.

However, for all of the free-wheeling insanity that is to follow, Empath embarks on its journey with a whisper rather than a bang. Devin has spoken about how a vision of an island had informed the creative process, and the ambient sounds that form the introduction of opening track “Cast Away” conjure a scene of Devin stood on a beach on this island, with only a guitar and a delay pedal for company. Not that he is alone for long, of course. More and more layers are added to this introductory track as the crescendo builds towards “Genesis”, the lead single that really showed us what to expect from this new phase in Devin’s career.

Empath is a dynamic and emotional rollercoaster ride, and it is in “Genesis” where we experience the first precipitous drops, arcing loops and dizzying corkscrews. It is playful and upbeat to the point of euphoria, scampering around like a kid in a toy store in the grip of a fearsome sugar high. Almost preposterously epic, it barely stands still for more than a measure before barreling onwards to the next idea. Devin’s trademark wall-of-sound production goes into hyperdrive, and it would not be surprising to uncover the ceramic ping of a kitchen sink being struck buried deep in the dense and complex mix, alongside video game noises, choral and orchestral flourishes, blast beats, a disco interlude and cat samples. “Genesis” feels like the key that properly unlocked the mystery of what Empath should become to Devin himself, and the jubliance is stamped on every twist and turn in its arrangement. 

“Genesis” also gives us our first taste of one of the most obvious – and potentially most important – differences in Devin’s new approach, the decision to enlist a trio of drummers with a variety of strengths between them. So we get the rock-solid dependability of prog-metal’s premiere journeyman drummer Anup Sastry, the innovation and experimentation of Morgan Agren and the warp-speed death metal blasts of Samus Paulicelli. Morgan’s contributions, in particular, breathe significant life into Empath, giving the songs a more natural, if sometimes unconventional, groove and really help distinguish the album from Devin’s back catalogue.

Those familiar with that expansive back catalogue will nevertheless find themselves on familiar ground. Echoes of almost all of Devin’s work to date can be heard reverberating through Empath at various points, albeit run through the sausage machine of his new working environment. Indeed, for anyone still unfamiliar with Devin’s output to date (perhaps those now daunted by the sheer scale of that catalogue) are unlikely to find a faster history lesson without a library physically landing on them. But Empath still breaks new ground, or takes previously nascent ideas to new levels rather than simply being a retrospective victory lap. “Genesis” itself feels like a hybrid of Addicted and Deconstruction, and it would be fair to say that this combination is ultimately the dominant vibe of Empath as a whole.

We will resist the urge to pick forensically through each track of Empath in turn, methodically noting each twist, turn and newly emerging element. Largely because there are absolutely fucking loads of them, and we’d be hear till Christmas if we did. Similarly, given Devin’s proclivity for wearing his heart plainly on his sleeve, there’s not much to be gained here from an inquiry into Empath‘s lyrics that couldn’t be learned from spinning the disc with the lyric sheet open in front of you. 

In lieu of thousands of words of description, probably the most succinctly illustrative moment on Empath lies around the middle of the album, with the juxtaposition of “Hear Me” and “Why?”. The former sees, to the inevitable delight of Devin’s oldest fans, a return to the untrammeled energy and fury of the Strapping era, with Samus’ mechanistic and virtually superhuman drumming being deployed to devastating effect. Long-term collaborator Anneke van Giersbergen returns to add a feminine counterpoint to its chest-beating, and the force with which the refrain “all the world is bleeding and we know the reason why” hits after being teased by Anneke in the introduction is simply breathtaking. Yet after this throwback right to the beginning of Devin’s songwriting career, he yanks on the handbrake and pulls a hard right turn into…. musical theatre?  The track may be called “Why?”, but it could easily be called “Why The Hell Not?”

“Why?” sounds like what Devin may have really wanted to achieve with Ziltoid, but now has the strength and confidence to really play it straight, rather than draping the whole concept in absurd science fiction and rather too much toilet humour. It is here, too, that the terrifyingly expensive decision to track with a full, live orchestra rather than a canned equivalent really pays dividends, giving the arrangements a richness and vitality that make the song more than a match for the Disney song-and-dance numbers it was so clearly influenced by. It’s probably also worth mentioning here that “Borderlands” has a distinct reggae influence, and it’s irrepressibly bouncy pop metal is potentially an even greater surprise than “Why?”, especially as these big, singalong hooks are interspliced with the most gentle ambient passages on the disc, transforming it from a four minute radio-friendly single to an eleven minute adventure.

The final third of Empath is given over to “Singularity” a sprawling, twenty five minute epic comprised of six movements. Weirdly, it opens with a moment of deja vu. “Adrift” seems to return to that lone man and his delay pedal we first encountered on “Cast Away”, and the track builds into its segue with “I Am I” in much the same way as well.  The heaviest moments within “Singularity”, during “There Be Monsters” also borrow the perky off-beat bounce of Borderlands, burying the keyboard hits deep enough in the mix for the listener not to immediately notice them. The track also tips more than a nod in the direction of “War” from Infinity.  “Here Comes The Sun” rounds off both “Singularity” and Empath on firm and familiar ground. Empath may well showcase Devin at his most intrepid and adventurous, but even with these expeditions deep into the unknown, he still finds his safest harbours in polished, melodic and anthemic progressive metal. 

And take a breath. Phew.

With so much to consider, it’s probably foolhardy to attempt to answer the question of whether Empath is any good with a simple yes or no. What any individual may think about the album depends on a number of factors including, fittingly, how much empathy one may have for Devin and the way he operates. 

To start with the most straightforward conclusion, Empath is unquestionably an important album, sure to become a cornerstone of how we view his work in the future. Dissolving the Project was a bold and painful step, but it is clear that Devin has relished the challenge of recalibrating his universe, and the unrelenting quality of each individual track shows that the process has been overwhelmingly positive. There is no track on the main disc that feels like a filler, which is more than can be said for the last couple of Project albums. Empath too, contains a number of strong contenders for high ranking on a list of his very best individual songs to date.

Where Empath struggles, even stumbles, is in its standing as a cohesive album, a single 75 minute listening experience. In covering as much ground as it does, Empath doesn’t dwell in any one spot for very long at all. For fans used to Devin exploring a sound or approach over the course of a full album, this might be just too jarring, leaving listeners just a little too punch drunk from the relentless change and dense production for it to really feel enjoyable. The few remaining unreconstructed fans of Hevy Devy may be mortified by the cutesy-poo bedtime story that prefaces “Sprite”. Those drawn in to the fold by his more recent work may be taken aback by the volleys of raw aggression. But there will also be those  – like the very individual typing these words – for whom a Mr Bungle style cannonball run through as many genres as possible is something they’ve been waiting many years for Devin to deliver.

This feeling of becoming stupefied by the relentlessness can be overcome, however, by breaking the album down into more manageable chunks. After all, a slice of black forest gateau is delicious, but trying to eat the whole cake in one go is usually a mistake.  Except for special occasions.  There is even a natural divide, in that “Singularity” can be quite easily hived off from the preceding nine tracks and treated as a separate, but adjacent, entity.  If you are listening from end to end, it’s the perfect place to take a coffee break.  Taking the deconstruction another stage, the individual songs are such well executed examples of their respective genres that they will hold their own on playlists for various moods.  The album as a whole is unquestionably an achievement.  It may not necessarily be a journey a listener would want to make in its entirety on a regular basis, even if one does drop in for a short visit much more frequently.

Put simply, Empath is Maximum Devin.  It is simultaneously a love letter to his past and a fearsome statement of intent for the immediate future.  It is either massively inspired or massively self indulgent.  It could very possibly be both.  It is the wild exuberance of a musician flinging the boundaries of his universe as far apart as he can, and then joyfully exploring his new-found space. Getting to grips with Empath as a whole may be a bit of an uphill struggle, and the journey may not be for everyone, but the view from the summit is simply breathtaking. There are also enough awe-inspiring moments along the way to think that whatever aspect of Devin’s career to date one might connect with most, there’s going to be at least one song on Empath that scratches that itch. A towering achievement.

Empath is out now through HevyDevy Records.

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