Reviewing a Devin Townsend album is not a simple effort. The man and, by now, the musicians which have become his troupe in the last few years have such a wide range of music to their name. This makes approaching each album consecutively harder, as expectations, momentum and community perceptions pile up on each other, making the task of channeling them into a positive attitude an intricate dance. On the one hand, a reviewer should try and intake each album as its own creation. On the other, context is important and wiping the slate clean usually weakens a critique’s strength. And so, we come to Transcendence, an album impossible to understand outside of context and yet, very much its own creation. It reaches back into past releases like Infinity and Epicloud but flings those influences into Townsend’s current and, perhaps, future influences.
Take the first duo tracks on this album, “Stormbending” and “Failure” (before you mention it, yes, we’re skipping over the remaster of “Truth”. It’s an odd choice for an opening track and the remaster itself is nothing to write home about). On Epicloud there were these slow moments on tracks like “Where We Belong” and “Angel” where the epic vibes turned up a notch while the music became dominated by a dizzying blend of synths, guitars and drums. This is what “Stormbending” is and so is a lot of the rest of the album; from the get go, Townsend amplifies these emotions with his trademark lyrics (“Time is a human construct” has never sounded better), lending a dream-like quality to the whole thing. By the time the post-chorus bridge arrives, with its optimistic guitar and Rush-like synths, the technicolor beast that is Transcendence is in full swing.
“Failure” picks up on those slower, more condensed vibes and supercharges them. The synths are bigger along the intro, gaining a pomposity last seen on Deconstruction (or at your nearest circus). Townsend sounds as excellent as ever, whether on the seductive lows that make up the verses, tinged with his unique vibrato or the incredible highs closer to the chorus. The classic choir sound returns, resplendent, on that selfsame chorus. However, the true hallmark of this track is a solo. Yes, solos and guitar leads haven’t played a prominent part in Townsend’s career in recent years but here, they are back. And they’re excellent; the solo on “Failure” is so expansive and evocative that it has been compared, in the weeks following the single’s release, to many artists. For this reviewer, the obvious comparison is John Petrucci on Dream Theater‘s Falling Into Infinity, as the effects cry out the sound of the late 90’s (especially near the end, as it transitions from screaming shrieks to the synth-infused segment right after it).
So far, so good. However, this album has its share of flaws. For one, several tracks on the album’s middle selection fall a bit flat. “Stars” for example, a good track which was written by Townsend live for Toontracks, somehow loses from its power when introduced in the album format, as if its engine was its unique position and conception. That being said, the greatest sinner in this regard is the album’s title track. “Transcendence” simply sounds like a less successful version of the rest of the tracks on the album, a slow burning song which aims for epic but perhaps overshoots its mark. Here, Townsend forgoes dynamics in his vocal approach and simply beings at eleven from the moment the track starts. Coupled with the insanely large synths, this leaves the track no where to really go and it ends up meandering around its main ideas.
This problem can infect other tracks on the album, like “From the Heart”. Luckily though, Townsend’s penchant for composition manages to, more or less, carry the rest of the album into success. Sure, “From the Heart” can be repetitive as well, starting at the top and just sticking with it, but something about that top is so enchanting, childishly exciting and moving that it works. Perhaps the last element that deserves mention here is Anneke van Giersbergen. Already a common feature of The Devin Townsend Project, she is used much more sporadically on this album and that’s a great thing. Van Giersbergen is an amazing singer, one of the best of the past years, but Townsend has always been a bit overeager in his use of her, post Addicted‘s success. Now, he has seemed to remember that the less you use her, the more powerful her voice becomes. Thus, when she appears near the middle of “From the Heart”, her appearance is like cold water to a parch throat, instantly refreshing.
Overall, Transcendence continues the insane momentum that Devin Townsend has been on in the past few years. It has enough hints of past work to appease fans hankering for his older style. However, it also introduces new elements like more prominent solos and leads in order to transform these ideas into something fresh and forward thinking. Coupled with the obvious elements of a Townsend release which we didn’t bother mentioning here (excellent production, amazing chord progressions and the most wonderful, dream-y sensation you can conjure), this makes Transcendence a worthy and contextual release under the project’s name. Now that we’ve finished analyizing this piece of work, can we please blast it full volume and scream the lyrics in the street? After all, is that not the true test of any Devin Townsend release?