I’m not even going to waste my or your time trying to introduce Devin Townsend. If you’re here on Heavy Blog; you know the man, the myth, the legend forwards and backwards at this point in his career. His body of work is wide and vast, and the man is quite prolific. He’s hard to pin down, yet you know him when you hear him. Highly respected, often wholesome, yet often misunderstood. Some eras of his discography are looked upon more fondly than others, to be sure; SYL, Ziltoid, and the Big Four Devin Townsend Project records (you know the ones) stand out to me as crests in particular with varying degrees of success in between. Recent output over the last decade – Empath, Transcendence, Z2, Sky Blue, Epicloud – has seen Devin settling into a very specific sound with varying degrees of mania, and they scratch an itch that Devy fans like myself can really appreciate, but is he truly innovating these days? And with Spotify being littered with live album after live album and mountains of demos and bonus content, maybe Devin Townsend fatigue is starting to settle in as we’re inundated with material that feels less vital.
Bless the man, he’s stayed busy during the pandemic and provided us with a steady stream of good content. It’s felt like he’s been on the precipice of completing four albums at once constantly over the last few years, moving from big project to big project with, seemingly, no chance to take time for himself. Perhaps this has led to his works in recent years feeling less focused, inspired, or purposeful. Does Devin have something to say, or is he a slave to content creation in order to keep himself and his family in the black? Hearing him tell it back in the Transcendence cycle, it certainly feels like the latter. This isn’t unique to Devin by any stretch of the imagination, as many legacy acts fall into the career of it all, and by no means can they be faulted for using their talents to live. At least with Devin, we’re getting genuinely great music from a certified musical genius and an incredible human being, and his art has never truly suffered. Name a bad Devin Townsend album. If you try, I’d say you have no heart.
His latest work, The Puzzle and its companion piece Snuggles, is certainly going to be a controversial spot in his discography, but ultimately serves a real utility for Devin’s psyche and artistic process. These are not your standard studio albums with traditional songs with pesky things like structure. The Puzzle amounts to idea vomit; by Devin’s own admission, this was a dumping ground for random emotional impulses that reflected this entire weird period we’ve experienced the last two years. And honestly, it’s kind of incredible the way it worked out. It’s an hour of ambient guitar jams that have been extrapolated into fleeting moments of intent and blown up to a larger-than-life score for the pandemic. As Devin states in his documentary series, “chaos dictates the narrative.” It may seem counterintuitive, but this process of finding intent and inspiration in unconscious impulse and initially undirected improvisation sees Devin at his most creative and artistically exhilarating in years.
As someone touched with unmedicated ADHD and medicated anxiety, The Puzzle just makes sense to me. Despite struggling with hour-plus records from Between the Buried and Me, Mastodon, and Vildhjarta, this 20-track record felt more manageable. Perhaps because it sits comfortably in the background and presents itself to the forefront of attention when necessary to the listener. These vignettes come and go at random, on a whim. From massive ethereal soundscapes and multitracked choirs of the opening “Chromatic Ridge” to the saxophone driven trip-hop of “Hammerhead Sugarplum” and on through the disjointed death metal of “Starchasm,” there are smatterings and shades of everything you’d want from Devin Townsend in bite-sized chunks, arranged as though it was a film score over the course of an hour. If you don’t like what you hear, just wait it out for a minute and something else will come along and offer some fleeting brilliance before it fades into the void, never to be heard again.
The other side of the coin here is Snuggles, a companion piece released simultaneously that feels as fluid and The Puzzle, but is more meditative and ambient, offering reflections of the type of new age atmospheres that Ghost, Ki, or Casualties of Cool offer. The Puzzle certainly offers this in spades, but Snuggles goes all-in, serving as the euphoric aftercare if you’ve got room for an additional 40 minutes of meditation in your life. It feels less necessary than The Puzzle, but equally as vibrant, if you’re into that.
It’s admittedly a hard sell to casual Devin Townsend listeners or those subdued by Devy fatigue, but as a reflection of Devin Townsend’s maniacal genius over the course of the year, it’s a truly remarkable record that also serves a practical utility of purging whatever artistic frustrations and impulses have clouded his focus, perhaps offering some clarity on the other side for a more traditional studio album to come. Best consumed as a soundtrack or film score rather than a fully engaged listening experience, The Puzzle (and Snuggles) may not be an essential cornerstone to the greater Devin Townsend oeuvre, but it is a thoughtful experiment that actually works.
Devin Townsend’s The Puzzle and Snuggles are out now on Hevy Devy Records. The album can be purchased at this location.