DVD REVIEW: DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT – Ocean Machine – Live At The Ancient Roman Theatre, Plovdiv
There are few artists in modern progressive music more respected and acclaimed than legendary madman Devin Townsend. And when it was announced that his long running Devin Townsend Project was coming to a close, it was a sad day indeed for prog fans. Before the end, though, Devin and the band filmed a final concert; this time in the ancient Roman theatre in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv and accompanied by the Orchestra of Plovdiv State Opera. This concert film, ‘Devin Townsend Project – Ocean Machine – Live At The Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv,’ is set to be released in early July, and it is a fitting final chapter of this portion of his career, and, by my reckoning, the finest live release of his career.
The concert is broken into two sets; the first a fan chosen set list, during which time the band is accompanied by the orchestra and choir, and the second a band-only performance of Devin’s first solo album ‘Ocean Machine’ in its entirety. The performance coincided with the 20th anniversary of the album’s release. For fans of his music, Ocean Machine should need no introduction; it is often hailed as one of his best works and is a long time fan favorite. The band is joined by the album’s original bassist John ‘Squid’ Harder, making an already memorable event even more special. Also included is a bonus disk of interviews with Devin and preparations for the show.
The concert begins with a brief montage of the city, and set up before establishing crowd shots and framing the nearly 2000 year old venue and stage before the band joins the orchestra. The opening track is the mostly instrumental “Truth” off of the classic ‘Infinity’ album, and is followed immediately by “Stormbending” from Devin’s most recent album, 2016’s ‘Transcendence.’ It is immediately obvious that the band was, at this point in their touring schedule, a well tuned machine, and playing incredibly tight. It is also equally clear that they had no issues blending with a full orchestra. The orchestrations are very well done, especially on the more mellow and ambient sections of music; the strings especially raise the music and enhance it to new levels.
The entire first set is a real treat for older fans, or at least fans who love his back catalogue. With the exception of the three songs from ‘Transcendence,’ the fan chosen list is totally devoid of songs from the DTP era; indeed the most recent selection is “By Your Command” from the first Ziltoid album, which is 10 years old. Personally this thrills me as most of these songs aren’t played regularly, especially the songs from ‘Synchestra’ and ‘Terria,’ so seeing them performed in such a beautiful setting and enhanced by the orchestra makes the viewing and listening experience a very special one.
Devin is, of course, in top form. He’s long been one of the most engaging and entertaining front men in the business, and this show is no exception. It’s a full 6 songs before we’re treated to one of his classic monologues about talking to audiences and his method of making jokes. The crowd eggs him on until he flamboyantly declares “therefore I will NOT ramble incoherently! Instead we’re going to play a love song off of ‘Accelerated Evolution’” before jumping into “Deadhead.” It’s the type of moment his fans love, and as “Deadhead” is one of my favorite songs of his it makes it even better. The song works especially well at showing the juxtaposition of his two vocal styles, the clean, highly melodic singing and what is one of the best screams in all metal. The performance here is nigh to perfect. Other highlights from the first set include a mind-blowing performance of “Higher” and “A Simply Lullaby” after which the sky explodes with fireworks, causing Dev to comment “And there goes the budget for the next album!” The set ends with the more soothing “Deep Peace” before the band takes a well deserved break.
The second set is of course the highlight of the package, the complete play through of ‘Ocean Machine’ without any real breaks or alterations. Squid joins the rest of the band onstage to riotous applause and they dive directly into “Seventh Wave.” As the album has been out for 20 years there is little point in describing the songs themselves. What you do need to know is that it is performed flawlessly. As he has been throughout the entire show, Ryan Van Poederooyen is mind-bendingly good on drums. In many ways his playing is the most impressive part of the evening, playing with extreme precision and passion all parts old, and new, no matter how chaotic and complex. Chances are, the best part of this set will be based wholly on the viewer’s preference of songs. “Bastard” is as huge as ever and “Funeral” will bring tears and strong emotions. Impressively after all this time, Devin handles these songs and the vocal ranges with seeming ease, and his vocals are incredible.
He saves what I consider his best performance for (near) last with “The Death of Music.” He abandons his guitar and stands alone at the microphone sans a barrier of any kind. The lights go a dark blue and he alone is in a spotlight; the effect is very isolating and vulnerable. He works through the many quiet, borderline spoken word portions before the music builds towards the ultimate climax at the end. It is impossible to take one’s eyes off him towards the end; the performance is raw, and powerful, the intensity and emotion palatable. It’s really impossible to explain this performance, it simply has to be seen and heard, so I’ll stop trying.
The evening is closed out with “Things Beyond Things” and the signature scream at the end before the crowd erupts in applause. Throughout the crowd seemed to have known and appreciated what a special evening they were witnessing, respectful and quiet when they should be, and enthusiastic when called for. The concert is very well shot without the hyperactive jump cuts that plague so many modern concert films. They let the camera hover and take everything in and they give and hold close-ups so you can actually watch and pay attention to how the musicians play their parts. The mix is excellent and well balanced, which I did not think was the case with the Royal Albert Hall DVD put out a few years ago. The vocals were buried in the mix for that release; this is not at all the case with this one.
As was stated previously, the package comes with an extra disk of behind the scenes footage and interviews. The conversation of Devin and Squid is probably the most interesting part and gives some insight into how ‘Ocean Machine’ came to be. Devin’s appearance on a Bulgarian TV show is also quite entertaining. As far as special features and such things go, it works quite well, but is not likely to be something you’ll want to watch every time you watch the concert.
My only minor criticism is one that is shared with many concert films and that is the excessive use of strong blue lighting. It makes sense to use it given the music; it fits well and looks great live and in person. But strong blue light looks terrible on film and at times will totally wash the screen out to the point where you can’t even make people out. It’s not excessive in that department; I’ve seen much worse; but it still hurts the viewing pleasure at times. It is not nearly enough to take away from the pleasure of viewing the concert and at times (especially in close-ups of Devin) intensifies the experience.
As a swansong for The Devin Townsend Project, I can think of nothing greater than what Devin and company delivered with ‘Devin Townsend Project – Ocean Machine – Live At The Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv’. It is easily the best live DVD he has released to date, and one of the best concert films I have seen in years. It’s an incredible evening of music performed with precision and passion and captured for all of us in a nearly perfect fashion. It’s sad to see this era end, but it couldn’t have ended any better. Here’s to what he does next.