REVIEW: DEVIN TOWNSEND – “Empath”
Empath: one who experiences the emotions of others: a person who has empathy for others.
Like many people, I was shocked and slightly saddened when the news broke in 2017 that musical mastermind Devin Townsend was breaking up The Devin Townsend Project. The band had been having great success and over the years hit a wide variety of sounds and styles. After the initial surprise (and pleasure of the final concert DVD release) I became excited, however. The last couple DTP albums, while good, had begun to blend together and had a “sameness of sound” that was starting to get predictable. When Devin made the announcement that his new project would be on his own, with select musicians to make it realized, and be totally free of constraints I became considerably more excited. The end result was ‘Empath’ an album that could only have been produced by a person like Devin. And like the meaning of its name, it not only has soaked in the emotions of others but strives to make the listener feel and understand them as well.
The resulting album is a piece of classically epic proportions. Homer himself would be pleased with the host of characters that have come on board to make this music a reality; and the length, scope of the music, the variety, and the places it takes the listener to make the trials of poor Odysseus seem a bit more relatable. The album contains no fewer than three individual drummers, additional guitarists including his old friend Steve Vai, a full choir, and longtime vocal collaborators Anneke Van Giersbergen and Che Aimee Dorval. The result? An album unlike any he has done before.
If I were to say it was his heaviest since SYL released ‘Alien,’ and his most gentle and beautiful since ‘Ghost’ I don’t believe I would be lying. It contains ambient passages that we haven’t heard since ‘The Hummer,’ and it is in many respects a mentally and spiritually healthier version of ‘Infinity’. This is Devin at his purest and most unrestrained. In many ways, his entire career has been building up to this release, and it’s utterly brilliant.
The album begins with the soothing sound of the ocean’s waves, softly crying seagulls, and a light jazz guitar in the aptly titled “Castaway.” As it moves along a women’s choir begins to sing softly. This leads directly into the first single released, “Genesis.” In the preview for this song, Devin pointed out that generally a single for an album is never an accurate representation, but in this case, it was. He is correct in this assertion. The song is a microcosm of what the rest of the album will be. It is soothing and beautiful, it is electric and ambient, and it is a furious metal assault with screams that have become his trademark. It is catchy, and at the same time multilayered and complex. “Genesis” means a new beginning, and this song and album are just that.
Though I do not care for reviews that go song by song, there is a lot to talk about with this album and so “Spirits Will Collide” needs its own mention. A lighter, more pop-friendly song with a heavy choir, it is dominated by Devin’s strong and far-ranging vocals. His voice has always been an instrument; be it a primal scream, or a vocal melody that will make the rocks cry. This song is the latter and a strong statement of hope. It is a defiant scream into the dark, against the pain and misery of the world. An encouragement to hang on. And while most songs of this nature are sentimental rubbish that would put a diabetic into a candy coma, Devin has the vocal strength and personal gumption to make it work.
We later get the very quirky “Sprite,” which begins with someone telling a children’s story about a bird who loses hope, only to find the will to fly when a bear walks in. It’s odd. The rest of the song is heavily electric in nature, a lot of keyboards and modifications. It is perhaps the most like what Devin has done as of late, only it occasionally morphs into death growls and oddly metered drumming. It is immediately followed by “Hear Me,” one of the heaviest and most frenzied pieces in recent memory. The intensity of Dev’s screams and double bass are only matched by the kinetic speed of the key work. It is vocally aided by Anneke, and as always her vocals add a well-rounded touch to the insanity that surrounds them. In many ways this song is the best of the more brutal styles that Dev has done in recent years, only pushed further and with a more extreme result; it is not a song one will soon forget.
After this track, we get “Why” which seems fitting as I’m sure more than a few people who hear it will ask “Why is this on the album?” It is a very pastoral little piece, with Dev singing over music that would make Vivaldi more than a little happy. But then in the middle of everything the music drops and deep guttural death metal growls are heard before going back into a sunny day for a picnic. Do I have an answer to why? Not even a little, but its another prime example of what this album is about. Total musical freedom; and randomness when its auteur decides it needs it. Will it eventually make sense? I have no idea, but I enjoy it regardless. In similar ways, the 11 minute “Borderlands” is a hodgepodge of seemingly random sounds and electronic moments, with a sparse soothing ambiance that ties into the tropical feel of the opening track.
And at last, we come to “Singularity.” This piece is nearly an album unto itself, a six-part twenty-three and a half minute opus. It contains, and exemplifies, everything that the rest of the album has been building up until this moment. Prog rock and metal are, of course, the breeding ground of long epic tracks. These are nothing new and, for the prog fan, these songs are our bread and butter; long, complex, “indulgent,” everything we love about the genre, and everything the naysayers hate about it. Of course, their boring taste isn’t my problem. So I’ll write this how I will.
The song starts peacefully and quietly with the crashing waves from the opening track and simple guitar before the vocals come in. The lines are simple, yet highly effective ‘I don’t know where to go, and I don’t know what to do/ But I know I want to be there with my arms around you/ I’m alone/ Now I don’t know where we’ll go/ And I don’t know what we’ll do/ But I’d sail the world for love/ And I’d sail the world for you.’ This quiet intro of course only makes up the first few minutes of the song before things grow in intensity and explode into the metal frenzy that remains one of Devin’s signature elements. As noted above, the song is in multiple parts, and “Monsters” and others become readily apparent when they arrive. “Monsters” is greeted with a barrage of double bass kicks that will make any tech death fan get giddy in their enjoyment.
Despite the heaviness and continual insanity (which given my love for experimental crazy music makes me unspeakably happy), there remains a strong sense of melody and vocal hooks that the uninitiated can latch onto. About halfway through the song, everything calms down, strong and soothing vocal melodies come back, along with birdsong. It is, of course, short-lived because it rapidly descends into a section that is partially free jazz (with exceptional and intricate drumming), which bleeds into electronic mayhem complete with driving guitar riffs, and dark and a foreboding electronically modified voiceover. The final minutes find Devin pulling out his melodic and vocal best, and bringing the main melody back to its most pure. At the end of the day, his voice, sense of melody, and beauty is what brings this unique piece of insanity to a fitting and emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Empath is an album that will confound and thrill Devin’s many fans. While at the same time forcing everyone who hears it a question if every genre available to an artist can be combined in one piece and if so, if it should be. I maintain that they can, and should, be combined throughout an album. And Devin is not the first to do so. With ‘Empath’ he has soaked in a career’s worth of experience and feeling and has put them out for us all to hear. And in doing so we may connect with them. The result is he has joined the ranks of John Zorn, Frank Zappa, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis, in that he has crafted and formed a work and legacy that is a genre of one. It is experimental, progressive, and avante garde music at its finest. Call it metal, rock, electronic, classical, jazz, whatever you wish, it is all those genres and more. Few artists are brave enough to go this route, but Devin has thrown the gauntlet down for others of his generation to follow his lead. I’ll admit, my preference for more experimental and unique music will taint my scoring, but it’s honest, and I can do nothing else.
Devin Townsend has created with ‘Empath’ a work that is unconventional, far from mainstream, and a work of genius. An Empath is a person who can soak in and understand another person’s emotions. Devin has been doing that for years, and with this release, he has taken all those emotions and spewed them out for the listener to not only hear but try and come to grips with. Listen closely, and you’ll become a more understanding person, not only for the music at hand but with the madcap, deranged people you see every day. Where will ‘Empath’ rank in the history of Devin’s career? I can’t answer that. This album will need a few years to fully digest. But what I can confidently say is that his career will likely be viewed in two parts: Pre Empath, and Post Empath. Because everything that came before lead to it, and whatever comes next will be the result of it. I don’t know how it will sound, but I look forward to hearing it.