I’ve long believed that what separates an elite artist from just a very good one is their live performances. Sounding great in the studio is simply a matter of time and attention to detail, being able to pull it off while still having some real stage presence, well that’s another thing entirely. The best artists are also the best live, be it in person, or even on video, and those are boxes that Devin Townsend most certainly checks off. And now he is set to put out his fifth concert DVD ‘Order of Magnitude – Empath Live Vol. 1’ in late October, and it’s another jewel in his proverbial crown.
Back when I first reviewed ‘Empath’ I wondered how he would be able to pull the album off live as it was incredibly ambitious. And while it wasn’t the entire album, enough of it was performed to give an answer – put together a live band of ten people. And an excellent collection of musicians were gotten, the line up includes guitarists Mike Kenneally (ex-Frank Zappa) and Markus Reuter (Stick Men,The Crimson Projekct), drummer Morgen Agren (Kaipa, Mats & Morgan, Frank Zappa), bassist Nathan Navarro, Haken keyboard player Diego Tejeida, and frequent collaborator Ché Aimee Dorval (guitars/vocals), along with a trio of background singers. With that many players and egos onstage it easily could have gone badly, instead the audience was treated to an incredibly tight performance by a fully gelled band that was clearly having as much fun performing as they audience did watching.
The show begins with a Tiki bar being set up on the stage and Tejeida coming out to start mixing drinks for the band, so from the get go you know that this isn’t a normal gig. The band and Devin make their way out, all dressed in bright Hawiian shirts, the first of several outfits worn throughout the evening. The band kicks right in with “Borderlands” and “Evermore” both of which are off of ‘Empath’ done without the safety net of backing tracks (which Devin often uses as there is so much going on in his music) the band quickly proves more than capable of reproducing the insanity of this last album.
One could easily go song by song through the show as they all have moments worthy of being spoken of, or humorous side comments and crowd interactions by Devin. But that gets old really quick, and no one wants to read such a thing. I will mention that prior to “Sprite” Devin borrows several stuffed animals from someone in the crowd, which spend the rest of the evening next to his microphone, and are zoomed in on more than once. Devin is of course well known for his in-song comments and jokes with the audience, and this show is no exception. The crowd of course responds well to them all.
The sense of playfulness comes out during the songs as well. An early highlight is “Gigpig Jam.” Drummer Morgen Agren comes out to sit at a small box drum to jam along with Devin, it’s a chill, atmospheric session, but throughout Devin finds things for him to play along with the drum, a metal water bottle, a canteen, and most humorously a metal fan. I’ve never seen anyone play an oscillating fan before, but having done so I think they should become standard issue on drum sets. The jam leads into some of my favorite moments of the show, an extended selection of pieces from the ‘Ki’ album that Ché first sang on. “Coast,” “Gato,” and “Heaven’s End” are played in order, the result is quite magical. This is all followed by the explosive and vocal dominating “Deadhead,” the third DVD to include it. It is however one of his best vocal performances so I never complain about hearing it. Devin slips offstage during some light jamming and the band prepares for the second half of the set.
The second half of the show starts with Devin coming back onstage wearing a black tutu (incidentally his legs are every bit as skinny as you would expect). Why is he wearing a black tutu? Because he’s Devin that’s why. And speaking of “Why?” that is the next song performed. The quirky nature of “Why?” allows for more crowd interaction during the “let me go home” death growl moment of the song. The crowd shouts it out, though not quite to Dev’s liking, so he has them practice several times before having them all put their hands on top of their heads and hop up and down whilst whooping. Properly chastised they growl it correctly, and the song continues on.
The show is close to ending, but two songs need mentioning the first is the opening of ‘Empath’ “Castaway/Genesis.” “Genesis” is one of the craziest and most over the top opening songs you’ll ever hear, its bizarre, and hilarious music video is now the stuff of legends, and the band nails it perfectly. The video background plays behind them, and the heavy chorus section is simply sublime, the crowd of course loses their minds during it. Everything quiets down before “The Spirits Will Collide” when Devin dedicates the song to anyone who has lost someone due to depression, and gives a bit of encouragement to not give up. The original song is fairly heavy, but this version is acoustic, with Ché and the other singers carrying the majority of it. It’s a beautiful and haunting version, very different from the original, but equally striking, and perhaps even more emotional.
There is of course an encore, beginning with more mixed drinks, and the party mood is begun with a lively rendition of “Disco Inferno” which is indeed an old disco song by The Trammps. Why such an odd choice of songs? I have no idea, but it’s quite amusing, and gives Devin the chance to include the crowd by having them pass back a tray of drinks to their light and sound technicians. The evening finally ends with the classic “Kingdom,” the song that launched a thousand reaction videos. It’s a perfect way to close the evening.
Devin Townsend has been an elite performer for a long time now, and ‘Order of Magnitude – Empath Live Vol. 1’ simply confirms this. After repeated viewings all I can think of this brilliant DVD is that Devin is hands down the best artist in progressive metal right now. Musically, vocally, performance wise, no one is close to what he’s putting out there on stage. And with these dark days of no live shows, this couldn’t drop at a better time. I can’t wait to see what the next volumes bring.