Devin Townsend’s latest album, Transcendence, was just released in September. It is the 7th offering of the Devin Townsend Project, and Devin’s 17th studio record in the 20 years since he first released Punky Brewster-Cooked on Phonics. in 1996. That’s not even including his 5 legendary albums with Strapping Young Lad, or the various side projects he’s been a part of. However, Transcendence is a departure from any of his previous releases, as the process of writing and recording songs was very different. Devin describes it as much more democratic than it has been in the past. Devin said in an interview with The Independent, “I’ve always been such a control freak with everything I do but these guys have been with me for almost ten years now. So I started thinking maybe I should try to process things differently as opposed to dictating who plays what part and where. It turns out a lot of the parts they came up with were way cooler than anything I had! Relinquishing that control became the best thing I could possibly do because otherwise, I would have started to become a parody of myself…”- something that Devin perpetually fears, as he had previously referenced as being his own sort of hell when he was with Strapping Young Lad.
On to the album: When I first listened to Transcendence, I was sort of sonically smushed onto the floor. This album is the result of many years of crafting Devin’s trademark wall of sound, and it is truly a colossal sounding album. The first track is a rerecorded version of ‘Truth’, which has the familiar framework , but is much more straightforward and more polished than before (although the original version has its crazy charm), and features surprise guest vocals by Anneke, his “heavy metal Cher” to Devin’s Sonny. This track segues into ‘Stormbending’ (featured as a single with a well produced video featured below), which features that same sort of enormous, crushing quality, only to be interrupted by a lively midsection featuring nimble tapping from Dave Young, and a short, passionate solo from Devin. The song returns to the verse and chorus, with Devin’s ridiculous vocal talent shining through, as he sings lyrics that seem both intensely personal and a littleobtuse (“I/remember the rainy days/in Chinatown”). The epic finish to this song is one of the highlights of the album for me, as Devin belts over a choir and beautiful orchestration.
‘Stormbending’ leads right into ‘Failure’, the other single on the album. ‘Failure’ is a perfect blend of the chunky riffage of Ocean Machine, the sonic quality of Epicloud, and the theatrics of Deconstruction, all wrapped up into a song. Devin sings in his incredibly expressive, operatic voice throughout the verse, which is followed by a massive, dramatic chorus. The chorus is followed by a very Vai-like guitar solo, which took me by surprise. Guitar solos are not usually prominently featured in Devin’s music, so when they come up several times on the album, they seem intentional and are really well orchestrated. The song ends with a return to the chorus, which brings one of the stronger songs on the album to a close.
‘Higher’ is one of the high points of ‘Transcendence’, as Devin takes us on a journey that sounds like what would happen if ‘Grace’ would have appeared on a Ziltoid album. The song is an exercise in musical dynamics, with moments that are subdued and being almost immediately followed by heavy riffs and complex double bass. The lyrics in ‘Higher’ fit with the optimistic, secularly spiritual theme of the album, with Devin first reminding us that ‘ We’ll need a moment far from peaceful to know/We’ve no reason to be frightened all the time’. At 9:40, it is the longest song on the album, and it grips you from the beginning to the end.
Although Transcendence has a diversity of sounds, it definitely carries the vibe that Devin has been carrying in his later music. While Devin’s music is often characterized as metal, songs like the cheerfully introspective ‘Secret Sciences’ or the hook-laden ‘Stars’ show a side of Devin that is not afraid to shy from pop sensibilities, especially to fit into a greater thematic context. ‘Offer Your Light’ is a slight sonic departure, with driving, heavy guitars and thick harmonies, but the positive theme of the song makes it not feel like too much of a stranger. The title track, ‘Transcendance’ fits into the meditative tradition of songs like ‘Sit on the Mountain’, and the highly sentimental ‘From the Heart’ acts as a strong, epic closer to the album, though it is not the last song. The album finally closes with an amazing cover of ‘Transdermal Celebration’ by Ween, which, to me, feels like an encore. Covers are often a challenge, but the decision to end the album with this song works incredibly well, with the celebratory, upbeat quality of the song closing what has been an intense emotional journey.
This album is definitely a reflection of the collective gelling of the Devin Townsend Project’s lineup. Although Devin’s ultimately at the wheel, each band member sounds confident and strong and is participating in full force. Whether it’s Beav maintaining melodic and complex bass lines around Devin’s downtuned guitar work, or Dave Young trading solos with Devin, or the atmosphere provided by Mike St.Jean, the album definitely feels more musically democratic than its predecessors (even though it’s still probably more like a representative Republic with Devin Townsend at the helm). Ryan Van Poederooyen’s drum work is a highlight on this album for me. Ryan’s work with Devin in the past has always had lots of strength and intensity, but on this record, Ryan’s playing is a lot more technical and features tons of finesse and groove (that somehow never feels over the top).
Devin Townsend is, for me (and I use this word EXTREMELY loosely) one of metal’s few musical geniuses. When I say genius, I’m not referring to musical or lyrical complexity (although his records can be complex) , but more of a mastery of his own process to make the things in his head come to life. His prolific, incredibly versatile output ranges from ambient to acoustic to pop to extreme metal, and few artists can boast such a wide sonic range while still maintaining such personal authenticity. With Devin, fans are often times on the edge of their seats waiting for the brilliance or madness to come. However, Transcendence is not as much as a departure from his previous albums, but more the result of Devin and his band’s personal and musical evolution. And, as a statement to ‘transcend’ the sadness of the world and make meaning from difficulty, the Devin Townsend Project’s latest record is a sentimental but honest statement that both acknowledges the difficulties of life and pleads for us to rise above them, and is a solid display of the progression from the first DTP record to now.
BONUS DISC COMMENTARY: Holding Patterns
I won’t focus on this too incredibly much, because I wanted to focus on the album that the Devin Townsend Project decided on, but I have always tried to get the deluxe editions of Devin’s albums, because his b-sides are often times just as good as his album tracks. This is definitely the case with this record. The first 4 tracks on the Bonus disc are just as good as anything that has ever been released on a Devin Townsend album. ‘Gump’ is a solid, straightforward metal song with an incredible chorus and hook. ‘Celestial Signals’ could have possibly been interchanged with an album track on this album or Sky Blue, and would have fit perfectly. ‘Support the Cause’ is another excellent track, although it was probably a better choice to leave it off this particular disc, as it has a different, more playful melodic vibe than Transcendence (and a midsection straight out of Infinity). My favorite song on the bonus CD is ‘Into the Sun’, which has one of the strongest choruses of any Devin song that has been released in recent years (‘Ride on/into the sun!’). Weirdly enough, some of my favorite Devin Townsend songs aren’t on any albums (‘Ho Krll’ and ‘Juno’ come to mind immediately). Anyway, the rest of Holding Patterns is interesting and fun, but the first 4 songs are brilliant, strong offerings to Devin’s already massive catalog.