I’ll never forget the first time I heard Devin Townsend. I had received an InsideOut sampler CD in the mail around 2001, and the first track was “The Fluke” from Devin’s album Terria. I had never heard anything like it- the wall of sound, the punk aggression, the abrupt changes, the beautiful, polyphonous midsection before the return to the chorus. Hearing “The Fluke” 18 years ago began one of the most enduring musical relationships I have had in my life. I bought Terria soon after, and have eagerly followed Devin’s music through lineup changes, style changes, bands, and personal journeys over the last two decades. Peering into his mind through his art has been a really gratifying experience as a music listener.
All of this is to frame my review for what might be one of Devin’s most divisive records, Empath. Following the dissolution of the Devin Townsend Project, Devin began to throw breadcrumbs for what would be his follow up to the successful but somewhat predictable Transcendence. Over several months, through Instagram posts, Youtube videos, and numerous tweets, Empath began to reveal itself as a massive, genre-sprawling undertaking. It’s possible that either Devin, or the label, or both parties were anxious that Empath might be misunderstood, so there is actually an entire documentary series on the making of Empath that gives some insight into the composition and development and background of the album.
And there are reasons why it might seem like too much. For starters, the list of guest musicians is a tremendous statement. Devin is joined by Nathan Navarro on bass, Morgan Ågren (prolific drum legend)/Samus Paulicelli (Decrepit Birth)/Anup Sastry (Monuments) on drums (yes, you read correctly: 3 different drummers), the Elektra Women’s Choir, scores of guest vocalists that range from frequent collaborators Anneke van Giersbergen and Che Aimee Dorval to complete surprises, like Chad Kroeger from Nickelback, Steve Vai and Ryan Dahle (from Age of Electric and Limblifter) on guitar. All of this is directed by the legendary Mike Keneally, who was enlisted to give form to Devin’s musical madness, and if there is anyone on the planet who is capable of herding musical cats to the level that this album requires, it’s Mike Keneally.
Devin also had stated in numerous interviews that he wanted to thematically take on huge existential and emotional themes on this album.
As it stood, all of us were expecting a product that would surprise us, and Empath definitely delivers. It is as dense as a neutron star in almost every way possible- musically, conceptually, thematically. Devin has said that he wanted to create an album that reflects the complexity of life and existence, and Empath gets us there. There are probably a million notes on this record, and conceptually, it feels as all over the place as it could possibly be. From space cats (“Evermore”) to baby birds (“Sprite”) to anti-suicide anthems (“Spirits Will Collide”) to relationships (“Why”), Devin tackles the human experience in 1hr and 14 mins. Empath had the potential to be a complete disaster, and in different hands (and perhaps even in a younger Devin’s hands) it could have been. Yet, Devin manages to make a beautiful, endearing work of art, that somehow maintains an authenticity and heart and honesty in the midst of absolute musical mayhem.
Track review: (SPOILER ALERT)
The album starts with tropical beach music (“Castaway:”), which quickly transitions into brief choral part sung by the Elektra Women’s Choir, only to jump into some weird proggy dance pop, which evolves into a massive, fist pumping chorus, that ends with a face-melting metal section with blast beats and a full choir (“Genesis”)…you see where I’m going with this? Just listen to it. And in case you were wondering/worried: this song is DEFINITELY a microcosm of the entire album. You’ll be alright if you just make sure to expect the unexpected.
After such a sprawling, massive intro, “Spirits Will Collide” comes as a surprise, with a more conventional compositional and melodic structure. After understanding that the lyrics were written as an “anti-suicide anthem”, the emotional depth of the song revealed itself to me. The first time I listened, I wasn’t paying too much attention, but the second time, I focused more on the message and delivery- a huge crowd of people, affirming the listener that they are valued and loved. I have teared up on almost every subsequent listen.
“Evermore” is on the more straightforward end of the Empath spectrum, which means it has a catchy, singable hook, but don’t let that descriptor fool you; the structure is quirky and progressive and all over the place. The chorus has a simple, straightforward melody line, but also has an accompanying instrumental line that dances frenetically round his vocal melody like a manic little faerie. This song, according to Devin’s twitter feed, is about a “bored space cat crash landing on planet fear”. This video says it all.
Speaking of small fantasy creatures… Being a fan of Devin’s music for several decades is gratifying for many reasons, but one of them is that he’ll often throw lyrical or musical references to his previous work in his songs (documented quite thoroughly in this infographic, which is a bit old now, but gets the idea across). One such example happens at the beginning of “Sprite”, a delightful, ephemeral jaunt of a song. The poem about the bird that “didn’t have a mom and dad” is also found, slowed down, in the bridge of “Canada” from 2001’s Terria. The song that follows the poem is odd and also incredibly endearing (which I could say about all of Empath, really).
“Hear Me” is, without qualification, one of the most dense, insane tracks Devin has ever written, which is saying a lot. Unlike the aggressive, industrial-tinged production of Strapping Young Lad, “Hear Me” sounds more full and rich and beautiful, featuring a repeating melodic line that is introduced by his longtime collaborator, Anneke van Giersbergen. It has the manic quality of Deconstruction, but leans more into sublimity than chaos. The following track, “Why”, feels a bit tongue-in-cheek, as it is an opera song with orchestral backing, featuring bombastic vocal stylings from Devin (who, despite his own displeasure in singing, consistently proves to all of us that he has one of the most powerful and versatile voices in metal music).
“Borderlands” is, well, somewhere between country western, dance pop, ambient, and metal. You read that correctly. This song is somewhere between Addicted! and Casualties of Cool, with a bit of Ghost thrown in there. The song has a quirky, funny feel to it, especially in the choruses, but the chorus is the aural equivalent of elephants stomping on clowns- heavy, brutal, goofy. Yeah, weird album, weird comparison. Bite me.
¨Requiem¨can be viewed as more of a prelude to the massive 23-minute epic, ¨Singularity¨, but it’s gorgeous enough to stand on its own, and I think that might have factored into the reason why it stands alone. It feels like a Danny Elfman composition, with gorgeous instrumentation and choral singing and lots of augmented chords. It evolves into “Singularity”, which I could probably write an entire thesis about, but I’ll restrain myself. This song is one of the most powerful statements on the album, and despite its length, packs an incredible punch. It travels to so many places in 23 minutes that it never feels overdrawn or unnecessarily long. It’s inspiringly beautiful in parts and brutally heavy in others. It’s, in a word, breathtaking. I could keep writing about it, but I think it’s one you’ll just have to experience.
It’s hard to know at this point where Empath will fall in Devin’s discography. I have such emotional/nostalgic attachments with his earlier albums that it’s hard to be completely objective, and with almost every Devin album, I’ve had to listen for a while to process completely how I feel about them. But as it stands, I feel like Devin took his entire discography, threw it in a blender, along with a symphonic and choral score, and hit “puree”. The result is equal part frenzied, serene, heavy, calm, and everything in between. Devin wanted to write a completely uncompromising record, and I think he succeeded in a major way at creating a work of art that is as wild as it is relatable.
Part of my love for this record could come from the fact that Devin’s music has been a part of my life for longer than it hasn’t at this point, and I think I’ve acclimated myself to his various musical dimensions. But I felt like this album was, in a way, a love letter to his fans, who have been following him for years through hills and valleys, and have gotten to know his many facets and forays into musical styles.
Will Devin win scores of new fans or make mainstream radio with this album? It’s unlikely. Not everyone will “get” it, and I think Devin knows that. But as his friend Chad Kroeger pointed out, a pop metal record without heart wasn’t what the world needed from a mind as brilliant and creative as Devin. In an update, Devin said, ” From a musical point of view Empath might make people go “what the heck is this guy doing”, but from an integrity point of view, it’s probably the most honest thing I’ve done in many, many years.” And Empath was, and is what the world needed from Devin. May Devin continue to make music that is true to himself and to his vision.
Empath will be out on March 29, 2019, through InsideOut Records. Pre-order it here.