Devin Townsend never does quite what you expect.
Devin Townsend never does quite what you expect, yet he never falls beneath your expectations. His latest album, Transcendence, proves this once more.
All the trademark Townsend-isms are there: Gritty, melody-driven guitars, vocal layers that call to mind the classical arena for their far-reaching nature and vibrant drum and bass parts that do far more than just keep time and fill in the bottom end. Listening to album after album from the Canadian wunderkind, one speculates that had he been born in a different century he might have composed glorious symphonies rather than glorious slabs of heavy rock.
The record starts on a familiar note, with a new version of “Truth,” a track that debuted on Townsend’s 1998 release Infinity. It’s not just him acknowledging his status as a sonic survivor, it’s also an indicator of the mindset that inspired the eight new tracks that whiz by the listener’s ears with breathtaking intensity. Making your way through pieces such as “Failure,” with its riff-o-rama guitars and utterly cinematic scope, with your jaw anywhere but on the floor becomes a near impossibility. The emotional heft and honesty marks Townsend as one of the rare artists who can sing about matters of the head and heart and render them new.
“Secret Sciences” carries listeners from almost pastoral acoustic guitar strums to complicated, progressive-minded keyboard lines to a melodic rock sturm und drang before returning us to safe pastures. Meanwhile, “Higher” takes us to exactly that vantage point, building to a full-on heavy metal meltdown that summons the darkness within before stabbing it in the heart and allowing something like light to overtake it all. Although “Stars” boasts a chorus that’s impossible not to sing along with, it never becomes an obvious bid for radio. Just as we feel lulled toward the shores of familiarity, the track turns elsewhere with an emotional and musical counterpart that further proves Townsend’s genius. His positively transcendental take on Ween’s “Transdermal Celebration” bears the same marks and finds the singer delivering one of his best performances not only on this album but anywhere in his oeuvre.
For the first time, Townsend has turned over sole control of a record, sharing in the process with Adam “Nolly” Getgood. Though one might expect a sense of the outside permeating the music, this instead reinforces the sound that’s always been there, demonstrating that Townsend’s vision remains unwavering. It probably helps that he’s joined by some of the most capable players working today: Guitarist and keyboardist Dave Young, bassist Brian Waddell, drummer Ryan Van Poederooyen and keyboardist Mike St. Jean. These players share in their band leader’s impeccable and unquenchable imagination and form a unit that budding players are no doubt already studying in an attempt to unlock the secrets of rock ‘n’ roll.
Transcendence, like all of Townsend’s music, requires deep and repeated listens to full appreciate. There are subtleties in the way the instruments play with and against each other that calls to mind the classic days of Yes, Genesis and Gentle Giant. But there’s also an element of the full-on assault heard in the heavy metal of the ‘90s and popular music from the ‘60s forward. It seems likely that this group could, if it were so inclined, make music that would run everyone’s life for six or seven months a time before disappearing from our digital collections and consciousness forever. Instead, they seem content to give us something timeless, permanent and sophisticated for music fans who want something more than just a danceable tune.