Townsend’s remarkable second act has been one of the most surprising success stories in underground metal.
Devin Townsend’s remarkable second act has been one of the most surprising success stories in underground metal. Having flamed out spectacularly in the mid-‘00s after exhausting his Strapping Young Lad project, Townsend recorded Ziltoid the Omniscient, a one-man band concept album about being nothing more than a puppet, then slowly rebuilt himself by breaking apart his distinct styles into a quartet of albums as the Devin Townsend Project, a move that not only showed off his renewed versatility but began to win him new waves of fans. Keeping the band name, Townsend recorded several more LPs of maximal avant-pop metal, major-chord progressive rock that unexpectedly brought the artist arguably his greatest level of exposure and popularity.
With that new wave of fame, however, came a first for Townsend’s mercurial, unpredictable career: stagnation. The likes of Epicloud and Sky Blue sounded exactly alike, and even the minor success of Transcendence was weighed down by saccharine platitude-pop. Even Townsend started to express misgivings about this rut, and, after formally shelving DTP, set about to craft an album with all of his stylistic touchstones. The result, Empath, may be dizzying to those who came aboard the HevyDevy train with the Project albums, but it is a barnstorming return to form for those who found the artist on the likes of Infinity. A dense panoply of approaches often in direct conflict with each other, the album feels like Townsend incarnate.
After a brief, ambient introduction on “Castaway,” the album throws down a gauntlet immediately with lead single “Genesis.” An initial jittery riff is joined with orchestral swells and chopped ‘n’ screwed background vocals. The insular, nervy track and hissed vocals suddenly erupt into a chorus that sounds like the Earth splitting in half. Sporting the contributions of three drummers, “Genesis” shifts identities at multiple turns while remaining just tethered enough to its core riffs and motifs to not spiral into a mini-suite. This is prog rock as constant surprise, not a demonstration of technical skills but of an idiosyncratic view of how a song can be put together. Similarly, “Evermore” supplements its stomping riff with squelching electronic fills, Townsend’s elegant vocals grounding a track that otherwise keeps returning back to its initial pattern only to shoot off in an entirely new direction. Gentle, sound effect-heavy interludes slur into stuttering licks, all before dumping out into a brief return to Strapping Young Lad-esque barrage, with death growls underpinned by galloping bass drums. The crucial importance of SYL to Townsend’s career is made even more explicit with “Hear Me,” which filters the poppier, brighter sound of DTP through Townsend’s early industrial metal, manically turning his new mainstream sound into an onslaught, replacing the positivity of DTP with screams to be acknowledged as dredging up the insecurity at the core of SYL.
That darker lyrical content underpins much of the album, with Townsend digging into the nervousness and self-doubt that informed his early, more emotionally confrontational work. On “Sprite,” both the background vocals and instruments regularly collapse in on themselves, creating a cycle of arrested development that underscores the sense of midlife despair in lines like “Think of everyone you know/ Everybody’s broken.” “Why?” shows off the operatic properties of Townsend’s remarkable voice, but embedded in his soaring refrains are thoughts of irrelevance and exhaustion and the fear that “our pride will bolt us to the ground.”
The lyrical and compositional ambition peaks on the album’s two mammoth numbers. “Borderlands” feels like a throwback to Townsend’s spacious, haunted work on Ocean Machine and Terria. Opening with some of the space-country twang that the artist brought to his Casualties of Cool project, the track boasts numerous synth patterns that complicate and re-orient the space around the triumphant chorus, with huge pockets of gliding ambient softness consuming the spikes of determination and drive with the stasis of doubt. Then there’s “Singularity,” a near-half-hour epic that manages to be a work of multi-part prog excess while still being driven by the emotional crests and ebbs of Townsend’s attempt to wrestle with both his darker and lighter impulses. Pummelling riffs give way to shimmering soundscapes and a bendy solo that soars in angular, unpredictable directions. Even the presence of Steve Vai, who gave Townsend his first big break, does not send the track into flashy overdrive, instead adding further texture to the strange, soulful odyssey.
At times, Empath edges toward the fluffy affirmation metal that pervaded the final DTP releases. “Spirits Will Collide” contains the same message of perseverance that defines the album, but it has the sugary maximalism of Epicloud, which sands away some of the bite in lines like “Receive the pain, but this isn’t where this ends” when they are followed by ones like “Don’t forget that you are perfect.” Yet even in its moments of treacle, Empath staunchly remains Townsend’s vision. We tend to think of uncompromised art as dark, socially or psychologically confrontational in defiance of the sanitizing hand of labels and studios. Townsend’s album certainly acknowledges his darker impulses more than any of his recent output, but it is also imbued with the joy offered by creative freedom. This is the work of a man who no longer feels the pressure to streamline himself for easier consumption, and he revels in the intervallic leaps of mood, style and complexity that he makes for arguably the first time since 2006’s Synchestra. Contrary to the showy technics that define so much prog metal, Empath is emotionally self-indulgent, and the palpable giddiness in every touch makes it Townsend’s purest album yet.