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Album Reviews : Devin Townsend – Empath

By on March 6, 2019

Devin Townsend is one of the most prolific and influential musicians in heavy music. His career has been so varied and high calibre that I actually find it hard to summarise it all into a concise paragraph to commence this review. Whether it is his outlandish vocal’s on Steve Vai’s Sex and Religion album, his heavy work as the brainchild of Strapping Young Lad, or his vast array of ‘solo’ releases, he is the type of musician who demands your listening time. But if you’ve taken the time to read this review it is likely that you already know who he is.

The Devin Townsend Project has been Devin Townsend’s main musical outlet for almost a decade. The DTP was originally tabled as a collection of records showcasing some individual styles  (Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction & Ghost), but the Project quickly established itself as a longer term musical outlet and formidable live act. The success of this ‘musical vehicle’ saw Devin release a further four albums under the Devin Townsend Project moniker.  2016’s album Transcendence was particularly strong, so when Townsend announced that he would be taking a break from the Devin Townsend Project in early 2018 it was a little surprising.

One thing you can rely on Devin Townsend is that he’ll always have some sort of musical outlet in the works, so it didn’t take too long for details of his next musical venture to emerge. Devin’s latest album is entitled EMPATH and is the result of setting out to write an album which represented all of the styles that make up his current interests in one place. Knowing the pure diversity of Devin’s discography the idea of this record seems vast – it would be an understatement to say I was intrigued to give the album a spin. 

The album gets underway with a short introduction entitled Castaway. Castaway starts with a mellow guitar motif, and ends with a choral arrangement which transitions into the opening of the album’s first single Genesis. I really enjoyGenesis – it’s a mixed bag of styles and moods but Devin’s vocals tie it all together nicely. I read a youtube comment which hit the nail on the head for me, ‘Record Company: ‘what genre is this?’, Devin: ‘yes’– There’s no doubt that this track isn’t bound by genre and I think it’s this sort of musical freedom which has inspired Devin to release the album as a solo release. Genesis is a sound choice for the first single too given it touches on many of the elements contained within EMPATH.

Next up is one of the most uplifting, feel good tracks I’ve ever heard. Spirits Will Collide is quite simply a fantastic track. Think EPICLOUD, but with a full choir and a far more grandiose arrangement. Spine tingling stuff.

Evermore is a little like Genesis in as much that it’s an exceptionally creative composition which isn’t bound by Genre. Given the shear creativity it comes as no surprise that former Frank Zappa collaborators Mike Keneally, Morgan Ågren and Steve Vai are all contributing on this album. There’s a lot going on in this one, and I certainly hear flavours of Steve Vai’s more outlandish arrangements in this one.

Sprite follows in a similar vein in as much that it’s exceptionally creative. Starting off with a whimsical narration, it flows into  a mid-paced medative groove with many twists and turns along the way. The track is closed out with electronic ambient noise accompanied by golum-esque growls. Devin Townsend has always appealed to fans of progressive music, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is his most progressive and creative release to date.

Hear Me is probably the heaviest thing Devin has written since his Strapping Young Lad days.  Somewhat amusinglyChad Kroeger (Nickleback) is credited with guest vocals on this track. I can only assume he is part of the rich tapestry of harmony during the chorus section. Either way, this is a great track and is something very different from the tracks that precede it.

Just when you think you’re starting to get the general vibe of EMPATH we are hit with the track Why? On this track we have a predominately orchestral arrangement and  Devin employing a vocal delivery which would be at home in musical theatre. It’s during this track that I’m floored by the realisation of how diverse Devin’s vocal abilities are. What a remarkable talent. Mind-blowing to think that on the previous track he is screeching like a banshee.

After the super heavy Hear Me and the Flamboyant Why?, Borderlands returns to the sort of off-kilter trip that made up the majority of the first half of the release. Its another brilliant piece of music, with a really solid groove intertwined with ambient sections. In some regard Borderlands is a little like something off Terria, which also ebbed and flowed between the riff driven  & an ambient stream of consciousness.  

Requiem is a predominantly orchestral piece. It’s a well composed piece of music which I really enjoy. In context it also serves as a really good ‘palate cleanser’ for the listener to stop and take a breath before the herculean album closer,  Singularity.

Singularity is a 23+ minute beast, made up from 6 sections, and closes the album in commanding style (On the copy that I have the track is presented as a single piece, although I notice that some track listings suggest it will be presented as individual tracks on some formats). The track gets underway with the same guitar motif that is used at the start of Castaway. Without giving you a play by play account of this track I will say this;  Singularity is arguably my favourite track Devin has ever written. What a way to finish off this album.

 I’ve had the album for over a week and it’s taken longer than usual to pen this review. Why? (get it?),EMPATH is too complex to fully appreciate after only a couple of listens. The arrangements are layered with intricacy and the calibre of musicianship and the quality of the vocals is outstanding. The list of guest musicians foreshadowed that this should be the case, but the finished product speaks for itself. I’ll admit thatI’ve become a little jaded by the number of releases that HevyDevy has churned out since 2011’s Ghost. This isn’t a criticism of Devin alone – for whatever reason it seems that many of the eminent bands have found themselves in a ‘write-record-tour’ cycle which puts pressure on time and quality. Conversely EMPATH has taken a little longer to release and the result is a refreshingly complex record. From a writing and arrangement perspective the creativity alone is mind-blowing. The word Genius can’t be used lightly but I think the word can apply to Devin Townsend. Previous albums like Terria, Alien, Ocean Machine: Biomech, Accelerated Evolution and others have all hit on elements of Devin’s creativity which I will always enjoy, however in a lot of ways EMPATH is the album I’ve always been wanting Devin Townsend to write and record. EMPATH is heavy, complex, progressive, creative, and no doubt a strong contender for the album of the year.

Band: Devin Townsend
Album: Empath
Year: 2019
Genre: Progressive Metal
Label: Inside Out Music
Origin: Canada 
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About

Chris is a long time metal enthusiast and advocate for Australian heavy music scene. Chris grew up in Perth, Western Australia and is a past member of modern melodeath act Let's Kill Uncle. Currently residing in London, UK.