Review Summary: The metal goes pop! But there's no soul inside to back it up.
There's a YouTube series run by EgoRaptor (of "The Awesome Series" fame) and JonTron where the two play games and review them as they go. Recently they've chronicled their ventures in The New Super Mario Brothers Wii and their blatantly negative opinion of the game, to the point where they've had to address and defend their opinion multiple times. The two agree that the game is, as they say, "soulless, but fun" - a mindless romp through a platformer we've played a million times before with little innovation to show for it; an experience that placates the most specific fans' pleas for "more" with a direct carbon copy. But such a copy doesn't have a commanding, emotion-packed presence. It's there to fill the void, alright, but it does so without really providing anything new
and without really professing any sort of passion in its delivery.
Unfortunately, the case is much the same for Devin Townsend's most recent outing, Epicloud
, the fifth in the series of releases under the moniker of "The Devin Townsend Project" and the second to feature the vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen. Only, this time, the music has been simplified, stripped down, and made numb to the emotional connection it once bore. Sure, some of the tracks are still "fun" ("Lucky Animals," "More!," "Liberation"), but they lack any real emotion or musical intrigue to back them up.
A lot of it has to do with the fact that the instrumentation on the album has been stripped down and put on repeat for the majority of the album - "Save Our Now," for example, follows a very distinct and cyclical pattern of synthesizer loops and candy-coated heavy riffs. Doing this provides more of a vocal focus and lends to the "pop"-ish quality of the music. It's something that happens a lot in pop music and, when properly fronted, the instrumental section is simply transformed into a highlighting glow that surrounds a solid performance from a singer with mesmerizing phrasing and a captivating vocal performance. It's worked for Michael Jackson, Brittany Spears, and legions of others.
came sort of close to that, but always teetered on the edge, keeping things just heavy enough, just inconsistent enough to avoid the trappings of the sappy pop world. But Epicloud
, with the exception of "Kingdom" (a re-recording from previous album Physicist
) jumps headlong into it and gets its neck caught in the vice. And, admittedly, it's a bit perplexing that it happened. Devin Townsend has an amazing voice and a great vocal range. So does Anneke van Giersbergen. And, if Addicted
proved anything, it was that the two could sync up in a beautiful way. Addicted
, as with all of the previous "Project" releases, had a lot of soul.
, for all its use of the two, doesn't hit on the same wavelength. It doesn't even come close. And the issue is in the vocals. One listen to "Kingdom" shows Devin placing a lot of emotion in his delivery - the scream of "I'm FINE!," the clean roar of "stay with me" - it's all there. It's a powerful song. But compare it to a song like "Save Our Now," a song whose lyrics seem to press for urgency, but whose vocal force is a croon from both Devin and Anneke. Even the "aggressive" choruses of the song sound disingenuous. And it sounds this way because we know the range of these two. We've seen them strain on Addicted
, fighting for those tough notes to complete the feeling of the internal struggles that only music can convey. And that's not here on Epicloud
As a matter of fact, "Kingdom" is the only track where that feeling of personal investment comes across and, as a re-hash, it almost feels like a cheat as much as it feels like the elephant in the room for the rest of the album. Even the flowing acoustic passages provided on Epicloud
feel devoid of emotion, with the following passage from "Divine", sung in a flat, neutral tone, being one of the chiefest offenders: "loving you is the best thing and the worst thing in the world." That's a line that screams struggle! It's a line that screams emotion! But there's nothing there to convey that.
And without that tone, that force, that power
, you have what you get with Super Mario Brothers Wii - a game that's sort of fun, but which lacks any substance or innovation. A nostalgia trip for all of its throwback references (the Addicted
nods are obvious, but "Hold On" seems almost directly ripped from a secret collection of Ocean Machine
B-sides) that can be enjoyed and rocked out to. But for all that Devin Townsend has achieved on his past four records, the bar was set far, far higher for this album and in terms of artistic merit, it's failed to reach it.