Review Summary: A tale full of sound and fury...signifying nothing.
Devin Townsend has a lot of things to say, and many forms in which to say them. The Canadian singer-songwriter cum multi-instrumentalist has previously appeared to us under several monikers – Noisescapes, IR8, Ocean Machine, and Strapping Young Lad, just to name a few. But there’s also his well-documented penchant – some might call it a predilection – for writing albums in a manner that roughly corresponds to whichever facet of his personality he feels is most in need of musical expression at that particular point in time. Unsurprisingly, these two traits make for a rather formidable cocktail when combined: a collective and personal discography that is at once an unending stream of consciousness and a series of clearly delineated time-stamps from one of the most prominent sonic tinkerers in modern progressive rock.
Take Ocean Machine: Biomech
, for instance, an eclectic – if slightly uneven – solo album that Townsend released in mid-1997. The record’s progressive-cum-ambient style had its feet thoroughly embedded in a clearly expressed desire to add something to Townsend’s repertoire, yet it might have been quite unremarkable to the casual eye had it appeared on music store shelves all on its lonesome, like a single passenger casually alighting at Kwinitsa station from the VIA Rail to Vancouver. However, seeing as it appeared a mere five months after City
, the Strapping Young Lad extreme metal album which Kerrang!
magazine famously claimed was comparable to "sticking your head into the jet nozzle of a Stealth Bomber”, it was hard to disregard the notion that in the case of an artist who was as aurally chameleonic as Devin Townsend could be, simply examining a work at face value might not be enough. As if to underscore the fragile state of mind needed to thread two such unrelated worlds together, the artist would check himself into a mental-health hospital later that year, where he would eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Yet delve into Townsend we did. Over the next few years, we watched as Townsend’s other albums, like Terria
, and the infamous Ziltoid the Omniscient
– a comedy rock opera (of all things) in where a fictional extraterrestrial travels to Earth in search of “the ultimate cup of coffee” and, in failing to find it, promptly summons his entire planet’s legions to invade Earth – appeared to pursue this stream of tangential, self-exploratory works to its logical conclusion. Ziltoid
, for all its insistence at not being taken seriously and legendary self-production, seemed like a natural ending – the perfect place to put down a full stop. Indeed, Townsend’s announcement, shortly after Ziltoid
’s release, that he no longer planned to tour or make albums with Strapping Young Lad or The Devin Townsend Band seemed to corroborate that understanding. He had quantified himself to the masses sufficiently and another canvas would not be needed – at least for a while. In other words, a scenario that would feature something as vast as the multi-album suite Devin Townsend Project did not seem at all likely at the time – which would go some way towards clarifying why even now, more than three years after Ki
’s release, there are still those who are struggling to decide what to make of the whole affair. It’s never been explicitly clear, exactly, how the Devin Townsend Project fits into the overall portrait that Townsend has painted of himself, because for all of Ki
’s ethereal sobriety, Ghost
’s tentative, forlorn beauty, and Addicted
’s frantic, pedal-to-the-metal approach, the question still remains: when you’ve spoken to the world non-stop for the past fifteen years, might there even be anything worthwhile left to be said?
You get a sense of some of that battle-worn weariness on “True North”, the first proper song to emerge from the dense, swirling folds of Epicloud
. “I love you, I need you, I’ve always been around you,” howls Townsend and his backing choir around a swirl of knuckle-headed riffs, hugely amplified synths, and massively produced drums. Just in case you missed the upshot of that sentiment, the song chooses to intensify in pitch and tone over the course of the next few minutes – this is Devin Townsend, and he really needs you, dammit. Eventually though, the track does pull over and yield to the album’s first moment of true power, the first single “Lucky Animals”. The discord between these two opening salvoes of Epicloud
couldn’t be more astonishing: for all its whimsicality (a chorus that goes “ANIMALS! ANIMALS! AM I LUCKY?!”) and dire lack of subtlety (there’s the unmistakable revving of testosterone-powered motorcycles in the background at one point), “Lucky Animals” gets its message across without much fuss. More to the point though, Townsend seems to make the most sense when he’s not taking himself seriously at all, and I think he knows it too – for it can be the only reason why, I surmise, a re-recording of an older song somehow made it onto the album as well. The presence of “Kingdom”, originally recorded for 2000’s Physicist
, would normally be symptomatic of some seriously scattershot decision-making in terms of song selection (think Ringo Starr’s Ringo 2012
), but framed here as the gift to long-time fans that it is, the concoction is able to go down that much more easily.
As ever, Townsend’s arrangements are well-executed even if they’re not outright inventive: snarly guitar riffs pile atop one another and drums form a virtually continuous cascade from track to track, with the occasional appearances of long-time conspirator Anneke van Giersbergen packing a sense of ethereal loftiness into the album’s solar plexus. There are other, more subtle inflections too: “Divine” and “Lessons”, for instance, would not have appeared out of place on Ghost
, with the former working off a gamut of gentle strumming and layered vocals, while the latter is an exercise at cultivating quiescence in the midst of an album full of unbridled chaos. Yet the dominant sense running all throughout Epicloud
is definitely one of grandeur and deliberate theatricality. It is clear that Townsend delights – nay, revels – in going over the top, even when he doesn’t have any particularly transcendent sentiment to express. The results of such an approach are predictably mixed: for all their orchestrated bombast and searing wall-of-sound production, songs like “Where We Belong”, “Grace”, and “More!” feel empty and bereft of a soul, and perhaps rightfully so. Even the moments that actually do sound like gangbusters only serve to highlight the gap that exists between themselves and the rest of the chasing pack, adding fuel to the suspicion that the latest addition to the Townsend canon is one that was forged bereft of a purpose. Most tellingly perhaps, is the fact that the Queen-esque vocal harmony heard on album-opener “Effervescent!” is heard once again in the dying embers of the final track “Angel”, allowing the album to both begin and end in the same way. Although probably envisioned as a final attempt at providing some sense of intricacy to proceedings, it ultimately makes for a gesture that the album symbolically deserves – as all throughout its runtime it simply hasn’t taken us anywhere.