Review Summary: A new beginning.
The best kinds of albums are typically the most open ones. Devin Townsend has always been extremely open with his music, doing absolutely whatever he wants with the music and vice versa. Sprawling labyrinths of sound like Ocean Machine and Terria are only possible to create with the utmost ambition, which Townsend shows with every album he releases. During the middle of the 2000's, the ambition was still there, but it seemed it wasn't leading anywhere spectacular like it had in the passed. Townsend's 2 ambient LPs, Devlab and The Hummer, were rather unmentionable efforts, the former likely being his worst offering to date. The last straw for me as a listener was with Ziltoid The Omniscient, an empty shell of the manic metal that Townsend made a name for himself with. Programmed drums and a phoned-in concept were only the beginning of the horrors contained in Ziltoid. City and Alien boggled fans' minds with how dense the layers of sound were and how on fire the band was. From 2004 up until 2007, Devin's spark seemed to be gone. These years were not only the last straw for me, but for the man himself.
Ki is Devin rekindling the fire. The album is restrained and a bit spotty, and suffers from rather thin production, but the album really cannot be any other way. This is not the Devin Townsend we used to know. This is a man attempting to take on a new identity, shaving his head and giving up drugs & porn to live out the following years of his life at peace. Ki is the first of four albums that chronicle this transformation, with the fifth album (Epicloud) being an amalgamation of the characteristics of the previous four. Townsend assembles a new band on this record, marked by the inclusion of his first female vocalist and an aging blues drummer. This is also the beginning of his career with Dave Young, a gifted keyboardist who would also play on Ghost and Epicloud. While his entire fan base was either shocked or amazed (or both) at this tremendous turn of events, what they really wanted to know was how it would sound. DTP's sound would be further explored and improved on later releases, but Ki is the beginning of a miraculous new era for Devy.
The most prevalent characteristic of Ki and what it truly revolves around is its dynamics. The guitars are played cleanly throughout the entire record, and an ample amount of space is left for trance-inducing guitar jams akin to Pink Floyd playing a blues set. Where Devin would have previously utilized triggered bass drums and the blistering speed of Gene Hoglan, he instead opts for Duris Maxwell who honestly is the perfect drummer for this record. Not only does he tune his drums to perfection, his discipline and sense of dynamics are near flawless. Compare "Terminal" and the second half of "Trainfire" to "Disruptr" for proof of this. While a staying characteristic of this album is its serenity and quietness, this is not to say the entire album is played at the volume of a pin dropping. Certain songs, mostly in the beginning of the album can become quite loud and volatile. "Disruptr" features some near-growling from Devin during the chorus and some spectacular buildups leading to a very tense and rewarding listening experience. "Gato" and "Heaven Send" both feature Townsend's high-register operatic wailing, although it is mixed much further back. Ki is very much an entity of ebb and flow, with the album hitting you hard in the first half and slowly retreating to the edge of the ring for its final tracks.
Certain songs on this record are entirely new territory for Townsend, or things he had tried to explore before that are well improved upon. "Trainfire" features a spectacular ambient guitar solo leading into a beautiful final minute led by Ché Dorval on vocals. Townsend would explore ambience with live instruments further on Ghost, and truly perfect the practice there. "Terminal" progresses in a similar vein and becomes one of the best songs on the record. I personally was shocked to learn that Devin wrote the song in a mere 20 minutes while in studio. "Quiet Riot" is a pseudo-cover of "Cum On Feel Tha Noize" played in standard tuning, something very uncommon for this particular songwriter. "Ain't Never Gonna Win" captures a live studio jam later overdubbed with scat vocals, and while it is largely forgettable it was an interesting inclusion and bridges the gap between the album's two halves rather well.
However, for all the positive aspects of this album, there have to be at least some negatives. As I stated earlier, "Ain't Never Gonna Win" is a rather bland instrumental piece that doesn't really go anywhere for being a jam session. The fact that its riff is very similar to "Winter"'s is also a reason it lacks as a song. Speaking of similar, "Heaven Send" seems to be an elongated version of "Gato". They feature near identical female vocal melodies and their only difference is a slight change in meter. The album does carry a rather samey feel throughout, which could be due to the fact that every song features clean guitars. The one song that is played acoustically, "Quiet Riot" is probably the second worst song here just ahead of "Ain't Never Gonna Win". Also, Townsend's lyrics still aren't terrible, but aren't amazing either.
Ki was the beginning of a new era for Devin Townsend, and this project would later become one of the best things he has pursued in his career. In my opinion this is the second-weakest of the DTP albums, although it features some truly fantastic songs. Ghost would expand upon the quiet formula and pass with flying colors, while Addicted and Deconstruction crank up the volume and distortion to bring in new listeners. Overall, this was the beginning to an amazing musical experience.
Recommend Tracks (asterisk = best song)