Review Summary: Old habits die hard.
If you are at all familiar with the modern progressive metal scene, you will have at least heard the name Devin Townsend mentioned at some point in the past. Over the 20-odd years of his recording career, Townsend has made a name for himself as one of the most eccentric, unpredictable and downright oddball musicians out there, and has been all the better off for it; unless he is intentionally stripping his sound back (a la Ki and Ghost), Townsend's music thrives on a sense of gargantuan chaos. Each album presents itself as a massive wall of sound, a meticulous collage of utter disarray; be it the aggressive, pummeling attack of Strapping Young Lad or the flowing, rolling waves of Ocean Machine, Townsend's endless ambiance and massive production have given his songwriting the means it needs to reach uncharted heights in the studio.
Live, however, things are a little different. It's all very well building the ridiculous musical puzzles that made albums like Deconstruction
so brilliant in the studio, but it makes translating the songs into a live setting twice as difficult. How do four guys with guitars, a bass, a drum kit, and a very tight budget, replicate the entire orchestra who contributed to Deconstruction's musical insanity, or the infinitely layered synths and samples of Terria? You don't, is the answer; Townsend himself is a self-admitted perfectionist, and his live shows have always been littered with pre-recorded tracks – or in Devin's own words, 'turd polish' – to fill in the gaps that his band realistically cannot on their own. Of course, given the nature of Townsend's music, it's understandable that he might want to throw in the synths and samples and additional vocals the four-man band cannot recreate themselves. When you take Townsend's near-perfect vocal performances into account or the additional manic guitar solos he throws in every now and then, it's forgivable and even beneficial for them to have, say, a recorded choir here or a particularly recognizable sample there.
But where do you draw the line? Townsend's first official live recording, By a Thread
, dropped not long ago, and although the entire band put in spectacular performances, there were a few too many points on the release where the listener couldn't help but think: “...Does this even count as a live recording?” Why did Townsend bother to bring Kat Epple on stage just to replace all her live vocals with pre-recorded vocals in the studio? Hell, what's the point in a live recording at all if you drown out the live performances with so many pre-recorded tracks and after-the-fact touch ups? Take the song “Ghost” as an example. The studio version is an ocean of synthesizers and vocal tracks, but at it's heart, it's a simple, lovable acoustic number. When I watch a live recording, that's what I want to see; the heart of the song itself, the bare bones of the piece that make it great. The entire “Ghost” album would have translated itself perfectly to a stripped-down acoustic setting, but smeared with perfection and polish, the raw magic of the live show was lost entirely.
So last year's Retinal Circus
should have been the perfect opportunity for Townsend to shed this burden. With his hands finally latched onto a more sizable budget, The Retinal Circus
is the massive, all-out spectacle Townsend has always dreamed of. There's a full choir on stage; Anneke Van Giersbergen is present for the whole concert to provide vocals as she has on Townsend's studio recordings; there's dancers and actors and guest vocalists and a narration of this utterly ridiculous “metal musical” as provided by the one and only Steve Vai. It's the setting Townsend's music needs to take flight live – no more pre-recorded orchestras or pre-recorded Annekes or anything like that, then...right?
Regardless, there's no denying The Retinal Circus
lived up to it's hype. If you own the DVD version, you'll be treated to two hours of everything from pole dancers to apes to contortionists and pyrotechnics and giant vaginas; pretty much anything you can think of accompanying the band on their musical journey. Although the setlist is more just a collection of live regulars than a full career retrospective as advertised (no Terria
?), it's by no means ineffective either; numbers like “War” and “Addicted!” are clearly bursting with energy, whether or not you have the visual accompaniment to prove it. Every band member puts in an immaculate performance; Townsend's vocals are stronger than they've ever been, and Ryan Van Poederooyn handles Gene's manic drum parts on the two Strapping Young Lad songs that were uncaged for this event seemingly effortlessly. Townsend is also a master of audience participation, ensuring the crowd is singing along to quieter acoustic numbers like “Hyperdrive!” or eagerly shouting “Balls!” along to fan favorite “Life.” In fact, Townsend is an entertaining enough man himself without the circus backing him up and showering the crowd with confetti in the show's blistering climax, “Grace.”
So, the band is great, the guest vocalists are great, the visuals are suitably insane, the setlist is gobbled up enthusiastically by the audience (particularly the two Strapping numbers, which haven't been played since the band broke up in 2007); the whole spectacle, was, in Townsend's own words during the show, “way too much ***ing fun.” And, with everyone from an orchestra to Jed Simon and Anneke on stage to help Devin along, surely Townsend finally dispensed of backing tacks and 'turd polish' here, right?
Sadly, old habits don't die that easy. At points, The Retinal Circus'
CD release barely even sounds like a live recording. Thankfully the blistering energy of highlights like “Detox” and “War” isn't lost in the mix, but a great deal else is. The choir is inaudible for most of the two hours, unless they are intentionally brought to the front (e.g. “Grace”) and the manufactured sheen that’s slobbered all over the album just isn't right. If the band so desperately needs samples and tracks to back them up, even in a big budget event like this, why do they not have a damn synth player? There was one in the Devin Townsend Band all those years ago, why not now? And considering the brilliance with which the entire crew performed, why is Townsend so afraid of letting us hear their actual performances, without the polish and the edits and the corrections? Live recordings are designed to let you hear a band's raw talent, the music at it's purest and most enthused; perfect or not, that's where the magic comes from live. It's about hearing the music at it's core, and fun as The Retinal Circus is, it's the lack of that key element that brings it down.