Review Summary: Love, hate, confusion
Exactly twenty years ago The Matrix
was released, and over the past two decades it has come to be regarded as a seminal moment in Hollywood cinema as well as a cultural touchstone. It was a mind-bending genre mashup that combined Hong Kong-style balletic martial arts and gunplay, with cyberpunk’s post-humanist paranoia, film noir’s claustrophobic palettes, Eastern philosophy’s musings on the nature of reality, and Blade
’s oh-so-turn-of-the-millennium-cool-guys-in-leather-outfits-wearing-sunglasses-at-night-and-listening-to-techno-and-industrial-metal-while-walking-away-from-explosions-without-looking-back attitude. It was stylish enough to be enjoyable on the first viewing and substantial enough to be satisfying on the third or fourth.
In hindsight it seems like The Matrix
was a surefire success, but it was the product of a pair of writers/directors who had only written and directed two slick but unremarkable box office duds before it. It was a risky and confusing enough proposition that Will Smith—the producers’ original choice to play the the role of Neo—chose instead to star in Wild Wild West
! The box office success of The Matrix
also, of course, spawned The Matrix: Reloaded
and The Matrix: Revolutions
, which found the Wachowski siblings losing their way as their storytelling became increasingly convoluted and decreasingly entertaining.
The reason I bring all of this up is because Empath
is, depending on your point of view, every bit as ambitious and entertaining as The Matrix
, or every bit as bewildering and tiresome as its sequels, or maybe even both. But there is no compromise and no middle ground...and definitely no spoon.
Devin Townsend is a significantly more established commodity than the Wachowskis were when they made The Matrix
so his diving headfirst into the deepest reaches of his fractured psyche and swimming to the furthest reaches of his imagination to pull out Empath
isn’t as out of left field as The Matrix
was. However, it’s still a little bit shocking just how ambitious Empath
is, and just how much ambition Townsend still has left. Townsend could have played it safe by recreating any of the litany of sounds he has explored over the course of his lengthy career and pleased his devoted fanbase. But instead he chose to do the complete opposite and create an album meant to challenge even his most ardent admirers. If every album in Townsend’s catalog represents a facet of his personality, Empath
represents an effort to create the auditory image of the cumulative sum of all those distinct, contradictory facets. Empath is
Devin Townsend, in all his ridiculous, indulgent, impertinent, brilliant glory.
Of course, given the honesty of the statement that Devin Townsend is making with Empath
, it’s not going to be for everyone. Hell, it might not be intended for anyone except Townsend himself. Devin Townsend, the man, once took a literal sh*t in Steve Vai’s guitar case (kudos to Vai for somehow remaining Devy's friend and supporter after that), so naturally he’s not the kind of person everyone is going to be friends with. Why would Devin Townsend, the album, be any different? Empath
changes moods and styles on a dime or whatever the Canadian equivalent of a dime is. It is rife with spoken word sections and animal noises. It eschews traditional rock/metal song structure almost completely. It spends significant periods eschewing traditional rock/metal instruments almost completely as well. It features humans playing traditional rock/metal instruments in a manner that sounds almost completely inhuman. It makes no apology for any of this, except that it’s Canadian so it has to, so the apology is awkwardly wrapped in a subtle dick joke.
Townsend’s descent into unrepentant madness provides a few glimmers of hope that perhaps there is method to the madness. “Why?” is one of the most beautiful and atypical songs he has ever made. “Hear Me” is the sonic equivalent of a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster and a fun reminder of Townsend’s SYL legacy. “Spirits Collide” and “Evermore” are even kind of staid, all things considered, in that they sound like they were made by the same, but improved, Townsend who made Transcendence
. However, as one gets deeper into the album the more the facade of normalcy slips away until it has dropped completely by “Singularity” which, at 23 minutes of sheer unpredictability, is exhilarating and exhausting in equal parts.
There’s really no easy way to evaluate Empath
. Townsend is, at the best of times, a divisive artist and Empath
features and amplifies his every unfettered, divisive impulse to a ludicrous degree. It’s not the kind of album you can walk away from and forget having listened to. It’s bound to draw a reaction, be it love, hate, or just bafflement. Perhaps in twenty years Empath
will stand out as an artistic landmark of singular importance. Or perhaps it will signify a dead-end in an otherwise glittering career. Or maybe it will continue to be as challenging and opaque as it intends to be.
 If you consider ‘90s-era Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly playing sexy lesbian con-women unremarkable, that is.
 I looked it up. It’s a Canadian dime.
 I have no idea if the album contains any dick jokes, but I’m assuming it does.
 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster as the best drink in existence and likens its effect to having your brain smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.