Review Summary: An attempt to find order in a time of chaos
In 2018, Devin Townsend disbanded his touring band, The Devin Townsend Project. Originally a means to start anew after Strapping Young Lad, it had become its own institution. Able to headline festivals, play the Royal Albert Hall and have orchestral accompaniment at Plovdiv’s Roman Amphitheatre, it was a commercially reliable act. But Townsend’s release of the space country side-project Casualties of Cool
the same year as the second Ziltoid demonstrated a divergent, conflicting creative path.
Attempting to clear the drawing board, Empath
was released in 2019. A conscious attempt to reconcile disparate elements of Townsend’s sound, as well as push him out of his comfort zone. This maximalist spectacle was to be accompanied by extensive touring in the years following, only to be doomed by a seemingly apocalyptic global coronavirus outbreak. Confined to his home studio, Townsend’s creative drive became suffocating and chaotic. The first product of which was 2021’s sound experiment, The Puzzle
Every Devin Townsend album relies heavily on the context of its creation, more so than usual for Lightwork
. Described by the man himself as one of his most difficult albums to record, it comes as a surprise when listening to it. The album’s ten tracks are mostly laid-back, holding on steady grooves and soothing drones. Even its heavier moments feel relatively muted in comparison to the extremity of Empath
, like distant thunder rather than a full-on tornado.
This works in the album’s favor, as it recalls the moody drive of Ki
more than anything else. Its forward momentum is a steady pulse, accentuated by the increased electronic influence apparent on tracks like Moonpeople
. The latter being a synthwave industrial track which recalls SYL songs like Aftermath
and Force Fed
, only filtered through the gentle haze of the rest of the album. Heartbreaker
sounds like a more concise and controlled version of the bloated Singularity
suite from Empath.
was the result of a creative process that produced a huge amount of material, which led to Townsend recruiting famed alt metal producer Garth Richardson to help structure into an album. The accompanying bonus disc Nightwork
hints at different directions the project could have taken. Some tracks like Starchasm pt.2
sound like they’re from a mirror universe Ziltoid record, others like Boogus
sound like they’d fit on Casualties of Cool
. The song Celestial Signals
on the main album was originally on Transcendence
’s bonus disc, suggesting that the pool of available material might have been even larger.
This presents a dilemma. On one hand, the fact that Lightwork
is such an enjoyable collection of tracks demonstrates the strength of Townsend’s and Richardson’s instincts when structuring an album. On the other hand, the album feels like a playlist. The revelation in interviews that Heartbreaker
was a last-minute replacement for a song on the main disc is more questionable than endearing. It calls into question the entire point of releasing music in album format, especially since several songs on both discs had appeared previously.
Perhaps that’s the point. According to Townsend, Lightwork
is the result of trying to make sense of one of the most disruptive worldwide events in human history. It is an attempt to pick up the pieces, collect one’s thoughts and find clarity. If Devin Townsend wants you to feel anything after Children of God
fades into the sounds of an overcast seaside, it’s that life carries on. And so will Townsend’s career, though it’s anyone’s guess what comes next.