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Universe in a Ball!: Ten Years of Devin Townsend Project’s “Addicted”

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Over the past year, I have written a nonfiction novelette on the work of Devin Townsend from his days with Steve Vai and the punk-metal hybrid of Punky Brüster all the way up to his most recent record Empath. So when it came time to write an anniversary article regarding Addicted, his Devin Townsend Project period’s second album, I leapt at the chance. On paper, it would seem there was likely very little left unsaid on my part regarding his work, and in terms of rote journalistic and critical discussion this perhaps would be true. But I refrained from indulging too deeply in a specific component of my thoughts and experiences regarding Addicted, feeling them improper to indulge in within the contexts of a career-spanning critical overview. And that is the fact that Addicted saved my life.

Now, before I launch headlong into that story, one that I hope is understood to underscore the real power of that record rather than being interpreted as narcissistic grandstanding, I will still, of course, nail down certain facts about the record. Addicted was Devin Townsend’s 18th album in a 16-year period, and the absolutely incredible amount of growth shown on that record is a testament to the greater amount of growth experienced by him over that time. By that point in his career, Devin Townsend had been a bandmate with Steve Vai at the age of 19, formed and dissolved a punk/metal group, saw the entirety of Strapping Young Lad’s career from an industrial noise metal side project to its slow approach to prog-lite groove metal, released the progressive metal masterpiece Ocean Machine: Biomech, had a failed band with Jason Newstead that partly led to Newstead’s departure from Metallica, released a number of rich and powerful progressive metal records as solo projects or under the Devin Townsend Band moniker, delivered multiple ambient albums, and released his second progressive metal masterpiece in the form of Ziltoid the Omniscient (not to mention forming the Devin Townsend Project after inadvertently outlining four separate records on what was supposed to be a hiatus from music). Suffice it to say: he was an extremely busy man with his thoughts and music pulled in a number of directions, from the genteel folk-infused prog metal of Terra and Synchestra to the manic and harrowing essentially perfect albums City and Alien, from Strapping Young Lad to science fiction both cerebral and pulpy and more. His music seemed to draw notes from Frank Zappa, Dream Theater, Godflesh, Meshuggah, Tori Amos, Cynic, Kate Bush, Danny Elfman, and more; charting out the myriad influences and sonic ideas present in his work, a deliberately constructed kaleidoscope, would produce a perhaps very interesting article all on its own but would definitely be derailing to indulge in too deeply here.

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And yet, with the Devin Townsend Project, he revealed that he had not yet delved into the depths of all of his musical interests. This ironically seemed more than plausible; almost nobody with a rap sheet of influences so long is divulging the whole thing, because you don’t get that many without exposing yourself to much, much more, so the idea that some were waiting to be deployed made an amount of sense. While the latter two records of the initial four-album run were perhaps the least surprising of them, the relatively standard heavy Devin Townsend record Deconstructed and the peaceful and genteel ambient rock/prog rock album Ghost, it was the first two that offered the furthest sonic excursions from his base sonic template. The first album of this cycle, Ki, is often described as “bluesy,” and while that’s not wholly inaccurate, it does inadvertently portray the proceedings as perhaps more Joe Bonnamossa or Ritchie Kotzen than they are. There is a looser feel to the record than Townsend’s typically laser-precise work when in the rock and metal space and the tone shape of the record falls more toward perhaps Townsend-does-Neil Young, another great Canadian artist, rather than a blues record. That record’s intent seemed to be to make a more polished and finished version of something that evokes the intimate moments of Townsend’s life, when it’s just him and a guitar, family in the other room, young child asleep in their crib, and he’s playing songs to keep himself warm and in the alchemical confusion of pleasure and stress of that moment. Those ideas would be expanded on further on his later record Casualties of Cool — while on paper a looser Townsend record seems perhaps the most out-of-left-field for an artist whose work is uniformly pristine and labored over, the record itself still shows deep signs of that kind of intense work, one which dulls the wildness of the conceit a bit and brings it more in line with what we might expect from him.

What most people were not expecting was for Devin Townsend to reveal that he loved Eurotrance music and 1990s house music and, in turn, to make a big brash pop-metal record equal parts Def Leppard and DJ Tiesto. Townsend’s tendency to write big, hook-laden material had been well-documented by that point, but had largely been sequestered to anthemic breakthrough moments in otherwise dense and complex songs or single tracks in larger album experiences, a way to thread the needle through the more demanding work he was also producing. Having an album of stacked, single-caliber material front to back was, to put it mildly, not something most were expecting and, as a result, initial response prior to its release was muted and confused. At the time, a large portion of his fanbase was still mourning the passing of Strapping Young Lad, a contingent that admittedly while much smaller now have yet to ever fully go away, and those that enjoyed his solo work tended to prefer it in the more explicitly progressive rock direction. This elides, of course, the strong through-line pop has always had in progressive music, starting as early as King Crimson stretching out Donovan tunes to ten-minute lengths in their earliest concerts in Hyde Park to Yes covering Simon & Garfunkel and others.

This awareness of the broader collaborative history of pop music and progressive rock, a genre we must remind ourselves had a very notable pop turn both in the early 1970s and in the 1980s, clearly affected Townsend’s crafting of the songs themselves which were no less replete with technically demanding playing, inventive, and avant-garde extended harmonic choices and movements, and the same kind of lushness and richness a typical fan of the depths of progressive rock might demand.

This propelled the individual songs not just to individual greatness nor even to a profound unified power as an album but further toward a validating notion for this entire phase of Devin Townsend’s career. It’s sometimes hard to remember now given the amount of critical acclaim Townsend’s post-Strapping work has accumulated, but the decision to dissolve the band was intensely scrutinized at the time, as was his decision to dissolve his solo band, both acts with have more or less burned the bridge between him and Gene Hoglan among others. Likewise, while Ziltoid the Omniscient was an immediately beloved record, it seemed to gesture toward a new syncretic movement in Townsend’s music showing a dialectically balanced infusion of his heavier work with Strapping Young Lad and his more resplendent solo material. Following that record with an album like Ki felt, at the time, like he was losing the plot, timidly backing away from the heights of greatness and power he had demonstrated for over a decade by that point and producing effectively a middle-aged mellower record, albeit one that has since gained a deserved level of appreciation. There was a real fear that his pop album, as he was billing it, would be a further step down this road, a cheapening of his talents rather than an affirmation of them, presenting a pivot toward accessibility that would do a disservice both to his own demanding and incredible work as well as to the greatest examples of pop music and pop metal in particular. So for the finished work to have assembled into the intense and incredible material such as “Supercrush!” and “Universe in a Ball!” and the perfect title track not only proved that the move in general was a good and fruitful one but that the Devin Townsend Project period of his career as a whole could be approached with more anticipation and less dread, viewed as a vehicle of growth and not, as we’ve seen in other aging artists and bands, the sad decay of talent. It’s noteworthy that, following the initial four-album outline of the project, Townsend himself would largely continue in the direction of this album above all others for future Devin Townsend Project material, and even his newest solo record Empath shows Addicted as its sonic base more so than any other project in his discography.

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But I’m not writing about this record merely because it’s great. Anyone with ears could do that. I believe that firmly, and while this isn’t a record that everyone will personally love — because what record is? — it is a record that any decent critic can view as successful at its aims and any historian can see validated certain decisions while shaping others. The reason why I am writing about Addicted is not merely because it’s a great album, or that it’s historically important for understanding Townsend’s career (a career, we must note, will be recorded as one of the important ones in the story of heavy metal), or even that it’s worth checking out if you’ve never given it the time of day before, but because it saved my life.

When Addicted came out, I was 20 years old. I had been a fan of Townsend’s material since seeing the video for “Love?” from Strapping Young Lad’s fourth studio album Alien during the lead up to its release, a song which took my then-love of nu-metal band Korn and attached the progressive rock my dad and uncle and brother had shown me growing up. I was hooked; I was already growing out of nu metal by that point, a 14-year old who wanted to be taken much more seriously and had started down that road by getting into groups like Opeth and Tool and death metal and progressive rock and the like. There was still, obviously, a desire for the kind of primal ignorance that nu metal could conjure with its intensely physical riffs, something I typically sought within spaces like death or thrash metal (or else funk or the like), and something “Love?” had in spades. This led me down the rabbit hole of first his band and then his solo work. I mourned the death of Strapping Young Lad in high school. I picked up Ziltoid the Omniscient on release day as a senior and gave a burned copy to all of my friends, most of whom would later buy their own copies. One of those friends picked up each of the Devin Townsend Project records as they were released. We would listen to them in his truck, both having a shared job at a movie theater roughly equidistant to both of our houses, and would often listen to Ki during the lead up to Addicted‘s release on long night drives through the rural roads of Virginia where we grew up.

On Addicted‘s release, we picked it up from Best Buy the morning of its release and listened to it on the way to work, on our lunch break, on the way home; we listened to it while driving past the same run-down abandoned farmhouse on the side of the road, gray and listless like it was plucked from a mid-period Wes Craven film or else an Algernon Blackwood short story, that marked the limits of the county and where we would turn around to head back home; we listened to it on the stereo while playing video games with the TV on mute. Neither one of us liked it all that much. Sure, we enjoyed it, and we stuck with it, but if we were honest with ourselves, it didn’t rise up to the heights of Ocean Machine: Biomech or City or Alien or Ziltoid. It was a good record, and we were happy with it, and we moved on.

It was less than a year later that I suffered my mental breakdown, a remarkably common occurrence for people in their early 20s given that many severe mental health issues often reserve themselves for the period of 20 to 25 years old at the tail end of puberty proper, the brain finalizing its adult-shape in sometimes broken or otherwise malformed ways. I was one such child of poor luck, descending into psychotic episodes of intense delusion and more or less hyper-vivid daydream so vibrant they would briefly overwrite my sensory reality while being entirely comprised of a profound fear of death and the enormity of space and time while additionally riffing off of my then-unresolved mass-well of childhood trauma. In this same span of time, my dog died, the animal that was my companion through years of childhood abuse and neglect and trauma, and the combination of grief from that moment plus the roar of my cascading mental illness made me such a resolutely awful partner that my partner of four years rightly left me for their own health. This left me in a psychic well, alone and terrified, and I took an attempt on my life, one that thankfully failed due only to my parents, with whom I was living at the time, wisely removing the bullets and guns from the home in secret the day prior to my attempt. Finding no weapon to end my life as I craved, I suffered a second breakdown, entered therapy and treatment, and began what would turn into almost a decade-long road of disarming the well-laid traps of trauma, mental illness, undiagnosed autism, and bipolar disorder, and all the other things that frankly far more of us suffer than often let on. In the intervening years, I have since come to learn that I am terrifyingly, horribly not alone in these types of experiences, and that the unequal randomized distribution of both suffering and the tools to successfully grapple with it leave many in similar or worse positions that I was in at the time.

I was in great need. I had always leaned on art to articulate emotion and experience to myself, a trait I would learn later in life should have pointed me to early childhood screenings for autism that, in the less-informed years of the early 1990s, simply did not. Emotions and experiences were like lights held too close to my face; I could feel them, that much I was absolutely certain of, but they were too close to me for me to make out any kind of detail or shape or reason, let alone communicate that to others. Art was a way to grab those feelings and pull them back far enough for me to begin to articulate them, the songs or films or novels resonating with some event or emotion or perception I had which then gave me images and words I could hand to others, point to, say here, this is what is inside of me that I could not say before. I was in need of this in my wilderness of suffering, and so I cast about through the catalogs of art I already had as well as art I’d never experienced. In those years, I found many things that spoke to me, illustrated pain or offered insight into its mechanics or phrased the glimmers of unequal joy diffused throughout suffering.

And in the midst of this wandering, I rediscovered Addicted.

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The sound of it, already a cascading kaleidoscope of bright whites and prismatic beams, spoke to me the way that great pop does, offering not the intimate enclosure of a room and a person and a voice and a guitar but the boldness of eternities of color and passion, validating waves of joy that rattled the chest like heavy weeping. I needed it, craved it; even on pure sonics alone, it seemed to roar out with the desperation and defiance I was feeling in my small malnourished body. It was cartoonish, of course, yes, but so too was my longing. There is nothing rational or properly scaled about depression or suicidality or yearning, all of them wounding us almost precisely because of their impossible dimensions. Addicted affirmed me, underscored me, seemed to understand the contours of my experience and emotion in perfect arc. Later reading and viewing of interviews with Devin Townsend revealed a mind that seemed to work like mine, an observation that likely would be proven untrue if I ever had extended direct contact with him, differentiating details accruing as they likely would, but in the moment felt reassuring and validating. I was, thankfully, not alone, and while he was not the only mind or creative voice I found in that wilderness period that affirmed this, he was one of the more important.

It was not just the sound of the record but also the lyrics of it. This is a rarity for me. In my personal life, I’m much more of a music-first listener, vocals largely resolving themselves in my head to the melodic choices and harmonic implications, the tones and timbres, blending or jutting against the music. If the lyrics are especially bad they can draw me out of an experience, but for the most part I don’t really care what they are saying once I’m affirmed that it’s not, say, bigoted trash or whatever. On occasion, if the lyrics are particularly good or speak to me particularly powerfully, they come back into consciousness for me, empower the song rather than weaken it. Addicted was one such of those albums, with moments such as the chorus from “Supercrush!” feeling at last like actionable mantras for the betterment of my life. The key detail that resonated with me, though, was the line from the title track: “You’re addicted to your pain.” This is a hard sentiment to internalize as someone who struggles with PTSD and bipolar disorder and the like, but still a terrifyingly real one, that we can become at least allegorically addicted to the way sympathetic figures may treat us when we disclose our suffering to them; it can sap us, sometimes, of a desire to resolve these wounds and heal and move forward, instead wanting to make that brief thrill of power returning last forever. It is hard to spurn this, acknowledge it for its temporal power and move on toward a deeper and more permanent healing, and that line would recur in my head over and over for the next six months of that initial recovery period for me.

Thanks to the positive influence of Addicted on my life, be it experiential or lyrical/mantra-oriented or even just the way it empowered me to focus on mindfulness and deliberate action, I was able to wean off of the meds that at the time were kicking me into manic fits, begin a fitness regimen, change my diet, and make me rested and well-processed enough to begin to face life again. It still led to another six months of quietude on my end, a psychic stillness only disrupted by the loss of my father, but the reprieve Addicted allowed me to achieve was profound and necessary, one that gave me my first serious experience of hopefulness within the black tempestuous sea of suicidality and the early grapplings with mental health and processing old trauma. I know it is perhaps unwise to universalize these experiences, to say that Addicted in specific can do this for others, but it also feels impossible for me to see a moment to discuss an album with such a very real and powerful impact on the shape of my life such as its had on its tenth anniversary. Addicted is one of Townsend’s greatest works, not in the sense that it is a masterpiece such as Ocean Machine: Biomech or Ziltoid or Empath but because, like Alien before it, it contains a fiery and profound emotional core that feels impossibly capable of alloying itself to others, to make you feel less alone. But where Alien trucked in the darkness and terror of grappling with mental health, Addicted is its contrapositive, white and colors, mindfulness and faith. It is a critical album in understanding what would become the next decade of Townsend’s output and key to understanding the project he devoted himself to following the dissolution of his previous twin-stream methodology.

But, more important than even my experience or its historical/critical value, it’s also really goddamn good. Go listen to Addicted.

Addicted released November 17th, 2009 via Century Media.

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