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Downtown with Devin Townsend #1: A Journey Through His Early Work (Non-SYL)

devin townsend

In this series, Langdon Hickman will lead up to the release of Devin Townsend’s latest and potentially greatest work Empath, out March 29th, by exploring and dissecting his multifaceted body of extreme, obtuse, and sometimes obscure music. When it comes to Devin Townsend, there’s something for everyone.

The end of March sees famed progressive metal pioneer Devin Townsend releasing Empath, his 26th studio album. We saw it fitting to use this opportunity to analyze his entire discography for those that are either unaware of his work or want a refresher. Initially, the idea was floated of doing another installment of So Grim, So True, So Real, our tried-and-true format for writing up discographies. But that format effectively only covers three albums, one for each heading. This works perfectly well in two instances: either an artist with around eight or so, where three covers a sizable enough percentage of their work anyway, or artists with substantially many more releases, artists like Buckethead or Merzbow, where without those kinds of condensed primers it can be far too intimidating to even begin parsing their collective bodies of work.

Devin Townsend sits somewhere in the middle, though. With 25 current releases to his name between various projects (and a 26th on the way), three selections feel too few to really capture how widely his work has spanned. Likewise, while 25 albums total is a sizable number, it’s not exactly unapproachably large. Doing an installment of So Grim, So True, So Real for each project under his name, as an alternative, would result in a repetitive mess of articles: that format works best when each installment has a bit of space from the previous in terms of musical style so it feels fresh each time.

After some deliberation, it was decided a multi-part series of articles dropping roughly one per week would suffice to catch you up to date on Devin Townsend’s large and remarkably consistent body of work in preparation for his newest studio album Empath.

In terms of methodology, 25 is a nice round number, so we split the records up into five chunks of five records apiece, more or less. Strapping Young Lad, his acclaimed extreme metal project, comprises exactly five records of material. Likewise, using Ziltoid the Omniscient (2007) as a demarcation, there’s a nice five-record span from Ziltoid the Omniscientto the end of the four-part initial Devin Townsend Project records, and then a further five covering all of his work after that point. The numbers get a little fuzzier with his earlier work: between his solo material and the eventual Devin Townsend Band, he produced six traditional records. In the pre-Ziltoid the Omniscient/non-SYL period, he additionally produced four other albums, more like important miscellany, including two ambient records, a punk/metal concept album under the name Punky Bruster, and one album fronting a short-lived band assembled by Steve Vai, all of which left important fingerprints and recurrent themes in his work.

In the interest of digestibility, these categories were then collapsed into three albeit unequal pieces. The first, which is this one, covers all of his records outside of Strapping Young Lad up to the release of Synchestra. The second installment will cover only Strapping Young Lad material. The third and final installment will cover everything from Ziltoid forward. In the midst of all this, we’ll also have an interview with Townsend himself, wrapping up with a full review of Empath closer to release date.

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The first two albums come conjoined. Devin Townsend’s recording debut was the album Sex & Religion by the short-lived group Vai. It served as a follow-up to Steve Vai’s breakthrough Passion & Warfare, which still holds up as one of the best (mostly) instrumental progressive shred records. Townsend acted only as vocalist on the record, contributing to the songwriting only of late album track “Pig,” but still the record had an indelible mark on his career. The most obvious biographical one is that the anger and confusion that came from dealing with the major music industrial entities led directly to the writing and recording of the first Strapping Young Lad material, which was originally written and recorded by Townsend alone.

But a second strand of its influence on his career is in the compositions themselves: Townsend would eventually reveal himself to be a guitar talent and a songwriting savant, and holding Sex & Religion against his discography reveals a clear influence from Vai’s playing and compositional structures that would later recur in Townsend’s own material. Vai is perhaps the most tuneful and effortlessly progressive of that wave of shred players, honing his own imaginative compositions and playing with Frank Zappa and Public Image Ltd. Townsend clearly picked up these little influences, and the reappearance of Vai on Empath indicates that this influence was noted by his friend and former bandmate. Likewise, Townsend reveals himself as already a fully developed vocal talent, moving effortlessly between shrieks, croons, and breathy whispers with the same liquid animal fever that would come to later define his own solo work.

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Punky Bruster’s Cooked on Phonics was recorded and released after the first Strapping Young Lad material and features yet another directional shift for a young Devin Townsend, a recurring theme for the musician. This album represents not only the first concept album of Townsend’s career but also the first injection of comedy into body of work. His usage of comedy on Cooked on Phonics is one of joy and ecstasy, something that fits the exuberant compositions featured on the album. Once more, it seems as though the frustration stemming from his time in Vai served as inspiration for a concept record about a death metal band switching over to punk rock and changing its name from Cryptic Coroner to Punky Bruster — Townsend flexes his future theatrical bent that would once again appear from Ziltoid the Omniscientforward, using the contortions of a narrative framework to justify sonic excursions that would otherwise be difficult to justify. Though Townsend would never return to writing direct punk rock tunes like these, the stamp of the usage of humor and theater in his music is apparent, making their appearance on his third overall album of his career under, by this point, his third group name.

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It is fitting then that the next Devin Townsend solo record Ocean Machine: Biomech would be under yet another artist name, this time originally being released under the name Ocean Machine, an epithet which would eventually be folded into the album title instead on future re-releases. Ocean Machine: Biomech is functionally the first record as the Devin Townsend we know today, featuring a mixture of vast progressive song structures, tight Def Leppard-style melodies, heavy guitar riffing inspired more from extreme metal and groove metal, and an ear for artful programmatic sonic textures. When we imagine Townsend’s work today, a motley crew mixing progressive music, heavy metal, hard rock, ambient music and a dash of pop, Ocean Machine: Biomech is what we imagine. This is partly by design: Townsend has offered numerous musical and lyrical nods back to this record over the course of his career, and the material featured on it spans from his time just before joining Vai’s band all the way up to its release date some six years later.

It was intended to serve as a culmination of his musical ideas up to that point, offering a centralized and collated launch pad for future musical work; in terms of formulating Townsend’s musical legacy, it makes sense being viewed as his true first record.

Townsend followed up Ocean Machine: Biomech in just over one year with Infinity, which still stands not only as the best record from this era in Townsend’s career but also arguably the best jumping-on point for a potential newcomer to his vast body of work. Tracks like “Christeen” display his trademark blending of rather extreme noise walls more common in extreme metal with the anthemics and drive of hard rock, while songs such as “War” and “Unity” highlight the more progressive end of his playing. Devin’s utilization of beds of sound not uncommon to ambient music becomes much more noticeable on Infinity, forming a dense malange that all of the songs nestle snugly into, rendering the record a single unbroken musical statement.

The fact that the original track-listing of Infinity was rather different, with roughly half the album being swapped out for different tracks, is almost unnoticeable on the final released version, with the Devin Townsend sample of a later release compiling unfinished demos making its dawn on Infinitywhen a companion EP of those same unfinished tracks was released. This material swap was, for the most part, a net positive: the clearly post-Zappa “Ants,” for example, was not originally slated for the album, but is one of the highlights of the record, displaying both Townsend’s remarkable virtuosity in songwriting and guitar playing as well as his deep influence from his time with Vai and a studied eye applied to Frank Zappa and his surrounding prog rock stylists.

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At the time of the recording of Ocean Machine: Biomech, Devin didn’t necessarily intend his solo career and Strapping Young Lad to be juxtapositional, parallel entities; but the wild differences in that album and City by Strapping Young Lad, the second under that moniker, was later explained by Devin’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder and his subsequent interpretation that the sonic span of those two albums represented two very large artistic baskets to put ideas in. The concept of Infinity then was roughly a recombination of constituent ideas, hence it being his first album released under his name proper. This in turn would become a bit of a habit for Devin Townsend, with occasional sonic resets of his expanding sonic ideas with a new solo record released under his own name. If Ocean Machine: Biomech represents the dawn of Devin Townsend as we know it, then Infinity is that mold being minted and confirmed.

It is fitting then that the next Devin Townsend record, while eventually released under his own name, was originally demoed and planned for release as yet another brand new project. Physicist was originally titled “Fizzicist,” a record planned for development by a group called IR8, made up of Devin Townsend and Jason Newsted of Metallica during one of Metallica’s many slow periods that would gradually come to define long stretches of their career. Famously, it was James Hetfield discovering the side project via leaks of the material that eventually led to the harsh “no sideprojects” rule for Metallica, one of the handful of major issues that eventually caused Newsted and Metallica to part ways.

This left Devin Townsend with a more-or-less fully demoed album of strong material which he finished himself, using the Strapping Young Lad lineup to record the finished tracks. On paper, that would make the album make more sense to be covered in the Strapping Young Lad installment of this series, but a listen to the songs of the record themselves reveals that focusing purely on lineup would be a misstep. The album garnered an unfortunately negative reputation from Devin Townsend’s own mouth for a while, citing it as his weakest record, likely stemming from the strained development of the album. But song by song, the material reveals itself as a toughened-up version of a lot of the ideas he was already pursuing in his solo material at the time. It is a step down from the wild experimentalism and mixture of extremity and progressive song structures and virtuosic playing of Infinity, certainly, but it also demonstrated a straightforwardness to Devin’s solo material that thus far had been largely reserved for Strapping Young Lad.

Even Devin Townsend’s icy opinions of the record and its material seem to have thawed over years, with him re-recording two of the tracks (“Kingdom” and “Victim”) from Physicist for Devin Townsend Project releases.

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Terria represents another sonic detour for Townsend, producing his first extended look into folksier and country-inflected playing. The album still by-and-large holds to his mixture of progressive rock, art rock, and heavy metal, but it’s hard to deny the twang and increased emphasis on swing that crept into the songs. It fits with the theme, however: following the frustrating process of drafting and recording Physicist, Townsend turned his eye to something explicitly more personal and landed on the idea of a record about Canada, especially its natural beauty. The album is sparse on vocals, leaning instead more on Townsend’s burgeoning interest in ambient music and textural work in that vein, bending most of the vocal lines into evocative and colorful smears of texture across the compositions rather than producing them as true lead vocals. Likewise, the bass is swapped out for a fretless bass and most synths are played as piano sounds, lending the album a more relaxed folk-jazz feel across its art rock compositions. Once more, like Infinity before it, Townsend sequences and structures the album to feel like one giant breath, a warm and crisp autumnal ode to Canada itself. It may not be the greatest work of his career, instead representing the median for his output, but given how pleasant and rich it is, Terria represents a relatively high bar for so-called median output and offers a good look at why Devin Townsend is as well-regarded as he is.

Then, Accelerated Evolution represents yet another moniker change for Townsend, this time debuting the newly-christened Devin Townsend Band, the first stable lineup designed for writing, recording, and touring his solo material. It featured the same core musicians who would make up the touring lineup for the later Devin Townsend Project. The concept for the record was, once more, to provide a direct counterpoint to Strapping Young Lad, with which Devin Townsend was writing and recording the self-titled Strapping Young Lad record at the time. But, where the pairing of City and Ocean Machine: Biomech before it was incidental (and the genesis of Physicist was a fluke of planning), this was a deliberate portioning of heavy-to-heavy and pop-to-pop. As a result, it’s hard not to feel like each album suffered. Accelerated Evolution is by no means a bad record, featuring tracks such as “Deadhead,” “Suicide,” and “Sunday Afternoon” which stand capably in his canon of material, but on the same hand if one were to pick a solo record that both represents the timbres and ideas of his solo material to be his worst, it would be Accelerated Evolution.

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Physicist may have been a frustrated birth, but those frustrations likewise gave rise to fresh input and sonic ideas that otherwise never would have crept in, and the reaction to that experience in Terria likewise provided an original space for Townsend to explore. In comparison, it’s hard not to imagine Accelerated Evolution as a retread of the ideas on Infinity put without the same initial spark that made those sounds so wonderful and fascinating the first time. This seems to be an issue with the era, with the self-titled Strapping Young Lad record likewise being the weakest of the discography, suffering from the same issue of feeling forced and recycled where previous and later efforts both would feel fresher.

These issues were cleared up on Synchestra, the last record produced by the Devin Townsend Band. It too was twinned off with a parallel Strapping Young Lad record, originally going under the title of Human to juxtapose against the Strapping Young Lad record Alien before wisely being given a separate title to grant it more of an independent identity. Once more, Townsend sequenced the record to play as a single extended-form suite, a technique that by this point in his career was proving a recurrently fruitful one. Conceptualizing all of the material as one massive-scale composition seemed to push Townsend to a wider range of tonal and timbral variety, spanning from polka and country to ambient music, Zappa-style heavily syncopated prog, and extreme heavy sections, all unified under an autumnal art rock banner. Synchestra also features a guest guitar solo from Steve Vai, fitting given that it feels like the most natural extension of Vai’s influence over Devin Townsend since Infinity, which likewise was sequenced as a single continuous piece of music broken into tracks.

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Synchestra represents Townsend at the height of his powers as a solo artist before the hiatus that would spawn a creative firestorm and kick off the next decade of his career. It stands toe-to-toe with Infinity as his best solo album from this period, both feeling eerily similar to one another despite being recorded and released a decade apart. The conceptual end of Synchestra also takes notes from Terria, another autumnal sequenced record of Townsend’s that likewise has a sense of breath and lightness, even in rather heavy sections, that defines what is so appealing about his solo work. If the notion of Strapping Young Lad is industrialized emotional oppression, attempting to replicate the feeling of Streetcleaner-era Godflesh in a post-Godflesh world, then his solo material from this time period represented an attempt to use the same tools and same sonic ear to show a sense of playfulness and joy and exuberance.

Synchestra, along with Infinity, achieves this goal in spades, and returning to them now ten and 20 years on from their releases still reveals strong and emotionally powerful compositions played well.

It’s no surprise, then, that following his hiatus, Townsend would reunite these same players to be his touring band for Devin Townsend Project and even record a span of records with them. Their musical compatibility is undeniable here, with each of the players able to move seamlessly with Townsend through all of the genre contortions that seemingly come so natural to him, able to leap from sonic space to sonic space without feeling spastic or zany. That’s another undersung component of Townsend’s work overall that happens to specifically apply to Synchestra: he spans multiple genre spaces and can cram multiple ideas into a single composition, but he never feels like a cheap Mr. Bungle knock-off doing so. They feel natural in the moment even if on second count they appear very strange next to one another. It is hard not to imagine the playfulness of those early years with Vai, self-producing the first Strapping Young Lad record, and then immediately making a punk rock comedy concept album didn’t help hone this fluid genre-amorphous playfulness in him.

Surrounding Synchestra, Townsend released two ambient records, Devlab (preceding Synchestra) and The Hummer following it. They are expansions on ideas present in granular form on the Project EKO EP released as bonus material with Accelerated Evolution but broadly of ideas that had been with Townsend’s production from the beginning of his career. Ambient music is partly made by producers as a focused honing of the craft of sonic textures and management of sonic space — ambient compositions are not driven by typical concerns of harmony and melody: extended to great lengths, any harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic idea under the sun can be made palatable. The focus is instead on timbre and texture, with ambient production being a hyper-intensive focus on how to best manage how sound sounds rather than what specific notes are played when.

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It is precisely the uneventfulness of the music that leads to such intensity on the end of production; with nothing to distract the ear, no keening melodies and dense harmonies, the timbre and texture of the material is laid bare. It is to a producer what restraint to one or two chords is to a songwriter, forcing an inventiveness and attention to fine-grain detail that would otherwise escape or be elided by busier work.

While these releases are relatively minor in Townsend’s overall body of work, their production was partly what enabled more successful usages of sound-walls and denser production ideas from Townsend in the future. Devlab was a dark ambient record while The Hummer was a more traditional ambient/noise record, allowing him to explore two different emotional spaces with the same restrained focus on sound design and texture. Dense sound-walls and a heavily noisy production were part of Devin’s production palette going back to Ocean Machine: Biomech, with nary an inch of sonic real estate left untouched, and the practice stretches on to the present day. Both Devlab and The Hummer are fine examples of what they are, but their true value in relation to Townsend’s extensive discography is in their focused efforts in refining a key aesthetic component of his overall production approach, and their completion seems to mark the precise moment when his efforts in wall-of-sound production and seamlessly segueing tracklists hit its current high-water mark stride.

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