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Devin Townsend #3: A Journey Through His Later 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.

It can be said that everything before Ziltoid the Omniscient was just preparation. In terms of Devin Townsend’s career, it still represents the apex, containing in it all of the sonic thoughts he layered into Strapping Young Lad and all of his solo work, not to mention the sense of comedy that had only by the tail-end of the first phase of his career started to reappear after many long years away. Opener “ZTO” still might be the greatest heavy metal intro track, delivering a blistering barrage of double bass and tight death metal riffing replete with cheesy 1950s sci-fi laser gun noises and a spoken outro that sets up the absurdist tale of a lisping multi-dimensional guitar god alien preparing to potentially destroy Earth and all of our universe over the pursuit of the ultimate cup of coffee. The remaining tracks span the gamut from material like “Ziltoidia Attaxx!!” and “Planet Smasher” (heavier than what Strapping Young Lad produced) to ballads and progressive rock epics like “Hyperdrive,” “Solar Winds,” and “Color Your World” which remain the greatest of their stripe made by Townsend.

It’s noteworthy that Townsend made it fully alone, programming the drums with the newly-released Drumkit From Hell plugin for Superior Drummer, famously sampled from Tomas Haake’s (Meshuggah) drumkit, and playing all of the other instruments and vocal parts himself, in addition to producing the record. As a result, Ziltoid the Omniscient feels like a black hole, a dense musical singularity, swallowing up every musical idea he had stretching as far back as Punky Brüster and unifying every musical impulse he’d had.

There are two moments Townsend had separated his musical concepts to their absolute poles: the paired releases of City + Ocean Machine: Biomech and Alien + Synchestra. These polarities outside of those spaces had uneasy temporary truces, melded best on Infinity from his solo work and The New Black from his work in Strapping Young Lad. It seemed that his impulse to dissolve both groups and fully retreat into himself finally gave the breathing room to recognize in himself, whether consciously or subconsciously, that these concepts worked best in an alchemical blend with one another rather than separated into different strains. The resulting work is not only still Townsend’s finest records but one of the greatest heavy metal records, progressive rock records, and concept records ever produced.

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If all of Townsend’s varied work were lost, but Ziltoid the Omniscient remained, there would be enough to justify to an outsider why Townsend is so beloved.

Initially, the release of Ziltoid the Omniscient was meant to usher in a new age for Townsend. At the time, the notion that he would fully dissolve both of his solo bands was up in the air, instead phrasing it as an extended hiatus to get some breathing room. His satisfaction with the process of making Ziltoid the Omniscient versus work with his solo band or Strapping Young Lad seemed to change Townsend’s mind, however, and he had said that he intended to stop playing shows and doing interviews in order to focus on his family, making solo records, and producing other bands. He was newly sober at this point after years of the wilds of the music industry and drug and alcohol abuse.

(Statistically speaking, there will be a number of readers who understand his plight at that point in his life, knowing well how disorienting it can be to step outside of the whirlwind of substance abuse into the light of sober life. Interviews from the period show Devin Townsend as terrified of this new space but overall optimistic, unwilling to put himself into the same position he had been in before. The only unfortunate aspect of this is that the music industry, like most industries under capitalism, are not built with human emotional and physical needs in mind, and so Townsend’s halting of both Strapping Young Lad and his own solo band left all band members of both of those groups, as well as the attendant PR people and road crew and all the other behind-the-scenes folk, in the lurch).

What followed in the immediate post-Ziltoid the Omniscient period for Townsend then was grappling with what a sober creative process would look like and now without the sidemen he had grown close to over the years easily available. And so began a period of over a year where his writing and releasing new music ground to a halt, seemingly signalling the end.

Following roughly a year of silence, though, Townsend announced two items: first, he would be releasing not one but four albums (more closely matching the anticipated pace of Townsend records overall), and second, that he would be releasing them under a new moniker, Devin Townsend Project, designed specifically for this four-record set. The name of the group allowed Townsend to modify its internal components at will for whatever needs any specific album might have, closer to a traditional solo band rather than a full working band like Strapping Young Lad or even Devin Townsend Band had been. This was done because, in juxtaposition to the singularity of artistic voices that Ziltoid the Omniscient represented, the four Devin Townsend Project records were meant to separate out the four musical voices Devin Townsend felt he had isolated in the massive wealth of material he had written after his year of silence.

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The first record to be finished and released from Devin Townsend Project was Ki. It represented the mellower interior heart of Townsend’s music, seen most clearly on records such as Terria. For the album, he recruited a blues drummer and a bassist who had previously played in a Beatles cover band, as well as future collaborator Che Aimee Dorval on additional vocals, citing precisely the fact that they were outside his normal mode of musical production that made them so enticing to work with. In terms of exploring the idea of a sonic identity for Townsend outside of the psychic maelstrom of Strapping Young Lad and the dense atmospheric prog of his solo work, Ki certainly succeeded. It is for the most part a sparser record, tense but refusing to explode outward in the violence Townsend had become known for. It is not, however, utterly without those moments of psychic violence; instead, they arise now with a sense of shame that had not been present on earlier records. Townsend did not seem willing on Ki to let his band burst out in the same dense cinematic nightmares that previously consumed his work.

It is precisely this fixation on the mellower, the atmospheric, and the loose that makes the brief moments of roaring density, bestial heaviness and post-Zappa proggy weirdness that crop up on Ki punch that much harder. Townsend post-Ziltoid the Omniscient seemed to learn better the lesson of effective sonic juxtapositions, making Ki a deceptively dynamic listen, with deeper mellow lows and the perception of higher psychedelic schizoid freakout heavy/proggy highs. This unfortunately leads at times to what feels like one of his most uneven and imbalanced records, but these imperfections of form do not translate to a lack of quality; instead, those fracture points feel remarkably human and compelling, the audible sign of an artist previously known for a fairly singular sonic voice attempting to highlight that he’d always been interested in other things, had always included these other sonic interests on records, and was now struggling to tap into a form of art-making that reflected his current sober life rather than the darker past one.

Devin Townsend Project’s first record also underscores one of the most effective usages of prog, which is as a destabilizing and weirding element to otherwise straightforward music, letting it be garnish that signals sidewise psychological movements of a song. Of note as well was the return of Dave Young, a keyboard player that had previously been a member of the Devin Townsend Band, and the fact that the title of the record was intended as a nod toward an album by Japanese musician Kitaro, a New Age musician who was an inspiration for Townsend’s work more generally.

The second Devin Townsend Project release of the four-album cycle was Addicted. The focus of that was lyrically similar to Ki, ordering itself on the notions of sobriety, self-control, and emotional self-management in a mature sense. Musically, it leaned toward the more accessible and poppy elements of Townsend’s body of heavy metal, largely burying its progginess in tricks of production and arrangement while presenting the metal tracks in the context of something closer to dance music than extreme metal. Townsend had previously explored interest in electronic music on the Project EKO EP released alongside the Accelerated Evolution record, but on Addicted sought to integrate it more fully into the heavy metal that had previously defined the Devin Townsend Band.

This underscored a newfound sense that the emotional core of Townsend’s music should be joy rather than rage and seeking a musical element to highlight this fact versus the likewise electronic music-tinged but extreme metal of Strapping Young Lad.

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Addicted is a fine example of the keenness of Townsend’s ear, blending some quite outside and avant-garde melodic and harmonic ideas into an accessible whole. Most of the more avant-garde textures and sonic ideas are buried in the mix, admittedly, but their increase in sonic density helps the sense of sensory overload that drives this record, a concept borrowed from electronic dance music which relies upon that technique to compel listeners to dance rather than think. Influences like Def Leppard and the poppier end of heavy metal had been present in Townsend’s work (going back to the Vai record Sex & Religion), but had finally on Addicted been given a full album’s space to play out. Sonically, it feels most similar to an updated version of his previous solo record Infinity, which likewise married the extreme psychically overwhelming heaviness Townsend had tapped into for Strapping Young Lad’s record City with the broader emotionally rich textural songwriting of Ocean Machine: Biomech.

Artists primarily known for art-house work then making accessible and pop versions of themselves are often viewed with a kind of wariness that is not unfair; pop is a trickier thing to execute than it is often given credit for, and people from outside that world attempting to ape its moves for a quick buck are fairly easy to sniff out, feeling like they cheapen both their own art and pop as a general mode in their insincere attempts. But Addicted is free from these lingering doubts, highlighting Townsend’s capabilities to write moving, soaring, macroscale pop songs laden not only with great hooks but also rich harmonies and a keen sense of texturalism that gives them an art-house sense of body and heft behind the catchy melodies and relatable lyricism. “Supercrush!” might be the greatest pop song Townsend has written in his career, sitting right next to “Christeen” from Infinity as a Def Leppard-worthy arena pop metal track marrying substance to anthemicism.

Addicted is the finest work of this initial four-album cycle of the Devin Townsend Project largely not just because of its internal successes, but also because it felt the most artistically fertile space for future development. This is due in no small part to the reuniting of the previous Devin Townsend Band as the lineup for this project, along with the first appearance of Anneke van Giersbergen, who would become a long-time collaborator of Townsend’s.

While the third and fourth records of the initial four-album Devin Townsend Project cycle were released simultaneously, Deconstruction still is widely regarded as the third in the series. This is due in part to the initial outline of the albums Devin Townsend released prior to Ki, which listed an album titled Deconstruction of a Cheeseburger as the soon-to-come third album, as well as its placement in the four-night live performance of the entire cycle carried out by the Devin Townsend Project following the completion of the cycle. Deconstruction sonically represents Devin Townsend’s relationship to explicitly extreme heavy metal music and, to that end, employs a dizzying number of guests from bands such as Emperor, November’s Doom, GWAR, Cynic, the Dillinger Escape Plan, Dark Fortress, Gojira, Opeth, and more.

However, despite this nominal relation to the extreme end of Townsend’s sound, which in fairness does appear frequently across this album, Deconstruction spends more time exploring his outre post-Zappa proggy flourishes and an integration of trip-hop ideas in a prog metal context. Even the concept of the album itself, a story of a man who dives deep into a spiritual/existential quest to discover the meaning of the universe with the devil eventually revealing it our protagonist in the form of a cheeseburger, which he cannot eat due to being a vegetarian, is itself the kind of sideways comedic tale someone like Frank Zappa would employ.

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Ironically, Deconstruction gestures back more to Ziltoid the Omniscient than any other album of Townsend’s career. Both employed a singularity of styles, meshing approachable moments with outre ones, direct heavy assaults with dense avant-garde arrangements, and riff-based tracks with more atmospheric ones. The only weakness of Deconstruction in comparison is that sometimes its density is perhaps a bit too much, clouding work with a dizzying number of additional tracks, melodic lines, harmonic movements and timbres. But if Ziltoid the Omniscient demonstrated what Townsend could produce at the height of his powers, Deconstruction demonstrated the depth of his ambitions and the level of scalar density he one day sought to achieve, especially on forthcoming projects like The Moth (which so far sounds stylistically closest to a follow-up to Deconstruction of any of his other records). Ultimately, Deconstruction is a flawed record, especially sitting next to Addicted which felt more suitable to the talents he employed on it and more greatly within his grasp at the time — that said, for being a spellbinding example of the heights Townsend intended to go, plus the strength of even the imperfect moments on the record, Deconstruction is still substantial.

The final record of the four-album cycle was Ghost, an album that skewed more toward the ambient and especially New Age influences on Townsend’s overall sound. These ideas could be heard previously on records such as Terria, Devlab, and The Hummer, but in terms of those production-heavy ambient soundscapes, they appeared as early as Ocean Machine: Biomech and made their appearance on almost every record he produced after that. If anything, an album lacking the kind of deep, rich soundscaping that comes from Townsend’s influence from New Age records is a rarity, with his work blending New Age, electronic, trip-hop, and noise into a common sonic bed for him to lay more melodically or rhythmically direct tracks over. The intention of Ghost being the final installment of the cycle acted actually as a palate cleanser, especially following the general upward tilt in complexity starting from Ki, passing through Addicted, and ending at Deconstruction.

Ghost serves this purpose well; by ending on such a placid but gorgeous and rich note, it opened up the road for Townsend to go wherever he wanted to go following the close of the Devin Townsend Project.

In terms of traditional highlights, the only track that fits the bill is “Feather,” which is still perhaps the most outright beautiful song Devin Townsend has written in his career. It is built over a bed of ambiance and heavily affected clean guitars, giving it a sense of shimmer and glow. Over top, recorders hum with woody breathe and plucked piano tings gently away in distance. Townsend sings on this track a gentle song dedicated from father to child, a real tearjerker of a sentiment especially with the level of tenderness and love he displays to his still-young child. The song eventually devolves and unspools into unguided ambiance, swimming out and out and out before reaching some great ephemeral plateau, spreading thin and wide, to infinity. The rest of the album sits within this aimless murk, rarely cresting up into what one could describe as a proper song. And yet: it is beautiful, like life in a kingdom of clouds and deep stone and plains of endless walkable water. It is the sonic equivalent to living in a Yes album cover.

Which leads well into a brief explanation of the often-misunderstood purpose of New Age music, a genre that is more often associated with white culturally appropriative hippies selling stolen cultural artifacts in incense-reeking small shops stocked with rotting organic food and poorly shaped crystals than it does a proper rich musical legacy. While there are certainly those types of associations, the music itself has more in common with particular strains of classical, jazz, folk, electronic, ambient, and programmatic music being bound up in one another, with the term New Age more representing a sector within that hybrid space similar to lounge, chill-out, downtempo, or space music/kosmische might also describe other sectors in that same space. Granted, it must no doubt be jarring for those who loved Strapping Young Lad to hear such an unabashedly soft and beautiful record from Townsend, one that resolutely denies the urge to move into heavier spaces. More jarring still was his desire to close this four-album cycle with it, seemingly waving goodbye to heavy music forever.

Initially, these four records were to be everything for the Devin Townsend Project, conceived as a clarifying act of creative consciousness rather than a proper band. The goal was simple: to isolate, as best as possible, these four apparent strands in the new-found sober creativity of Townsend and present them first in sequence and second in a unified box set, creating a singular hyperobject that would be the new bedrock for his material moving forward. But the process of making the four records demanded, of course, touring of the material, and tours demand bands. Finishing the project itself demanded yet more tours, including special four-night sequences at the same venue where the band would play each record all the way through over the course of four nights, and of course gigs like that require encores. Townsend decided to employ the members of his old solo group Devin Townsend Band as the musicians for Devin Townsend Project shows. The combination of old ties rekindled plus the close contact and camaraderie these shows created, and of course the near endless font of songwriting that is Townsend, eventually demanded that the next batch of songs he wrote be backed by this same band. And if it’s the same band, and the shows they’d been playing were as well-received and well-attended as they were, why change the name?

So, the fifth Devin Townsend Project record Epicloud was born. His initial intent following the close of the Devin Townsend Project was to make a followup to Ziltoid the Omniscient (now titled Z2, released after Epicloud) which would be another fully solo record like the first. But the songs that were coming out of Townsend in writing periods were largely in the more maximalist Def Leppard proggy pop-metal format of Addicted stripped back to more immediate directionality. It is a decidedly uneven effort, featuring some tracks that err to the kind of smiley-faced global choir aesthetic but fail to capture the sense of rapturous universal joy tracks like that demand.

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Strangely enough, the weaker tracks of Epicloud seem to be entirely frontloaded, with the record increasing in strength at the fourth or fifth track. This isn’t terribly surprising; while the initial four Devin Townsend Project record cycle was Townsend’s first attempt at writing from a more positive mindset, this was the first full album where he attempted to make what would become his main creative direction, without overly separating sonic ideas. With that in mind, an amount of unevenness to the proceedings is understandable. This is, after all, functionally a new debut for the group. When Epicloud finally clicks with itself, it feels transcendent and joyous. Retroactively, Epicloud signified that it was the bright and panoramic songwriting style of Addicted combined with the gorgeous timbres and sonic touches of Ghost that would be the paradigm for Devin Townsend Project going forward — the group’s output being in one part a sonic continuation of where Townsend’s solo material had been heading prior to the formation of the project, and another part a direct and perhaps at times overbearingly strong repudiation of the negativity of Strapping Young Lad.

The year 2014 was eventful for Townsend, seeing the release of three albums under three separate artist names (as per an older norm of his). The first to be released was Casualties of Cool, the self-titled release of a new group of the same name. The record saw a return of his collaboration with vocalist Che Aimee Dorval, this time flowering into a full creative partnership with Dorval sharing songwriting credits for most of the tracks on the album, making her the first creative partner to contribute in such a way to a Townsend record. Musically, it is a follow-up to the tenor of Ki, his looser and bluesier record released under the initial four-album cycle from Devin Townsend Project, laced with the New Age atmospherics of Ghost; or, more specifically, Ghost 2, the scrapped follow-up to that previous record which would have featured the darker material demoed and recorded during initial planning stages.

As a result, the songs on Casualties of Cool have a dark and gloomy but ultimately sexy shimmer to them, like slow dancing with ghosts in a haunted saloon; fitting, given that its a concept album about a haunted sentient planet made out of bones broadcasting old country-folk tunes about the regrets and pain of the bones of its dead out into interstellar space (seriously). Casualties of Cool picks up the thematic thread of records like Terria and Devlab, melding the moody and serious atmospheric folk music with dark, rich ambiance.

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It is not meant as a slight to the other records of this period of Townsend’s career to say that Casualties of Cool is the most artistically and critically exciting. It’s always fascinating to see a long-time musician spread their wings in such a wide way, but to see it executed as well as Casualties of Cool is a jaw-dropping testament to the artist in question. As grandiloquent and outre as the concept underpinning the narrative of the record was, the music itself is sublime, subtle, rich and evocative, cutting deep and harder against the image of Townsend’s music at the time as pitched, bouncy, poppier, and fun. It was surprising in a sense to see Townsend indulge in what amounts to a follow-up to Ki given that album was the only record that didn’t seem to properly represent Townsend at the time, bearing little of his trademark touches.

In retrospect, it is telling both that he deemed it not only one of the four creative voices he heard in his head but also the one that should lead off the entire project, a bit of a heavy-handed nod that it was a set of sonic ideas he intended to return to in time. It is good that he did; while the Devin Townsend Project recordings have been satisfying in their own right as the flowering of pop metal within Townsend’s previously near-exclusively inaccessible prog/extreme metal idioms, Casualties of Cool is a record that feels like it stands next to Ziltoid the Omniscient as one of the best he’s ever made. Incidentally, it also features his first collaboration with Morgan Agren, a drummer who previously worked with Scandinavian progressive rock stalwarts Kaipa (who themselves also featured a young Roine Stolt in the 1970s, who would eventually break off to form modern legendary progressive rock group the Flower Kings) and more importantly to Devin Townsend’s tale, also had worked with Frank Zappa earlier in his career.

Then, 2014 rolled on for Townsend with a double-album, with each disc being given a separate album and artist name. The double-disc set itself was the long-awaited Z2, the sequel to Ziltoid the Omniscient promised as his next studio album but delayed following the initial four-record Devin Townsend Project cycle plus Epicloud. However, the sequel itself, titled Ziltoid: Dark Matters, was given a second billing, being released as the second disc of the set but marked as a solo record in keeping with the original. The disc given main billing for the set was Sky Blue, the official follow-up to Epicloud by Devin Townsend Project. In short, Sky Blue is superior to Epicloud, altering the formulating thoughts not a whit but instead sharpening them, not unlike the similar leap in focus between Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing and City, Ocean Machine: Biomech and Infinity, or Accelerated Evolution and Sychestra.

Sky Blue is simultaneously the most accessible of Devin Townsend Project records, integrating the electronic music dalliances of Addicted deeply enough that they are no longer distracting obvious asides while also applying a sharper critical eye to the at-times cloying and treacly hooks on Epicloud. Having buckled down and finished off the years-long sessions for Casualties of Cool, the album seemed to roll over into a stronger eye overall for Devin Townsend when approaching its songs which best execute the post-Addicted period of the Devin Townsend Project.

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It is unfortunately infuriating that, despite being the record that received top billing on Z2, Sky Blue was overshadowed nearly in every way by Dark Matters. Most blatantly, of course, would be the title of the double-disc set itself, which not only references the initially cited title for a follow-up to Ziltoid the Omniscient, but also bears the logo for the overall Ziltoid project alone, with no mention of Devin Townsend Project. More frustrating still was in how the lead-up to its release saw release of Ziltoid radio episodes, Ziltoid merch and more, but only faint hint of the new Devin Townsend Project record. This seemed to gesture back to the initial concept of the project only existing for the four-record cycle, with Epicloud being more of an extra that seemed to effervesce naturally from the players and situation. The presentation seemed to be a manner to appease certain elements that Sky Blue and thus Devin Townsend Project were still a priority when clearly Townsend’s mind was already on other things.

This would be more acceptable in a broader sense if Dark Matters lived up more satisfactorily to its acclaimed predecessor. Dark Matters is not a bad record, and it serves decently as a continuation of the Ziltoid epic, but it is also substantially more plain and direct than its predecessor. Ziltoid the Omniscient seemed to be born out of a creative maelstrom of collapsing musical voices within Townsend’s head that demanded some kind of scorched-earth universal reset, manifesting itself in a coffee-obsessed fourth-dimensional puppet. Dark Matters meanwhile feels the closest to a Strapping Young Lad follow-up we’ve ever received, comedic spoken word interludes breaking up a fairly direct sci-fi infused metal record, offering musically immediate tracks in comparison to the melting-mind heavy avant-prog that defined most of the central song structures of Ziltoid the Omniscient. The issue could perhaps be traced to overall slimmer runtimes compared to its predecessor allowing less lateral motion in tracks; ironically, the issue could equally be that his time working in the mode of Devin Townsend Project gave Townsend a tighter sense of songwriting and songcraft that didn’t lend itself as well to the more ambiguous structures that defined the first half of his solo career. The songs on Dark Matters are certainly more professionally executed than on Ziltoid the Omniscient, playing out more often like a high-quality bit of musical theater rather than a proggy heavy metal concept record.

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The only critical issue with this is that, while it hews closer to Townsend’s own interpretation of the aim of the overall Ziltoid project, it also cuts furthest from the strengths of the previous record Ziltoid the Omniscient, which was as successful an artistic achievement it was because of a sense of frantic real emotional energy and necessary catharsis underpinning the performances and leaking into the strange, counterintuitive but ultimately deeply emotive song structures. Dark Matters feels more polished, yes, but it also feels more labored over in a way that sometimes robs it of the wild-eyed wonder and zany, joyful creative energy that compelled Ziltoid the Omniscient.

At its heights, Dark Matter conveys melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas that are comparable in strength to those on its predecessor, and the comedy is by and large on point, matching its predecessor well if perhaps being a bit more plot-focused than would do it the best favor. It is hard when listening to Dark Matters actively to fault it for its shortcomings and, at its most charming, it still feels like it hangs a bit better than Epicloud. It is clear in hearing these songs why Townsend decided to finish and release them; it is not just caving to fan demand for a Ziltoid the Omniscient follow-up, but a sense of real magic at work. It is just a shame that what feels like a second round of professional fatigue seemed to sap the necessary artistic fire needed to animate a project such as this properly.

Transcendence, the final record under the Devin Townsend Project banner, is also their greatest work. Following the whirlwind year of 2014, the group went on a lengthy tour supporting the double-disc Z2 with occasional other shows for Casualties of Cool, including the recording of a DVD for a theatrical performance of Dark Matters with puppets and cast and all sorts of bells and whistles. Following the creative intensity of that long of a stretch, Townsend asked his bandmates to contribute more in terms of songwriting; or, alternatively, he decided to monopolize creative space less. What resulted was a record that seemed to meld the relative seriousness and dark timbres of Casualties of Cool with the dense, dreamy, and lush proggy groove metal the players had made previously — but not, strangely enough, music that they had made previously as Devin Townsend Project. Gone were the anthemic pop-metal/hard rock choruses, replaced instead with the emotionally rich oceanic timbres of Devin Townsend Band material. The sonic density of previous Devin Townsend Projects is still there, but their aim is shifted. No longer does the group seem to want to fill arenas, but instead aim to fill caverns and tidal pools and vast interior spaces.

The album is made stronger by these alterations. While the music of Dark Matters was powerful and compelling, it was ironically the comedic aspects that seemed like they distracted most from the musical power of those compositions. Likewise, the move for a slightly more serious tone is part of what made Sky Blue the most successful Devin Townsend Project record of the era after the four-album set. Even looking at the four albums that constituted the Devin Townsend Project prior, one finds that it is the moments of comedy on albums like Deconstruction or moments of direct pop on Addicted that, while certainly good, feel like distractions from this richer emotional vein that surround those modes. Transcendence seems like an affirmation of the thought that tracks like “Heaven Send” on Ki, “Supercrush” on Addicted, or more or less the entirety of the emotionally rich tidal pool of Ghost are the highlights of the sober period of Devin Townsend’s creativity, and confirms the thought that Casualties of Cool represented him finding a fruitful additional element and tonal color to fold back in.

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Transcendence in turn acts ironically as a better callback to Ziltoid the Omniscient than that record’s own official sequel, taking the mode of creative collapse and a concatenation of musical thoughts and voices and producing a record that, in retrospect, serves as a fitting thesis for the entire project. There are poppy moments on Transcendence placed right next to beautiful moments, heavy placed next to danceable, looser musical ideas placed next to tightly synchronized avant-prog gestures. In terms of musical lineage, it feels more properly indebted to Ocean Machine: Biomech, a record intended by Townsend initially to be closer to his overall vision for what his primary creative output would be, stripped of the comedy and parodic elements that defined Punky Brüster and Strapping Young Lad. This sonic comparison seems to have been echoed in the tour for Transcendence, which eventually morphed into an anniversary tour for Ocean Machine: Biomech, including a recording featuring one set of Ocean Machine: Biomech played in full and a second set of a more traditional setlist in support of Transcendence. In doing so, Townsend placed Transcendence more in line with his older solo material than his most recent work; perhaps this could only be done by surrendering control and letting his bandmates in, who are featured on co-writing credits for six of the ten tracks.

It is sad then, in a way, that Transcendence was to be the last record of the Devin Townsend Project. In retrospect, the group was only supposed to last for four albums and instead produced another three, not counting Dark Matters, and only was able to produce those additional three due to the strength and camaraderie of the group dynamic. Likewise, the mode of Transcendence made it feel much more like an ending than a beginning, collapsing all of the lessons learned from Ziltoid the Omniscient to present into a single near-flawless record, one that stands next to Ziltoid the Omniscient as one of the very best Townsend has ever produced.

In addition, a title like Transcendence does feel like a heavy nod that things were coming to a close. The only frustration of a group going out on top like this is in wondering what might have come after. There are enough instances with Townsend’s material both decreasing and increasing in quality through continuation, sometimes resulting in a high-bar record like Alien following City or sometimes in disappointment like with Physicist following Infinity. Regardless, Townsend delivered not merely a good record but the second best album of his entire career with Transcendence, coming behind only Ziltoid the Omniscient, a record that is one of the greatest in all of heavy metal.

Calling things to a close on a high note like that is tough but, similar to cutting the cord on Strapping Young Lad on the high note of The New Black, it leaves the group with a sense of fondness rather than bitterness and, ultimately, will do the group and their works better in the future, as tough as it is to swallow.

Townsend called a close to the Devin Townsend Project, but not to making music. He had cited fatigue with the heavy write-record-tour cycle of the group as far back as Epicloud, mirroring similar complaints of over aging musicians. He is, after all, well within his 40s and closer to 50 now than to 40, with a wife and children, and the road life and number of additional people you have to support when you are a band leader becomes a heavier and heavier weight in those conditions than when you are young and hungry. The dissolution of Devin Townsend Project saw an announcement that he was working on a number of potential future albums. One long-rumored project, with roots stretching back years, was The Moth, the record to which his building knowledge of orchestral and choral arrangement had been designed for. It is to be a macro-scale record, a massive serious concept piece about sex and love and death and the briefness of life, humans fluttering toward the light of joy and pleasure in awareness that it is also their death.

Yet this was not the first record to emerge from the post-Devin Townsend Project period. The first that will arrive is, strangely enough, not a concept album at all (a rarity of Townsend across any of his bands) but instead an attempt to once again catalogue himself emotionally: the long-awaited Empath, out next Friday.

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Check out Langdon’s foray into early-era Townsend, the first installment in this series, plus his special on Strapping Young Lad, the second. Stay tuned for an interview with Townsend himself about Empath, plus a full album review.

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