The Devin Townsend Primer – Part 1
With the September 18 release of Epicloud, Devin Townsend's discography is rapidly becoming impenetrable. With fourteen-ish non-Strapping Young Lad releases to his name, it's becoming nearly impossible for neophytes to delve into the madness, especially without the benefit of the context in which the records were released.
Devin Townsend's work over the past 15 years has been amongst the most honest in all of heavy metal. If that seems like a brash statement, it is, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. We dwell in an arena where most vocalists are content to load themselves into macho-posture presets and cloak themselves in metaphors. Metal is a place where fantasy reigns, where lyrics are often an afterthought and gasmasks and animal carcasses are fashionable stage props.
Devin has become something of a folk hero by way of antithesis. Rather than cower inside the insular house that Metallica built, he perches himself upon a balcony of vulnerability. In a subterranean world that thrives on projection, suffocation, and domination, Devin is our Great Communicator. His life fuels his music, and taking the journey through his albums is, oddly, akin to growing older with a distant friend. Few musicians in metal (and its periphery) have developed such a dialogue with their audience, and with the recent passing of David Gold, these beacons of humanity have become even rarer.
Now, as with any relationship, peaks and valleys abound. Sometimes, that distant friend acts as the catalyst for your perseverance, the sparkplug that propels your bullshit-free emergence. Other times, that friend might get a little too cute for their own good, inadvertently morphing into the most annoying motherfucker in the room. You take the good with the bad. That’s life.
And unless you can drive a TARDIS, life is best lived chronologically. So, if one truly desires to dive into the DT discography, it’s best to start from the beginning. And from "the beginning," we’re talking Ocean Machine, not Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing.
This is a two-part guide to Devin Townsend's "solo" work. And, while the aforementioned Strapping Young Lad debut was a solitary exhibition, it eventually morphed into a living, breathing band. For those of you without cursory knowledge of SYL, even after their inexplicable—and ultimately rejected—brush with popularity, that’s a discussion for another day.
This guide will focus solely on the "major" records of his solo career. His limited-release ambient records, Devlab and The Hummer, have not been included, nor has his 1996 Green-Day-and-Polish-death-metal-baiting side project, Punky Brüster. (All are worth a listen, as are his two collections of Ass-Sordid Demos, which contain material that didn't make the cut elsewhere). Additionally, even though it is strongly recommended that interested parties take the Dev journey from past to present, this guide will rank each album from worst to best.
Oh. My. Fuck. Ing. God. Fanboys, start your engines.
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12. Ziltoid The Omniscient (2007)
Contempt for Ziltoid—a concept record based on a coffee-fueled extraterrestrial, hellbent on world domination despite opposition from his arch nemesis, Captain Spectacular—is widespread. A vocal minority loves this thing, and Devin himself has expressed that Ziltoid is one of his favorite creations. But the album is little more than a vanity project . . . a vanity project propelled by the goofball narration of a coffee-craving alien puppet and the Drumkit From Hell. (Devin’s solo work is typically backed by either Gene Hoglan or Ryan Van Poederooyen. Both dudes rule. The programmed drums here are a significant downgrade.)
Musically, it's a blend of his weaker Devin Townsend Band material (more on that later) and late-period Strapping zaniness—think "Wrong Side"—and the final result is rather lukewarm. One of the only takeaways is the stunning "Hyperdrive," but that song's re-recording on 2009’s Addicted—with Anneke van Giersbergen on vocals—renders Ziltoid's appearance on Earth rather inconsequential.
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Devin Townsend - "Hyperdrive"
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11. Deconstruction (2011)
On the surface, Deconstruction seems like it'd be the logical starting point for SYL converts; the sheer heaviness and complexity found here is certain to resonate with metallists baffled by the pop-rock saccharin of Dev's more accessible works. But SYL's finest fury was borne of impish, barely-controlled rage, whereas Deconstruction is hyper-calculated and torturously self-referential. (see: all 16 agonizing minutes of “The Mighty Masturbator.”) Devin’s best work reflects his headspace at the time of his recording; Deconstruction is an Alzheimer’s-addled backward glance.
Decon contains some wacked-out stuff that could satiate Zappa-ites, Dethklok fans, and the four people that would like to hear what Danny Elfman could do with an eight-string guitar and some bath salts. But, for old-school cravers, only the seven-ton closer "Poltergeist" manages to recall the long-loved madness of classic Strap. The remainder? It’s certainly heavy as a really heavy thing, but merely for the sake of it.
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Devin Townsend Project - "Poltergeist"
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10. Physicist (2000)
Physicist enjoys a rather contested and important place in the DT catalog. It underwhelmed upon release, even if the album’s mission of being SYL-lite was fully realized. Trouble is, no one was really clamoring for a watered-down version of SYL in 2000, and demand hasn’t gotten any greater in 2012.
In hindsight, though, Physicist was a very important experiment. Here, Devin explored the prospect of placing heavier elements within a more accessible structure, and brushed delicate traits into crushing passages. Often the marriage is awkward, such as on the hot/cold plod of “Planet Rain”, but there’s a gentle beauty nestled within the Hoglan-powered destruction of “Namaste” and “The Complex”. Other than these selections and the re-loved staple “Kingdom”, however, Physicist’s tracks are littered with momentum-killing roadblocks, and these stumbles are exacerbated by Devin’s weakest vocal performance since escaping the dastardly clutches of Steve Vai.
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Devin Townsend - "Kingdom"
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9. Ghost (2011)
Ghost is the “final” work in what was initially planned to be a four-album cycle for the Devin Townsend Project. (Epicloud, the fifth album bearing the DTP moniker, chucked a cheese-glazed monkey wrench into the predetermined formula.) Gently twisting the minimalist ambiance of The Hummer into a new-age-ish soundscape not unlike the stuff on that push-and-play rack at Target (you know, the one between the greeting cards and the throw pillows), Ghost casts a quiet specter.
But it’s almost too quiet. Opener “Fly” is gorgeous, the folk-grass bounce of “Blackberry” is divine, and “Kawaii” might be the most stripped-down, nakedly emotional thing in his catalog. Aside from those highlights, though, Dev flutters out a whimsical stream of flute, nature sounds, and sparsely-plucked acoustic guitars. Bliss is fleeting, but the album continues . . . seemingly forever. Ghost is a pleasant listen, but far from immediate, and even farther from concise.
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Devin Townsend Project - "Kawaii"
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8. Synchestra (2006)
The second of two albums under the Devin Townsend Band banner, Synchestra is a prog-geek paradise. Bold, shiny, and eclectic, it’s microcosm’d by the opening combo of “Let It Roll” and “Hypergeek”: the former is a soothing, open-armed welcome, with Dev’s soaring vocals gliding brightly over robust Terria-style acoustics. It quickly gives way to “Hypergeek’s” pseudo-classical Hobbitstomp before exploding in a wave of detuned crushage.
So, yeah, it’s a bit schizophrenic, but far, far more controlled than its closest cousin, 1998’s Infinity. There’s some awful stuff here—try listening to “Babysong” twice—but there’s also the blissful awesomeness that is “Vampolka / Vampira” (cute, but not too cute) and the brutally un-ironic '80s jam “Sunshine and Happiness”. Great riffs abound (“Gaia”, “Notes from Africa”), but as a whole, listening to Synchestra is kinda like slathering rainbow sherbet on the sun-toasted hood of a Toyota Prius and then licking it off.
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Devin Townsend Band - "Hypergeek"
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7. Addicted (2009)
All that sunshine 'n’ happiness fares a hell of a lot better when Dev dials down the prog and props up the pop. Ever since Infinity, fans and critics have been quick to note Dev's aptitude for crafting radio-ready songs that could've been hits in a mythical world of meritocratic airwaves. Addicted puts that theory to the test—this is pop music for people that hate pop music—and the result is massive.
Sharing a soft kinship with more straightforward efforts like 1997’s Ocean Machine and 2003’s Accelerated Evolution, Addicted strips the brooding darkness from those efforts and replaces them with THE WILL TO ROCK. Here, his collaborative efforts with Anneke van Giersbergen become the stuff of fantasy-arena legend. Devin utilizes simplistic riffing amidst his trademark wall-of-sound production, letting their voices propel the colossal “Supercrush!”, the searching futility of “Ih-Ah!”, and the planet-smashing powerhouse “Numbered!”, a track that would threaten to quake a joytear from even the staunchest bullet-belt-at-the-grocery-store crabasses.
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Devin Townsend - "Numbered!"
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Tune in for the exciting conclusion on Wednesday!