(NCS writer Andy Synn has many things to say about Deconstruction, one of two forthcoming albums from The Devin Townsend Project. Both albums will be released on June 21 (one day earlier internationally) by InsideOut Music and Century Media. We got very enthusiastic listening to “Sumeria” when it leaked on YouTube, but now that we’ve received our review copy and listened to the whole thing, brevity is the last thing on our minds. )
Settle in people, this is going to be a long one.
And deservedly so, as there’s simply so MUCH to digest here, often TOO much in fact. As an exploration of one man’s psyche, this record is one to immerse oneself in, swimming deep and letting the currents pull one to and fro, absorbing what feels most natural to each listener. Some have already grandly stated that they “got” this release from the off, or that everything makes sense to them – which of course is fine –yet I feel that perhaps this is a record only Devin himself will ever “get” fully, as the record IS him, and he IS the record.
I also question whether or not the record is even designed to make sense; more and more it seems to follow a linear (yet at times disjointed) story arc that speaks of the man finally letting his inner child out to play, finally and fully expressing itself, be it through raging tantrums or wistful, child-like wonder.
My advice to listeners is this: trying to swallow the whole mechanical carnival of musical themes, rapidly swinging moods and sheer gamut of emotions on display is an almost impossible task, liable to overwhelm the individual and leave them feeling over-stuffed and unable to enjoy the delectable morsels offered to them.
Instead. put the record on and allow it to capture your attention naturally, piece by piece. Dive in with your senses open, but don’t stuff yourself trying to grasp everything at once. It’s a record designed to be enjoyed and examined over a long period of time, and is clearly going to fuel endless debate and discussion. You will enjoy it far more if you focus on making calm connections with what bits of the music most suit you, rather than trying to mould yourself to fit a record whose identity is synonymous with its creator and not with its listeners.
A full track-by-track breakdown follows the jump…
PRAISE THE LOWERED – featuring Paul Kuhr of Novembers Doom
The song’s deceptive introduction, all shimmering synths and jazzy drums, soothing vocal lines and subtle, tribal instrumentation, recall the growing, organic sounds of “Terria”. As a throbbing bass-line adds texture to the evocative mood of the song, Devin’s vocals shine in a subtly restrained manner, emotional and expressive in nature.
However, the mood swings suddenly into much darker territory, reflecting very much the stormy effects that over-indulgence can have upon a calm mind, as heavy, marching riffs and screeched vocals threaten to collapse under their own weight. The production lends the track a booming, magnificent sound, with huge orchestral flourishes fleshing out all areas of the musical palette, while Paul Kuhr’s contribution is reasonably understated, primarily used to provide heaving, oceanic swells of growled backing vocals which add a darker undercurrent to the song.
Overall, the song seems a little under-developed, too long for an “intro” but lacking the direction or culmination which would make it stand out as a full track. Partially, this is down to its two-part structure, the beautiful introduction perhaps necessitating a longer and more developed second half than we are given.
Still, a promising start.
STAND – featuring Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth
The introductory simplistic, yet funky, guitars and twinkling keys give the track an aptly carnival-like atmosphere, Devin’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics adding an odd, off-beat poetry to the track from the get-go. The marching, martial pacing and steadily building bass lines conjure up a knife’s-edge tension, before the song explodes in a full-blown Strapping Young Lad one-two punch of sharp, cracking snare and thudding, belligerent guitars.
When it fully kicks into gear we are presented with a more grown-up version of Townsend’s trademark sonic hooliganism, the man playing off many different and disparate parts against one another, which in other hands would weaken the whole, yet here manage to push and pull the song in multiple directions without losing cohesion. Åkerfeldt’s primal growling in the background is the monster from the id here, just barely suppressed by the musical chains which bind him, Townsend fully aware of the beast which he barely has contained.
The song benefits from a great solo, a thematically strong and fully realised arrangement of perfectly placed and mutually beneficial notes which demonstrate the man toying with another colour from his musical palette.
The off-kilter final third shifts the dynamic of the song massively, breaking down into soft, yet oddly threatening guitars and whispered vocals. This provides the primer for a subsequent explosion into SYL-style industrial strength metal and punishing, robotic rhythms. Yet there is none of the self-hating bile which characterised SYL; instead, a meditative atmosphere is evoked, with the metal providing a strong backbone around which the song’s character can be built, stripped away and dissected, and rebuilt once more.
JUULAR – featuring Ihsahn o f Emperor
“Juular” continues the cavalcade of oddness, albeit with more of a driving, agitated air and a feel similar to some of Ihsahn’s own solo work in the rhythmic organisation and riffing styles initially displayed. The theatrical choral parts place the whole song in an unexpected light, ably complementing the remarkably restrained yet full-bodied vocal performance provided by Mr Townsend himself.
For the first minute and a half, the song is a powerful, steady-building, slow-burner. There is a gradual build in atmosphere until Ihsahn’s distinctive tortured rasp makes itself known, over a dramatic movement of powerful drums and soaring choral parts, followed by some almost-but-not-quite blackened ferocity which empowers the eerie choirs.
Ihsahn’s contribution is far more prominent on this song than any of the other guest vocalists thus far and adds a very particular and different flavour to the proceedings. His dark and moody voice fits the story-telling nature of the composition extremely well, both singers providing the muse for different characterisations and styles.
The utterly insane blasting (God bless you Dirk Verbeuren) adds another warped facet to this strange, multi-dimensional song, which packs in a huge number of ideas and stylistic excursions into its remarkably short length. The drums really are the star near the song’s end, their manically possessed playing not only able to keep up with the madcap arrangements and bizarre synth patterns but also to enhance them.
PLANET OF THE APES – featuring Tommy Rogers of Between The Buried And Me
A strong post-Meshuggah vibe permeates this track, not only in the riffing but in the odd, oblique lead parts. Devin delivers his most direct and personal vocal performance thus far, accented by joyous splashes of colourful synths and vivacious heaviness. Indeed, the “heavy” on this track comes not from excessive brutality but from the overwhelming assault on the senses of the man’s crazed sonic experimentation.
Several minutes in, the song shifts direction almost entirely, delivering a strange (yet no less welcome) concoction of melody and stunning technical skill, densely layered to provide a deep and provocative canvas on which the listeners can paint their own interpretations. The multiple-personality vocal delivery demonstrates perhaps the first signs of Devin Townsend beginning to give his inner-child free reign, an innocent’s view of what can be done, untainted by the cynical world-view of what “can’t” be done in the musical form.
Tommy Rogers makes a suitable foil for Townsend’s melodic vocal excursions, his at times Pink Floyd-ian delivery fitting the spacey vibe of the material perfectly. His prominent place in the song is fully justified, bringing some clarity and light to the dense and at times exceedingly claustrophobic arrangements.
This futuristic, state-of-the-art vibe is paradoxically vintage Devin Townsend in so many ways, as predictably unpredictable as you could ever wish for. Just when you think the song has strayed too far from its own roots, punishing drums and winding tremolo melodies seeming to take the song on an unstoppable excursion into the farthest reaches of space, the man delivers some vocal melodies which knowingly hearken back to Addicted, grounding the listener with ease in a familiar world where madness reigns, but there is no reason to be afraid. The dream-like indulgences may be frightening in aspect, but never threatening in presence.
The song totally justifies its extensive length, marrying complicated structuring to a totally natural sense of flow, it’s non-traditional use of orchestral instrumentation and large sections of audacious brass all adding to the exemplary display of unfettered creativity which this track embodies.
SUMERIA – featuring Joe Duplantier of Gojira & Paul Masvidal of Cynic
Ok, let’s get it out of the way – this song is veeeery Gojira. Those stomping, monstrous riffs and organic, elastic bass couldn’t come from anywhere else. Yet, much like “Juular” (which seems to consciously swallow and digest the vibe of Ihsahn’s own solo work), “Sumeria” isn’t derivative of another band, but pays conscious tribute to the work of another, absorbing it into the hungry bio-mass of The Devin Townsend Project and spitting out a newer, shinier and more warped variation on the original ingredients.
The gorgeous melodic interludes that break up the stunning heaviness provide the song with its structured ebb and flow, while the consistent musical identity of the track is established through the incorporation of some SYL-esque stylings reminiscent of The New Black era and the militaristically precise delivery of some raging thrash parts and blistering full-speed blasting.
Fittingly, Joe Duplantier is very prominent, his raging vocals expressing yet another part of the psychological make-up of this record, while Masvidal also makes his presence felt, his melodic counterpoint breaking through the confusion to add a point of piercing light amidst the blizzard of colours and sonic excess.
The song bulldozes and brutalises in pummelling style towards its conclusion, where Masvidal takes centre stage for a beautiful closing segment, with Townsend harmonising subtly in the background, as the whole song lulls itself to sleep with a twinkling lullaby of clean, fragile vocals and soothing guitars.
THE MIGHTY MASTURBATOR – featuring Greg Puciato of The Dillinger Escape Plan
The atmospheric, reverent opening is a majestic start to this hugely ambitious song, epic in both length and scope of vision. The song breaks suddenly into crunchy, yet cleanly delivered, power-riffing and winding, mesmerising leads over which Townsend croons seductively and synths shimmer and shine. A definitively upbeat song in terms of delivery, it features perhaps the most histrionic vocal performance on the record and an utterly unhinged, yet infectious vibe.
The song seems primarily written in three distinct movements, the first of which is a gorgeous display of soaring dynamics and restrained muscle. The second begins with a particularly Ziltoid-type break into a spoken word interlude, allowing Townsend a chance to don his “saving the world boots” before diving head-first into a knowingly silly and over-the-top cabaret-style delivery of vocal parts, both primary and backing, twisty, agile guitars and superbly confused synth lines.
As an expression of split-personality, the song succeeds admirably, yet personally I find that it does seem somewhat over-long, many of its parts not quite fitting together properly. This could clearly be a consequence of the song’s three-tiered structure, however, as each successive chapter essentially delivers a monologue from a different aspect of the man’s character.
The grand-standing middle-part of this third of the song breaks down into a bat-shit insane display of repetitive electronics, pulsing dance beats and sampled claps. The disjointed madness conjured up so far has contained several songs’ worth of ideas and finds Townsend clearly revelling in the absurd level of excess and extremes which he has allowed himself to enjoy.
Greg Puciato’s contributions initially seem over-hyped, his delivery not adding too much different than Townsend himself could have achieved. His first appearance seems almost out of place, stuck between the understated backing delivery of some of the other vocalists, not quite meshed with the song fully, yet not stamping his own identity on it with any real prominence either.
It’s worth pointing out the brilliant drumming performance in the third and final “act” of the song, accenting some particularly choice riffs and a more focussed and tighter performance by all involved after the unstructured chaos of the song’s second “act”. It’s no surprise that the increasingly direct nature of the heaviness presented at this point helps to add a greater sense of depth and direction to the track. Even Puciato’s reappearance is far more effective this time around, offering a far better contrast with his vocals and playing off Townsend’s own delivery with comfortable ease and greater confidence.
One cannot help but smile and celebrate the sheer out-there-ness of the song’s wacky ending, with Townsend acting as a carnival caller over a ludicrous arrangement of oompa horns and Danny Elfman-aping choral vocals culminating in a final, ballsy operatic flourish, the ego fully exposed, naked and quivering to the whole world.
A better experiment than an actual song, the track contains some brilliant ideas, although perhaps too many ideas for any single track to ever handle – hence it’s split, explicitly or not, into three different movements. I can see many people loving this track most of all out of a sheer perverse fascination with the musical psychosis it represents, loving it as much for its flaws and failures as for its many successes.
PANDEMIC – featuring Floor Jansen of After Forever
This song represents an almost perfect distillation of insanity bottled, shaken and stirred. The sheer ferocity of its opening bars is mind-numbing and potentially dangerous to children and pregnant women. And pets.
Floor Jansen adds a totally unexpected flavour to the proceedings. She sticks out like a sore thumb, and the song is all the better for it. Her bombastic delivery grabs your ear despite the intricate chaos going on around her and demands your attention. One of the best guest parts on the entire record, bar none.
The trading back and forth between Dev’s raspy screams and Jansen’s soaring operatic cleans epitomises the masculine/feminine war of the self, beauty and the beast copulating in climactic chaos to produce a synthetic bastard child of noise and light, both seductive and destructive in equal measure.
The track’s mechanized rhythms and weaponised strain of joyful, infectious madness are further enhanced by the stunning display of technical ability and compositional skill on offer, all the instruments playing on the edge of collapse at all times, reaching into the abyss for inspiration, totally unafraid of the infinite chaos that lies beyond.
Short, shocking and utterly courageous, this vies with “Juular” for best song on here, in my opinion.
DECONSTRUCTION – featuring Oderus Urungus of Gwar & Fredrik Thorendal of Meshuggah
Right from the off, this is obviously going to be a rather silly song (as with all things Devin, deceptively so) with its fart-friendly opening and cheeseburger-centric lyrics. The inner-child has been handed the reins and a whole cart-load of crayons with which to express his imagination. But one must be aware that although children are innocent and beautiful, they can also be hideously cruel in their own way, each a tiny person possessed of uncontrolled emotional extremes.
Those familiar punishing riffs and nimbly dancing finger-work introduce the instrumental portion of the track, over which the choir delivers a strange arrangements of choice lyrics and odd couplets. The track is very Ziltoid-esque at times, Townsend’s vocals often less interested in working with the track and instead keen on expressing juvenile sentiment and childish insouciance in the face of the serious, yet comical nature of existence.
When it locks in, however, there’s a dangerous edge to things, a barely repressed sense of violent groove. The monster still exists at the heart of this man, the edges have just been blurred between them. Underneath it all, there’s a dark heart to things, which no array of bright and pretty colours can ever truly erase.
To be honest, the toilet noises don’t really add anything, but thankfully aren’t used for extended periods. You wouldn’t miss them if they were gone. Yet as puerile as they are, they make a certain kind of sense in this expression of psychological deconstructionism – at the heart of the mad scientist there remains the child asking “why?” after all, and we can never fully escape our childish impulses, we merely sublimate them beneath the facade of maturity which the world demands of us.
As far as the guest parts go, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Fredrik Thorendal can REALLY shred, and he really gets to cut loose on this track. It’s truly a pleasure to hear him play, as he harnesses structured chaos in a totally individual manner which suits the track perfectly. It’s also unsurprising that Oderus Urungus is clearly a willing and happy participant in all this, another inmate revelling in having taken over the asylum. Even so, he still comes across as a very clear second-fiddle to the man who’s truly in charge of this whole magnificent fiasco.
The song’s concluding segment is a real workout, both mentally and physically, as there’s so much going on at once it’s hard to focus on anything in particular. Yet in the words of the man himself, “just enjoy the ride”.
POLTERGEIST – featuring no guests, just pure Townsend
I’m immediately convinced that this will easily stand up with “Juular” and “Pandemic” as vying for the crown in my opinion. It’s far more direct and abrasive, its heaviness delivered with an electric current of energy that only Devin Townsend appears to know how to harness properly.
The song benefits from the purity of form and clarity of vision that having no guest vocalists allows and is easily the tightest song on record. Perhaps the closest in sound and spirit to Strapping Young Lad, but with less self-loathing and far more self-confidence, the song delivers a form of unwavering aggression that is less internally focussed and more externally directed than before.
It seems perhaps that Townsend may have, over the course of this record, exorcised the demons that plagued him and now, having deconstructed himself, is no longer haunted by the ghosts of what could have been. For this record so far has been nothing if not an unapologetic exploration of sheer excess and eccentricity, leaving no stone unturned and leaving, perhaps for the first time, nothing left undone and no potential unfulfilled.
As such, it suggests to me that the 8 tracks of cultivated madness before have led him to achieve some grand sense of crystalline clarity, which is fully expressed through this song, which harnesses and contains sheer metallic power into a power-house construct of explosive energy and surging dynamics, a perfectly formed creation with no excess or weaknesses, sleek and powerful as a hunter.
Is it heavy? Definitely. But not perhaps in the way you may have expected. Each track is densely layered, given monolithic stature and weight by the sheer variety of instrumentation and sonic warfare unveiled. There’s no stereotypical “brutality” on offer, but rather a use of sound and symphony to express heavy emotional and mental states, brutal and unflinching in their portrayal of a man’s insane genius revelling in the chance to go truly crazy in a controlled environment.
Clearly my favourite tracks were the shortest three on the record (with “Sumeria” and “Planet Of The Apes” tying for a close 4th), but this is not to say that the extended sonic jams do not have their place. It just seems that occasionally they are weighed down by their own ambition and bloated excess. The shorter songs benefit from *feeling* longer than they are due to their sheer intensity and the amount of ideas included in such a (relatively) small package.
Certain pre-release materials suggested that this was what Townsend was “trying to do” with SYL . . . which I think is slightly inaccurate. Where SYL served as a perfect outlet for human bile and hatred, grafted onto an artificial, cybernetic exo-skeleton, this record is less focussed on expressing any one aspect of the man’s personality. It acknowledges that side of Devin’s genius, but is overall an exploration (and yes, a “deconstruction”) of everything he has done before . . . and perhaps all he is as an artist. As such, it’s often too much, or goes in too many directions – some of these songs are weaker when taken as a whole than they are in part, due to the inclusion of too many disparate elements. Yet this almost stream-of-consciousness approach is a compelling one, spontaneous and invigorating.
As a result, I wouldn’t call this one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard, as it does always seem right on the edge of falling apart at the seams (and not always in a good way) but would recommend it to anyone interested in sheer, unadulterated musical expression. In many ways its greatest flaw is that the “album” format is not the ideal one and is simply insufficient for such a grand and complex display of mental and musical construction and collapse. The construct is a flawed masterpiece too grand for the canvass to contain fully.
At its heart though, this is an expression of one man’s humanity in all its beauty and ugliness. Though its flaws are writ large, in bold, colourful writing (like the rest of the record) can you name another artist out there truly willing to go this far? To step over the edge in this manner, without a safety net beneath them? None that I can think of, and certainly none who would do so with such gleeful aplomb and willful abandon.
For that alone, metal’s favourite mad scientist should once again be applauded.