(Here’s Andy Synn‘s review of Devin Townsend‘s new album, which will be released on March 29th by InsideOut Music.)
As much as we like to think of ourselves as being a cut above the average consumer of “popular” music, the truth is that the Metal scene is just as vulnerable to the same trends and biases, the same prejudices and predispositions, as any other style of music.
One of the most obvious (and most egregious) is our collective tendency to buy into the pervasive “cult of personality” surrounding certain artists, and become unwilling/unable to offer or accept even the slightest criticism of their work, sometimes to the extent of responding to even the mildest suggestion of fault with the sort of overblown outrage that serves mainly to remind people that the term “fan” is derived from the word “fanatic”.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that there’s no requirement that if you like a band/artist that you have to like everything they do.
But, as long as it’s done well, with honesty and integrity, you should at least be able to respect it.
Which, coincidentally (or not), is exactly the position I find myself in with Empath.
Perhaps more than any other record in Devin Townsend‘s extensive career, Empath comes across like an album crafted just as much (if not more) for its author than its audience.
In fact, even after just one listen it was clear to me that Townsend’s decision to publish this particular piece of work under his own moniker, rather than as a continuation of The Devin Townsend Project, was the right one.
Because while Empath is undeniably a continuation (some might even say culmination) of his career thus far, it also represents a conscious choice to reject many of the expectations and implicit restrictions which have built up around his music over the years, as well as a wholesale rejection of established genre-boundaries in general.
This is, however, something of a double-edged sword. As someone who believes that setting boundaries within which to operate can in fact stimulate greater creativity, Townsend’s unrestrained, everything plus the kitchen sink, approach to songwriting on tracks like “Genesis” and “Borderlands” (two of the album’s strangest, and strongest, cuts) sometimes feels a little too much to handle, and there’s often fair bit of tonal whiplash to navigate as songs flit wildly between genres, styles, and emotions, with near-reckless abandon.
That being said, this isn’t so much a criticism of what Devin’s trying to achieve here, as it is simply an acknowledgement that, by its very nature, Empath defies easy categorisation, easy criticism, and easy analysis.
Perhaps the best way, or, at least, the best way that I’ve found, to approach this album is like an oddball, off-Broadway musical, one whose influences run the gamut from Pink Floyd to The Prodigy, The Muppets to Meshuggah, Enya-to-Gaga-to-Dada, and whose cast-list comprises a veritable who’s-who of compatriots, collaborators, and contemporaries (many of them, though not all, Canadian).
It is, obviously, an exceptionally ambitious endeavour, and although not every track works quite as well as the others – “Sprite”, for example, seems to lack any coherent direction or purpose, while the Disneyfied “Why” honestly sounds like it belongs on an entirely different record altogether – when the various stars align, as they do on the devilishly dynamic “Hear Me” and the truly spellbinding “Spirits Will Collide”, you can really hear and appreciate what Townsend was going for with his outright rejection of convention or compromise this time around.
Interestingly, the album’s grand finale, the madcap, multi-movement, twenty-two minute monstrosity that is “Singularity”, could almost be taken as a separate entity unto itself (especially since it follows on from the cinematic “outro” provided by the John Williams-esque “Requiem”), and there’s an argument to be made that it almost deserves/deserved a stand-alone release.
Equal parts “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Catch 33, and Les Miserables, it’s practically worth the price of admission on its own, and, even if the rest of the album doesn’t quite do it for you, I highly recommend giving this one an extra shot, as while it’s packed full of almost as many influences and elements as the rest of the record put together, it never feels over-stuffed or, more importantly, over-long.
For better or worse Empath is the most “Devin Townsend” album of Devin’s career, and while it will likely prove extremely divisive even amongst his own improbably-dedicated fanbase – heck, apart from “Singularity” I’m not sure I’ll end up going back to it very often myself – it’s impossible not to marvel at the sheer scope and scale of what he’s achieved here.