Wednesday, September 21, 2016

album review: 'transcendence' by the devin townsend project

So if I'm being very honest with myself, I haven't really covered as much metal this year as I was hoping. And really, it's a case of just getting overloaded - I've had a busy year both at work and in my persona life, through all of that on average I'm putting out more videos than ever, and I'm still falling behind... although yes, I will admit there were a few cases where I dug into metal records and just didn't have enough material to make a full or informed review. Well, throughout late September and October there are a lot of metal records that have been on my anticipated list all year, and it's about damn time I dig in - don't worry, I'll be covering other genres too, but it's time for some much overdue catching up.

So let's start with an act that I've consistently liked for years now: The Devin Townsend Project. Ever since the titular frontman split off the group from projects under just his name, they've delivered a fair few records of high concept music that isn't afraid to push genre to its limit while still delivering insightful, eccentric, and yet insanely catchy music. Now the last time I covered him was in 2014, where I reviewed three of his projects - the sequel to his landmark Ziltoid The Omniscient, the country-ambient crossover masterpiece Casualties of Cool, and Z²: Sky Blue, the last of which I'd argue was a real hidden gem. The song 'Silent Majority' made my year-end list of my favourite songs but in retrospect the entire album could have had a shot at my top records of 2014 - it's grown on me that much. And as such, outside of my overloaded schedule I had no excuse not to dig into his newest Devin Townsend Project record Transcendence, where if you looked at the liner notes seemed to be bringing together a richer cast than I had expected. Anneke Van Giersbergen was of course on board, but so was Che Aimee Dorval from Casualties of Cool - awesome - and for the first time since the era of Strapping Young Lad Devin Townsend had brought in another producer. This would be Adam "Nolly" Getgood of Periphery, another band that I may have passed over earlier this year mostly because I didn't want to have the 'djent' conversation. But with the possibility that said sounds might creep into Devin Townsend's production, which might fly in contrast to his more melodic compositional style... we're getting off-topic, how's Transcendence?

Well... it's fine. I wish I liked it a lot more, and considering Devin Townsend has admitted that the project may have run its course and is nearly completely dry... well, I believe it. Of course it's not a bad project - I'm too much a fan of the soaring vibe and huge presence that Townsend can evoke to dislike this - but it's definitely a thin listen, without the hooks that anchored Sky Blue, the surging climaxes that anchored the better Devin Townsend Project albums, or even the smooth ambiance that I'll admit wasn't really my thing on an album like Ghost, but definitely did have an audience. This... I don't know if its a dilution of his sound or just a lack of ideas on a compositional level, but I'd hesitate to call this more than just good, at best.

And here's the exasperating thing: on the surface this record is operating with the same materials that made previous Devin Townsend Project records work. The guitars gleam and shine to drive the melodic grooves, the drumwork has only gotten more complex and yet still feels perfectly balanced, the trumpets and keys add more melodic accents, and the entire mix has the shimmering misty quality that you'd expect for a record called Transcendence. Even the djent additions - which come through in some chunkier riffs and a couple solos that can venture off measure - tend to work more often than they don't. Hell, this is even a record where Devin Townsend adds in enough acoustic guitar to along the verses to play in contrast with the titanic swell of the choruses to enhance that sunny vibe, all of this should work... and yet on a compositional level, the tightness that made previous Devin Townsend Projects in this mold work is nearly completely gone. Perhaps the addition of more metal collaborators persuaded Townsend to shift away from the relentless focus towards immediately memorable hooks - and if that's the case, it was a mistake, because nearly all of these songs run long and you get the impression that they all could have been chopped down significantly to intensify the impact. This is also not helped by the tempos, which tend to be a little too slow to drive the more stately grooves into the fast-paced momentum that made songs like 'Fallout', 'Universal Flame', and 'Silent Militia' so kick-ass. This record is more ponderous by design, but here's the issue: if you don't switch it up to build to dramatic crescendos or keep a solid foundational hook to pull everything back together, the compositions can meander, and man, is that the case here. And sure, I get that Townsend is comfortable with letting the cover of Ween's 'Transdermal Celebration' meander in ambiance for the second half, but it feels indulgent, inflating a song that was never designed to be that size and then leaving it bloated and overdone.

A more subtle problem is that without those change-ups and recognizable hooks, Transcendence can start to feel a tad one-dimensional, not having the texture or variety beneath the blinding sheen to really stick with you - and a component of this problem are the vocals. I originally touted bringing both Anneke Van Gierbergen and Che Aimee Dorval onto this record as a strength, but outside of 'Offer Your Light' - by far the best song in terms of tighter composition - they really feel like glorified backing singers, occasionally audible in the vast haze before Townsend's overdubbed and multi-tracked vocals drown everything out. I get having symphonic presence, but come on - you have one of the most distinctive female vocals in metal and a singer who proved with Casualties of Cool as a revelation, and you don't give them a hook or a chance to harmonize more, or any sort of three-part vocal interplay? For as much glorious excess as this album embraces while still trying to have its sensitive side, the lack of more complex vocal arrangements is completely baffling and really strikes me as wasted potential.

And if you want to know the last area where that's most prevalent, it comes in the lyrics and themes. Reportedly Townsend wanted to write a more positive record in light of a generally miserable 2016, to push past lost loves, internal crises and fears, and transcend all of it to something pure and simple - and turns out he did exactly that, with the sort of broadly sketched, mostly abstract, but sincere writing that's always characterized his work. And yeah, the simplicity of Townsend's language is a strength on this record, especially on tracks like 'Stars' and 'From The Heart' and 'Higher', but this is where the problems in composition really come to bite this album hard. As I said, nearly all of these tracks run long, and yet with few exceptions - the biggest being the musings and battle between logic and emotion on 'Secret Sciences' - nearly all of these tracks are underwritten. This is an album that desperately needs poetry that if not more elaborate can cover more minutes of the song - and no, I'm not counting about the overdubbed choral vocals, which while being pretty and contributing to the atmosphere tend to lose their unique bombast when the songs overuse them. And yet even with that there's a part of me that's a little let down by the writing all the same - I get that Casualties of Cool was a far more subtle project and that the sequel to Ziltoid might have been overwritten at spots, but Townsend has the potential to do more, and yet all across this project I get the feeling he's stretching to the limit.

So to summarize, I think Townsend had a point when he said that this will probably be the last Devin Townsend Project album, because even on this project it feels thin. Don't get me wrong, I like the bombast and style of this sort of album, but underwritten compositions and underwhelming hooks are a real issue, especially as this record is straining to sound so much bigger. And yet without more contrast, all that sheen and sparkle can lose some of the dramatic pathos - and when you're dealing with such a high concept, you need that. So in other words, I'm giving this a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but this is far from Devin Townsend's best. If you haven't heard Sky Blue or Addicted or Deconstruction or especially Casualties of Cool yet, I'd go for all of them over this, and if you're a diehard fan... well, like me, you'll probably like it, but you also know by now he's done better. But with this sort of ending comes fresh possibilities, and with Devin Townsend... I just can't wait to see where he goes next.

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