Wednesday, April 10, 2019

album review: 'empath' by devin townsend

So I'll be very blunt here: I've long ago stopped having any expectations for a Devin Townsend album. I can't know how it'll sound or even what genre it'll be as he'll flit between a half dozen different subgenres or even step out of metal entirely for ambient music or pop or even country! All I know is that the tones will be polished to a mirror sheen, there'll be scattered moments of indulgence, and while he'll bring in guest stars, there's no real clue how much they will be emphasized, especially if some of the tightness goes out the window. And to be very blunt, while I got a lot of backlash to my harsh review of his last album Transcendence in the Devin Townsend Project, going back three years later I don't think I'm all that wrong, especially in comparison with the other standouts with that group.

But fine, this is a brand new solo album from him - and when I say solo, I mean bringing together many of the same guest stars that he's been consistently working with, such as Anneke Van Giersbergen and Che Aimee Dorval, along with a few surprises like legendary guitarist Steve Vai and even Chad Kroeger of Nickelback! Apparently that was a result of Townsend mashing all of his disparate influences into one project, which to me suggests a glorious mess that at least might feel more dynamic than Transcendence, but okay - what did we find on Empath?, this has been a lot to process, to the point where my viewpoint of this project has been all over the place since it dropped and has only recently begun to coalesce. And a huge part of this is rooted in the same frustration I had with Transcendence, because once again I've got the feeling Townsend is not playing to all of his strengths, only this time we're getting more music than ever going to even more huge extremes. Yeah, he wasn't kidding when he said this album is intended to capture all of the pileup of musical influences he's currently working through, and he is a potent enough artist to wring real quality out of it... I just wish he had bothered to bring some focus to this splatter painting of a project, it would have focused much better.

Granted, this is one of those projects where conceptually, it makes sense that it's all over the place, and we really have to start there. From interviews Townsend has said that this isn't an album 'about him', but more about something in relationship to him, with traces of the soundscape circling a man lost at sea and finding an island that represents... well, something. He thought of it, therefore it exists, and the synergy that comes in his exploration of that idea and the 'things' both beautiful and terrifying within it is analogous to what an artist explores within their own creative side. This is why the album begins with hesitation on its first half: can he really afford to explore that idea - let's call it 'art' - that he's created, especially if it's not completely representative of his reality and may wind up forgotten? And yet once he finds that courage to delve into that idea, can he brave the dark underbelly of human instinct on 'Hear Me' or surpass the complacency that comes with not knowing all the answers and just wanting the easy way out on 'Borderlands' - and there's a note of sadness of seeing it being a relationship that's oft-neglected in creative pursuits? And I appreciate how across this album Townsend is uncannily aware of the introspective and borderline selfish focus on this idea, especially amidst a world that might seem to be in calamity - questioning indulgence that is his standby with the sort of scattered cacophony of ideas that could well reflect the creative process. More to the point, the most striking metaphor of the 'Singularity' can well represent how the work has its own relationship to the artist, and only through the merging of idea with artist can bring forth transcendence and something pure and lasting. And look, I can easily see why someone would find this a tough album to make sense of - the writing is broad and abstract, and making an album about the creative process, while being compelling to folks like me who love this brand of self-awareness, can have the feel of going up the artist's own ass. Hell, you can argue that Townsend did this over twenty years ago before on Infinity - arguably to lesser success, because he's now more conscious of how said ideas can slip and slide within each other - and so on some level the album becomes a living metaphor for the ideas he's trying to explore, so if he wants to call back to his earliest work like on that twee spoken word passage opening 'Sprite', or trigger outright whiplash from the extreme metal of 'Hear Me', the theatrical chamber music of 'Why?', and the weird languid vibe of 'Borderlands'... while the ideas connect, the framing around them can feel jarring, but that's a common truth with a creative mind drawing those connections, in a strange way it can work.

And look, I've never begrudged Devin Townsend's explorations of various genres - he's proven time and time again he's a great enough musician to delve into them through his unique lens and frequently knock them out of the park - look at Casualties Of Cool. But where I struggle with Empath is despite my understanding of this album's structure, I'm not always convinced it plays to Townsend's greatest strength: cohesive songs and hooks. Not shunning a tune - there's a ton of actual melodies spanning progressive metal and electronic rock and extreme metal and even chamber pop, most often layered about four or five times deep - but if we're looking for that compositional structure for songs that stand alone... well, that's a lot more spotty. For me the songs that stand out the strongest are 'Spirits Will Collide', 'Evermore', the first section of 'Singularity' called 'Adrift', and especially 'Why?', which shows that outside of his roars and growls and conventionally restrained clean tones, Townsend has an damn near operatic presence and his pure sincerity carries the song right past camp into quality. But take a song like 'Hear Me', the heaviest track here with its death metal drumming, insane guitarwork, pileup of synth effects, and vocals stacked so you literally can't even hear Chad Kroeger; as much as I can appreciate the structure that the responses from Anneke Van Giersbergen delivers - very Ayreon-esque, similar to melodic passages and synth choices on 'Evermore', the melodic structure behind the solos and mixing is a whirlwind lacking in foundation. And again, that's not saying the riffs aren't there, but it circles back to a persistent issue I've had with Townsend's production and that comes in layering the bass guitar and grooves to ground everything. That also translates to the weird stutter in the riffs on 'Genesis', the gummy electronic drum production that can't mask the coursing foundation that's just not there, the sparking synths that tend to be plastered right at the very top for even more of a pileup - all evidence of the maximalist approach Devin Townsend has always taken and that I tend to like, but I have to wonder if it doesn't hit as hard because of a lack of stronger grooves or not allowing for clearer crescendos. And while I clearly see the point of this album not being about Townsend in its theme and concept, in execution if you place your guests amidst the whirl of sound but your scream cuts through, it can appear as if it's his narrative alone. 

But as a whole... look, this album as a whole is a lot to take in - Devin Townsend albums always tend to be, which is why this review is a little later that I'd prefer. And while I think I grasp his approach and it has grown on me, I'm not quite sure I can call it a personal favourite of mine out of his discography. The high points are absolutely striking, but as a whole... it feels diffuse but overstuffed, abstract but meandering, and the climax points don't quite hit with as much thunderous presence as I wish they could - thunderous for sure, but the emotional dynamic just doesn't quite hit the sweet spot. And for me... yeah, solid 7/10, absolutely worth your time and for sure better than Transcendence, but it's a tough project to process, so be sure to give yourself ample time. And as always, I enjoy getting a glimpse in Townsend's creative process, and I wouldn't dare to presume where he's going next.

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