Review: Devin Townsend “Empath” [Inside Out Music]

Review: Devin Townsend “Empath” [Inside Out Music]

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Score 80%
Summary
80 %
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Watching Universes Collide

Being offered the new record created by a highly likeable and immensely skilled artist like Devin Townsend could (or should?) be a dream come true to many fans of the metal spectrum and beyond. While listening to Empath for the umpteenth time and finding myself enjoying various elements and so many of the clever and efficiently placed songwriting knacks, I remain a little underwhelmed throughout its running time due to being almost overwhelmed by its diversity.

Sounds a bit silly, huh? At least it does to me. But there are so many things to pick up even on multiple listens, that I can hardly put my foot in the door before the massive stream of ideas swallows me whole. But let me elaborate:

Collectively, Devin‘s lyrical adventures and musical paintings are uplifting, creative and intensely personal. According to interviews, he’s been battling his own ego, feared and yet embraced the dawn of aging and channeling his inner demons over and over again to create Empath, which might very well be the ideal roundup of his long, decade-spanning career. A plethora of musical genres and influences find their way into the meat of this album. Devastating, blast-beat-driven and heavily down-tuned chug/riff-orgies in the vein of Devin‘s now-defunct Strapping Young Lad band (“Hear Me”) alternate with immensely uplifting, heavy rock anthems (“Spirits Will Collide”) and colorfully constructed behemoths containing a thousand ideas under a single umbrella (“Singularity”). The majority of the album sits somewhere in-between these tracks with about all of them offering a lot of electronic elements and sound effects (and cowbell!) which take over the scenery in fluctuating intensities. The opposite end of the record’s excesses is to be found in the calmatives offered by the sections Devin himself calls road-bumps; sitting somewhere between Hawaiian campfire acoustics and surf rock, these parts seem to be strategically placed to offer a sense of relief from the constant battering of the mind and work perfectly for the intended purpose.

Three (!) different drummers were recruited for the creation of the album and that definitely helped in expanding an already huge spectrum of stylistic endeavors to even galactic proportions. Their introductions and abdications are seamlessly integrated into the wall of sound, so you might not immediately recognize the change of personnel which I find to be a very welcome contrast to the often jittery mannerisms of Devin‘s songwriting. According to interviews about the album, Devin‘s perfectionism made it almost impossible to work with a single percussionist, because he’d not have allowed the slightest sloppiness in – for example – the fastest blast beat sections and wanted to do some off-kilter, free jazz-influenced in other parts, aiming at unpredictable results, even for Devin himself. While this approach brought a flashy potpourri of percussionist delicacies to the table, it also choked the human feel out of the hyper-fast blasting parts of Samus Paulicelli‘s performance, because it could very well be a modern high-end software drum machine turned to 11. It just sounds a little bit too perfect to my ears but hey, that’s probably just the old-fashioned metalhead inside of me, panhandling for more classic standards.

Let’s talk a little more about the guitars though, the single-most important aspect of heavy metal as an art form! They are HEAVY-as-fuck, yet not only succeeding in terms of production values and sheer oomph; there’s also a lot of great, intricate riff patterns to be found here! In many instances, highly mutative rhythm guitars provide sheer guitar nerd delight without drifting into the mindless wanking territory. A sense of relief is achieved due to the incorporation of simpler power-chords when Devin‘s vocals take the lead in the more accessible, chorus-driven songs and the effective use of the chug when a simple, no-frills banging of the head is the sole requirement. On the opposite side of Devin‘s universe, there’s the acoustic guitar, gently strumming its way over the aural beaches of his imagination, snuggling itself against these aforementioned road-bumps, which are mostly used as a coffee break before growing into something wilder and more adventurous. It’s difficult to shoehorn all the fretwork into certain categories/subgenres and the like, but what do you expect – this is Devin Townsend and he’s a mastermind of progressive music, so one should not be surprised that it’s very hard to pinpoint such pettiness.

While the bass guitar shines through nice and crisp in the calmer parts of the album, it suffers from the thickness of the guitar presence in the metallic components – a problem or perhaps a bad habit present in many high-tier productions of the last decade. Not a major complaint, but I’d love to hear what kind of wizardry is present below the guitar rumble, but as it stands – I can hardly hear what’s going on under the riffs and considering how much of a production geek Mr. Townsend appears to be, I’m having a hard time understanding why the bass does not have some more room to breathe while the metal is most alive.

And yet – the center of all attention remains on the vocal chords of the man himself with his charismatic, energetic and memorable voice presented in a multitude of styles and techniques. Devin Townsend is not only a fantastic rock/heavy metal singer; the way he delivers aggression, brutality, operatic dramas or even fucking nursery rhymes over another multitude of eclectic musical compositions is hardly comparable to anyone else I’ve heard before. Chip in a stellar performance by The Elektra’s Women’s Choir and a few more guest vocalists (yeah, even that Nickelback dude, but I can’t remember catching him anywhere) and you’ve got everything covered.

Empathas I said earlier – might be the have-it-all-recapitulation of Devin‘s career and yet you still won’t see me back-flipping and throwing around near-perfect scores for it because for an album encompassing a whopping length of almost 75 minutes, it feels a little too overblown and unnecessarily drawn out (the 20+ minute epic “Singularity” is too cluttered for a wholly pleasant experience) plus some of the more exaggerated electronics and sound effect-bells and whistles just don’t do it for me. In all honesty, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone a little bit for this, since I don’t consider myself an all-out fan of progressive rock and metal but I can certainly identify high-quality work. Empath is a record that manages to appeal to a wide range of metal and rock fans DESPITE being a massive slab of fruitful music with a lot to discover and digest. So if you are a fan of mind-bending, intricate songwriting sorcery or just well written, complex music and consider my praise AND criticisms mandatory for your listening habits, please go ahead, buy Devin‘s record and add another 10+ points to my final score, it is well deserved!

Highlights: Genesis, Spirits Will Collide, Hear Me

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