If you could take one album to a desert Island what would it be? How would you make that choice? Would it be based on variety? Cohesion? Technical Proficiency? Sheer weight of brilliant pop hooks? It’s a tough one to call, but in ‘By a thread’ Devin Townsend has answered the question by releasing the most ridiculous, overblown, excessive live album of all time which neatly covers all of the bases above and possibly quite a few more. Put simply, ‘By a thread’ is a blinding, flawless collection that covers a gamut of musical adventures from the sublime melodies of ‘Ki’ through the beautiful, blissful pop of ‘Addicted!’, across the destroyed wasteland of ‘deconstruction’ to the final, glorious destination of ‘ghost’. It is the live album that can legitimately lay claim to have something for everyone and yet have no hint of compromise and for Devin fans… well, it can only be described as perfect.
First up ‘by a thread’ is a brilliant example of what bands and record labels can do with regards to packaging and content. Priced around the forty pound mark in the UK, what you get for the money is a four DVD, five CD collection that covers the four shows Devin and his merry cohorts played in London at the tail end of last year. The packaging alone showcases the great thought and care that has gone into this mammoth set. Pull the weighty box out of its attractive white slip-case and you’ll find it to be a solidly constructed digi-pack (made, for once, out of rock solid card) that folds out to reveal all of the discs housed in clear holders with a neat picture under each one. Also included is a booklet of stunning photography, both colour and black and white, which you can peruse whilst enjoying the CD portion of the album. It’s a touch that more financially conscious record labels would have dismissed as unnecessary or too expensive, but clearly this release is all about the fans and in these days of over-priced, under-developed super-deluxe box-sets it is very much appreciated.
As for the content – well, Devin was never going to let an opportunity to present these landmark shows in anything less than a glowing light pass him by, and so it transpires. Each DVD covers one show and, for those of you who missed out, each show covers one of the four albums, in its entirety, with specially selected encore songs designed to fit the mood of the original album. Thus ‘Ki’ gets the relatively mellow ‘Demon league’ and ‘synchronicity freaks’; ‘Addicted!’ gets the awesome ‘pixilate’; ‘deconstruction’ gets a frankly bonkers selection of Punky Brewster songs and the unbelievably chilled ‘ghost’ gets ‘fall’, ‘radical highway’ and ‘watch you’. If that isn’t enough then each disc also comes with a commentary courtesy of Devin, an appropriate music video from the original album (the highlight being the utterly mad ‘Juular’ from ‘deconstruction’ with its train ride to hell), photos and an interview – it’s going to take you a long while to get to grips with it all.
What was special about these shows, beyond everything else, is that unlike a lot of album shows this was no nostalgic re-tread through a fading band’s greatest moment. For Devin this was a celebration of the completion of this remarkable four album cycle and to do it properly he took to the stage, not with any random selection of hired guns, but with as many of the personnel from the original discs as possible. The amount of effort that must have gone into such a feat is mind-boggling, and yet Devin (seemingly through will and the force of his blinding personality alone) not only pulls it off, he even makes the whole thing look easy as he leads his band-mates through the intricacies and oddities of the four-album cycle. So, what that means is that ‘Ki’ features three different bassists, three different drummers and Kat Epple on flute; ‘addicted!’ brings the lovely Anneke Van Giersbergen (who looks stunning and sounds even better) out on vocals; ‘Deconstruction’ features a four-piece choir who do a remarkable job of replacing the massed voices on the album and ‘ghost’ sees the return of Kat Epple as well as the distressingly talented Dave young playing pretty much every instrument you can think of from the Mandolin to the piano. It’s hard to imagine a more astonishing achievement than has been pulled off by band and crew alike to get all of these people on and off stage with the minimum of fuss and it is no surprise at all that every show is filled with a celebratory air, buoyed by Devin’s effervescent stage presence and the undiluted power of the music.
In terms of the shows each one looks and feels different. ‘Ki’ is arguably the most changed of all the albums with the band beefing up the album’s more relaxed sound, although still keeping things on the gentle side, and the backdrop and projections all in keeping with the album’s tribal artwork. ‘Addicted!’, on the other hand is, like the album, a blistering flash of colour cheerily introduced by a demented Ziltoid (and are we happy to see him!), whilst ‘deconstruction’ opens with low-level lighting before exploding into a faux-presidential election as Ziltoid announces his candidacy for President of the omniverse. If there was a single person in the audience not prepared to vote for him then they surely did not belong there, and Devin and band get the atmosphere just right as flags, balloons, hats and cheeseburgers fly around the venue. Finally ‘ghost’ sees not just the mood, but the venue, change as Devin and his cohorts take to the Union chapel in order for the final chapter of the quartet to take place in a suitably grand environment.
So is this, then, the perfect box set? Well, it’s very close although there are one or two churlish points to make. Firstly, the filming of the DVDs, whilst ubiquitously excellent, is unfortunately limited by the size of stage and venue to the number of camera angles and shots available which leads to certain areas of the stage being ignored. Whilst in ‘Ki’ and ‘Addicted’ this is not such a problem, the poor choir in ‘deconstruction’ get short shrift indeed and whilst it is clearly a limitation of the venue and no fault of the crew or editing, it is simply worth noting that it is a shame you can’t see more of the musicians caught in the unfortunate area behind Devin. Secondly whilst the sound is excellent and as powerful as you could possibly wish a live recording to be, it would have been nice to have a 5.1 mix in order to truly appreciate the multiple instruments that fly through the mix across the albums. However, these are but small things, and on the whole the filming is excellent, the sound crystal clear and the content impeccable – Devin and his crew have set the bar astronomically high with this one.
Overall it is hard to fault this box set. Everything form the packaging to the content has been meticulously constructed. The DVDs are stunning, the CDs (one each for the main shows and a fifth compiling all of the encores) a very generous (and welcome) extra and the quality of the music beyond question. This may be close to the best box-set ever released but it is without doubt the most ambitious live album ever crafted and if you love Devin then this is an essential addition to your collection. Life on a desert Island? With Devin Townsend and this remarkably diverse collection you’d be begging your rescuers to put you back just so you could watch it again – pretty much a perfect release.