Devin Townsend – ‘Epicloud’ Album Review

Most artists, having completed a draining four-album cycle, would rest. Most artists, having completed a draining four-album cycle; and then followed it up with a daring, almost unheard of, four-night blow out playing said albums in their entirety; most artists in that scenario would also rest. Devin Townsend is not most artists. Instead of resting (either physically, or upon his proverbial laurels) the man regrouped, gathered together his flock (including the stunning Anneke Van Giersbergen) and set to work on ‘Epicloud’, the gloriously boisterous follow-up work that is so packed with ideas that it almost sounds like a ‘best of’ compilation from the previous four records. Indeed, so inventive is Devin in his current mode as benign sonic architect that endeavouring to write a review of any of his work is not unlike trying to fit quantum physics into the metre of poetry.

For those looking for the easiest of references, ‘Epicloud’ sits comfortably as the bridge between the contemplative ‘Ki’ and the ecstatic pop thrust of ‘addicted!’. Along the way the listener will notice hints of ‘deconstruction’ with its mind-bending time signatures and vibrant sonic assault, and just the slightest hint of ‘ghost’, its pastoral beauty swirling in the mist, just barely in focus and perpetually out of reach. At its core, however, is the wide-eyed bombast of Devin in full-on James Horner mode, a composer whom Devin has referenced before, and whose thrilling, dramatic scores frequently inform Devin’s more punishing work, and it is this ability that Devin has, to cross-pollinate whatever genre he fancies, that makes ‘Epicloud’ such a joyous listen for the whole of its fifty shimmering minutes.

‘Epicloud’ opens upon a conundrum. Those expecting a sudden guitar attack, an ominous alien invasion in search of coffee, a deceptively ambient opening or even the flute will all find themselves wrong, for ‘Epicloud’ opens in that most joyous musical genre of all – gospel. Thus ‘effervescent’ floats into your consciousness like an advert for fizzy vitamins as the choir ring out “effervescent quality” only for Anneke’s stunning voice to lead us to the real opening of the album, ‘true north’, a rampaging, saccharine-rush of pop melodies clothed in churning guitars that only get heavier as the track progresses, and backed up by rhythms that seem to stretch and mutate the more you actually pay attention to them.

You see? I told you trying to review this was going to be difficult.

It’s great though. Really great. So… ‘Effervescent’ is a great, if misleading opening track and ‘True North’ is a brilliant, if confusing ‘real’ first track and then, without even noticing it, we’re in the ‘Deconstruction’-aping ‘lucky animals’ which does, if I’m not mistaken, cheekily pinch Marilyn Manson’s ‘the beautiful people’ and rewrite it as a greasy, industrial-glam stomp that entirely renders ‘mechanical animals’ obsolete in one sticky rush of sweat ‘n’ sugar before Devin gets bored of the whole shtick and kicks off ‘liberation’ – a track that sounds like Nine inch nails covering the Wildhearts at a school disco and thus leaves you unprepared for the unutterably beautiful ‘where we belong’ which sits between Devin’s own ‘ki’ and Filter’s ‘take a picture’ in terms of pure, sky-scraping pop-loveliness.

And I believe I mentioned already it’s brilliant? If I didn’t, then you must take it as read that it is.

But I digress. We left the album on the wide-eyed gorgeousness of ‘where we belong’ and it’s not like Devin to hang around, waiting for the listener so it’s best to get back to him quick – and indeed it’s no time at all before ‘save our now’  appears, apparently mixing up the pet shop boys, U2, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to do. It works. Of course it works – Devin’s at the controls, one hand twirling faders and pushing buttons, the other mopping his fevered brow as another brain-storm flashes past  – it just shouldn’t work, and no one else would get away with such effrontery. Speaking of effrontery, Devin is no stranger to randomly re-working his songs when he feels the need, after all he did it for ‘Hyperdrive’; and here he brings back the gorgeous ‘kingdom’ (originally heard on the ‘physicist’ album) for another ecstasy-soaked outing, this time with added Anneke, and it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t fit perfectly within the context of the album.

It can’t last, however, and such is the schizophrenic nature of the album that the bubble promptly bursts, leaving Devin standing alone on a mountain top for the ethereal ‘divine’, a pop-melody for the isolated that drifts on a cloud of melancholy for the briefest of moments before being devoured by ‘Grace’, a piece of epic, metallic, gospel-fuelled music that defies ready description with its myriad textures proving too disparate to be corralled into one genre – an apt metaphor for Devin’s solo career as a whole perhaps. ‘More’, as its title might imply, is a searing attack on consumer-commercialism set to a grinding industrial-metal backdrop whilst ‘lessons’ is its briefest of counterparts – a one minute epilogue that says all it needs to in one simple line. ‘Hold on’ opens on a gentle note, as relaxing as anything on ‘ghost’ before the guitars slam in, stealing the mood and propelling the song in an unexpected direction, with the only surprise being how surprising that is, or, err, something like that. Final track (really? We’ve reached the final track already?) ‘Angel’ is the show-stopping closer; the crescendo that sees all the cast on stage at once for the heart-rending climax that sees the voices on stage raised in shared ecstasy as the piece reaches its conclusion. It’s grand, theatrical, and once again makes you appreciate just how much Devin bases the ebb and flow of his albums in the classic operatic form, building towards the inevitable, inestimable climax that leaves the listener emotionally and physically drained by the experience.

‘Epicloud’ lives up to all its promise and more. The experience of writing, recording and performing ‘Ki’, ‘Addicted!’, ‘Deconstruction’ and ‘ghost’ seems to have liberated Devin, the response fired him with enthusiasm and the result is a work ethic that would shame and terrify most businessmen in its single-minded sense of purpose. As Devin himself has noted, he now has the courage to take all the elements that were threaded through the previous four albums, and place them on one disc, the result of which is electrifying, the wide-ranging scope of its predecessors simultaneously harnessed and condensed into one fifty-minute burst of wonder.  It seems hard to fathom that the same man whose rage palpably spilled over into Strapping Young lad should be able to gaze at the world with such wide-eyed curiosity and wonder, but there is no doubt that it is only on this new work that Devin is beginning to realise his full potential. This is an ecstatic, wonderful, daring piece of work that only seems sprawling at first glance; closer inspection makes you realise the level of care and quality control that has gone into making this the most concise statement yet of Devin’s artistry and whilst I have no doubt at all that the next work will be completely different (he is still suggesting a return to the word of Ziltoid for a mighty space-opera), ‘Epicloud’ stands as the summation of Devin’s relentlessly brilliant career to date. Put it on loud and let it envelope you, for there are few more joyous experiences to be had in modern heavy music than this.

Special Edition note

It is worth noting that although the one disc edition is mighty fine, there is a special, two-disc edition which is well worth tracking down. Containing the original album and a bonus disc in a handsome digi-pack, for your extra loot you get a disc of roughly finished demos (they sound good, but not on the same levels of sonic excellence as the album proper) plus detailed liner notes explaining them. For the Devin fan they are an unmissable extra and a generous offering to the fans from an artist who continues to produce his music with an old-fashioned regard for quality of product over profit.

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