Given how excessive heavy metal tends to be as a genre, it manages to lose its sense of the absurd with alarming regularity. As much as purists may sneer, those acts that have lasted the longest have done so by combining serious musical chops with a show, reminding the viewer that as much as music is a serious art form, it is also about having fun. This can be seen no more clearly in Devin Townsend’s dazzling new release ‘the retinal circus’. A magnificent one-off live show that incorporates aspects of serious theatre and musical camp into Devin’s already dizzying live set. It’s a ridiculous, utterly over-the-top performance that emphasizes the aforementioned duality perfectly: on the one hand you get to hear a set-list that span’s Devin’s entire, eclectic solo musical career, whilst on the other hand, the gig takes any show you’ve ever seen and turns up the foolishness to eleven, throwing a convoluted metaphysical plot (narrated, of course, by Steve Vai), a life-size Ziltoid, backing singers, Anneke Van Giersbergen, and a whole bunch of people dressed as animals at the Roundhouse’s impressive stage whilst Devin plays the demented ringmaster at the heart of it all, orchestrating the insanity and playing with greater precision and power than ever.
No one but Devin could have come up with a concept as wildly entertaining, as infuriatingly wacky, as effortlessly charming, as gloriously contradictory and as goofily compelling as ‘the Retinal Circus’. As a feat of organization and as a technical marvel alone it is a huge undertaking that must have taken countless hours to prepare, whilst one look at the huge smiles sported by Devin himself and his impressively huge supporting cast suggests that everyone involved was having the time of their life up there on stage. A multi-layered, astonishingly vivid performance, it is the sort of show that, even if you were there, you’d be hard pressed to take in, and so this DVD/Blu ray set is more-or-less mandatory whether you made it to the shows or not.
Available in a variety of formats, at the most expensive end of the spectrum you have the die-hard collector’s edition which comes with a hard back book, a pop-up stage, a letter from Devin and Blu ray, DVD and CD versions of the album. Its price is high, but, as with previous Devin collector’s sets, the content actually justifies the price and true Devin Fans will undoubtedly have already tracked this shelf-space guzzling behemoth down. Next down the line is a collector’s edition that offers the five discs in a hefty box but without the limited edition trinkets. Price wise, it comes in at under half the retail value of the die-hard box, so if its music you’re after, this is the one for you. For those just seeking one format, then you can also buy the double CD / double DVD / Blu Ray separately. All come with the same track listing, although the Blu Ray obviously has the edge in terms of quality. With regards the double CD / DVD, this is one of those rare concerts with an interval, and so the break between the discs is actually natural rather than artificially faded into two parts, making the experience seem more complete no matter what format you choose.
The DVD offers amazing video quality for the format, but only offers a stereo LCPM soundtrack (although a commentary track is also included). This is a disappointment for 5.1 fans, but the LCPM track is beautifully mixed and in all honesty you don’t actually miss the absence of a 5.1 track as much as you might think. Indeed, the night is captured with a crystal clarity rivalled only by Nine Inch Nails’ impressively perfect DVD releases and at high volumes the heavier tracks are suitably floor shaking. Visually the DVD/Blu ray is also a treat because it eschews any gimmicky camera work in favour of a well-edited, multi-angle shoot that provides plenty of close ups, but which also pulls out often enough for the home viewer to appreciate the scale of Devin’s vision. Well-edited, the shots linger long enough to get a feel for what’s happening, but never stay static long enough to get boring. It’s a relief to find the DVD is shot so well, because the show is kinetic enough to need no foolish enhancement imposed upon it, and the direction and editing is paced perfectly, capturing the event with enviable clarity. Indeed, so impressive is the quality that you’re likely to find yourself showing the film off to all and sundry with alarming, neighbour-bothering regularity.
‘Retinal Circus’, primarily, is about fun. It’s a spectacular, multi-coloured celebration of Devin’s beautifully off-kilter musical career and, yes, even SYL material makes an appearance (after a brilliantly realised introduction courtesy of Steve Vai’s skull) making this as complete an overview of Devin’s back catalogue as any fan could wish for. The man himself stands at the centre of his own crazed creation, interacting with life-size versions of Ziltoid, leaping animals, choirs, a wide array of musicians and, of course, the audience. Always personable, Devin comes across as a mad professor, dabbling in musical alchemy and then standing back to admire his handy work. Over the massive two hour show (complete with interval) no stone is left unturned as we get full on electric fire storms (‘lucky animals’, ‘addicted’ ‘’juular’), stunningly beautiful acoustic renditions (‘hyperdrive’, ‘Ih-ah’), SYL songs (‘Detox’ – neatly followed by the hallelujah chorus, ‘love?’) and moments of blissed out insanity (‘bend it like bender’, ‘true north’), all of which demonstrate the simple fact that there is no musician, no person on earth like Devin Townsend – the man is a legitimate one off and this astonishing night shows just how much love he inspires from audience and fellow musicians alike. There are no highlights as such – everything is played with such love and care that nothing sounds out of place or dull – and the chances are that a listener’s highlights are going to depend entirely on their favourite Devin moments. You like the four album ‘DTP’ albums? A good portion of material is here; you love SYL? A couple of songs pop up; You want Ziltoid? That green-skinned, coffee loving monstrosity is all over the place and the conclusion is that the show is not only a celebration of Devin’s work, but of life itself. It’s so much fun, so bright and full of life and love that you can’t help but watch with a huge goofy smile on your face.
Overall, ‘Retinal circus’ is the best record imaginable of a truly unique event. In terms of the night itself, the hugely over-the-top action on stage, the amazing performances of the musicians, the goofy story-line and the stunning set-list all collide into one massive psychedelic roller-coaster ride through Devin’s inner working, whilst as a multi-media piece it is a perfectly directed, edited and constructed set that offers a well-shot and musically dazzling view of proceedings that, whilst obviously not on a par with being there, does as good a job of bringing the party into the viewer’s home as possible. Devin has never offered poor value with his box sets and recordings, and ‘retinal circus’ is no exception. The special editions (both the super-deluxe, die-hard version and the slightly-less-deluxe version) are a wonderful treat for fans and the film is one that you will willingly watch time and again. Devin, we salute you, ‘the retinal circus’ is a perfect summation of your wonderful career and it is a faultless performance piece – you rule sir! What more is there to say? if you have even a passing interest in all things Devin, this is a mandatory purchase that will brighten your life with its huge, metallic anthems and fantastic (in the literal sense) story line.