It seems almost a lifetime ago that Devin Townsend stood at the forefront of extremity with Strapping Young Lad, the insanely inventive and still-unparalleled band that unleashed the twisted beauty of ‘City’ upon an unsuspecting world. In those heady days, Devin swore, spat and gibbered on stage before finally melting down completely at Download 2006, and it was not long after that performance (neatly captured on the ‘Chaos years’ bonus DVD) that he announced his decision to retire the band. Extremity had taken its toll and Devin found he simply no longer identified with the young man who had written such brutal music in the first place.
What followed was an initially confusing hiatus that included the release of the bizarre, but fun, ‘Ziltoid the Omniscient’ album, as Devin struggled to quit drinking and smoking and reconnect himself with the art of song-writing. The endeavour paid off and The Devin Townsend Project appeared with 2009’s epic ‘Ki’, kicking off a wonderfully prolific period of Devin’s career. Since ‘Ki’ we have seen six DTP albums as well as the collaboration, Casualties of Cool, the solo album ‘Z2’ and a host of live albums, all of which have confirmed the notion that Devin operates entirely within a niche of his own making and that, no matter how influential he may be, there is still no-one who has successfully managed to capture the sense of wide-eyed wonder Devin exudes amidst one of his flights of fancy. Sweeping and orchestral, it’s as if someone has grafted the industrial might of Ministry onto the Holst-esque work of James Horner, creating a brand new sub-genre of metal in the process, and ‘Transcendence’ is, arguably, the pinnacle of Devin’s DTP work to date. A vibrant, endlessly varied piece of music that plays like the soundtrack to the greatest fantasy movie never made, it is truly remarkable.
Opening with a rich overture, ‘Truth…’ is swathed in Devin’s now-customary layers of reverb, as if to enter the album is to enter Devin’s very dreams and it is only when the slow-burning riff of ‘Stormbending’ emerges from the haze that the sense of unreality dissipates and the melodies that inform the core of Devin’s work rise, shimmering, to the surface. Gloriously progressive, ‘Stormbending’ employs deft shifts in timing and tempo, whilst the solo that soars over the middle-eight is a thing of brief, yet ethereal beauty. An early highlight of the album, the scything riff of ‘Failure’ has a spectacular groove to it, whilst Devin seems to stretch his vocals ever further with each release and his performance here is a thing of expressive, theatrical wonder. This is complex, beautiful, bruising music that speaks directly to the soul and the only way to truly appreciate the depth of what is on offer is to stop whatever you’re doing and allow the music to simply wash over you, not least the Jeff Beck-referencing solo that draws the music into wholly unexpected areas. Segueing into ‘Secret sciences’, the acoustic guitars appear for a track that, surprisingly, treads the same landscape as Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Machina’ before mutating into a twisted prog-metal epic complete with glorious harmonies and, at the heart of it all, Ryan Van Poederooyen’s stunning percussive work. All paths lead somewhere, and as the gorgeous introduction to ‘Higher’ appears, it’s clear that the opening tracks of the album have been leading here, to this massive and magnificent nine-minute behemoth. According to Devin (whose informative liner notes are a joy to read), the song was a massive pain in the ass to mix, and as the track progresses, literally, across a vast musical landscape, it becomes increasingly clear why that should be. Built around a complex, Tool-esque riff and God’s own choir, ‘Higher’ is an ambitious and astonishing piece of music that stands as the single greatest testament to Devin’s considerable powers as song-writer and producer.
Short and sweet following on from the epic ‘higher’, ‘Stars’ is Devin in full-on pop mode, delivering a melody that wedges itself firmly in the listener’s brain with no hope of parole until the militaristic beat of ‘Trasncendence’ marches over the brow of the hill, flags fluttering in the breeze, feet stomping the earth in what feels like a simple celebration of being alive. Making the most of Devin’s grandiloquent ambitions, the album’s title track has considerably choral heft, stunning melodies and blazing guitar lines that sound as if they’re being played by an army of axe-slingers. A brilliantly frothy piece of prog-pop, ‘offer your light’ is pop music beamed in from an alternate dimension and should be played everywhere as a compulsory start to the day. In contrast, ‘from the heart’ is a partial cover that sees Devin at his most vulnerable, whilst the album ends with a cover of Ween’s ‘Transdermal celebration’, delivered relatively straight and once again placing Devin’s heart in the open for all to see. As the liner notes attest, he often sabotages his own good intentions with a raised eyebrow and sardonic grin, but on ‘Transcendence’ the whole point of the album was to get over the darkness that permeates our lives and this Devin and his band do with admirable restraint. To date, Devin has never sounded so human as he does on this album, and it’s that quality that will see the album classed as a classic above and beyond the work Devin has already put his name to.
‘Transcendence’ is a work of great beauty, great depth and great hope. Devin has often played the court jester, wilfully obfuscating his own message beneath layers of humour and irony. There is, as Devin notes, a time and a place for that, and it is, perhaps, the human condition to be wary of revealing too much of your inner hopes for fear of ridicule, but here we find Devin stripped of much of his armour and the result is nothing short of inspirational. On my first listen I made the mistake of considering the album just another DTP album, and that in itself is no poor thing to be. However, I was wrong and with each listen ‘Transcendence’ reveals more of itself to the receptive listener – over the course of the several listens it has taken to review this album, I have found myself hooked and ever more caught up in the emotional resonance of a great artist pouring his very essence into his music, and it is arguable that ‘Transcendence’ is Devin Townsend’s greatest work to date. 9
Special edition notes:
Housed in a typically impressive digi-pack, the special edition of ‘Transcendence’ features an entire disc of bonus tracks curated by Devin. The packaging is beautiful and Anthony Clarkson’s artwork gives the album a strong visual identity. However, beyond the artwork, the real treat is the detailed selection of liner notes, written by Devin, detailing the development of the album. He worries it is pretentious, but he needn’t. Too few artists invite their audience to share their world with them, and the glimpse he affords us is both gracious and worthwhile. Perhaps the honesty of the notes was inspired by the openness of the album, but whatever motivated it, they add yet another layer to the enjoyment of the record. As for the demos, as with ‘Epicloud’, it is interesting to note that a Devin Townsend demo is often better produced than most band’s finished work. The highlight is undoubtedly ‘Gump’, a belter of a song that the band firmly wanted included on the album. Whilst I love the song, I can see why Devin did not want to include it – it’s heavy and cool but it lacks the ethereal beauty that informs the other songs on the record and its inclusion on this special bonus disc means it isn’t altogether lost. From there on in we get dreamy ambient songs like ‘celestial signals’, huge industrial anthems (‘support the cause’, ‘Lexus’) and everything in between. A fascinating bonus disc, ‘Holding patterns’ isn’t quite a bonus album because it simply does not have the remarkable flow that Devin affords his finished work, but as a glimpse into the creative process of an artist who can legitimately be called a genius, it is invaluable and well worth the extra cost.