Friday, May 02, 2014

"Rocky Horror" + "Godspell" = Devin Townsend Project

Rock ‘n’ roll is a treacherous genre for the mid-lifer — the older I get, the older my “exciting new” discoveries tend to be. Have you heard what Johnny Burnette has done to Tiny Bradshaw’s “The Train Kept A-Rollin’”? Cooks, I’m telling you.

So when I stumble across someone who is younger, and evidently at that zenith where energy and technical chops are in perfect sync, I get very, very excited.

Enter Devin Townsend.

Channeling Paul Burlison

I originally clued-in to Devin Townsend via this performance, from 2013’s The Retinal Circus.

Being of the faintly-metal, faintly-churchy stripe, the song and performance gives me the heavy shivers. So I was surprised when I cued up the rest of The Retinal Circus and found it a bit of a rough ride.

Pretty much as advertised.

The show plays as if the troupe from The Rocky Horror Picture Show marched into Godspell and started calling the shots — so far, so good. It’s got a cast of dozens, including a gospel choir, Cirque du Soleil-type acrobats and contortionists, various luminaries from the Metal scene — and puppets. All contribute not just to the musical performances, but to long stretches of “drama” meant to weave the various threads of Townsend’s music into thematic whole cloth — which is where the trouble lies.

By concert’s conclusion, the effort at narrative continuity strains past the breaking point, and Townsend himself frequently mocks it outright. But even a noob viewer like me could see this wasn’t an entirely misguided effort. Townsend is clearly attracted to Big Existential Themes, and Big Musical Expression. He may be a clown, but he trades earnestly in recognizable currency.

Townsend is an unregenerate headbanger, but also a polymath of the popular. Every album is a “What if?” proposition — as in, “What if Zamfir hired Meshuggah as the studio band for his next album?” If the question strikes the wary listener as a gag or novelty, Townsend doubles down on his commitment to the project until the listener is persuaded otherwise — and then he’ll fart, or belch.

So where ought the curious noob to start with Devin Townsend?

ADDICTED! (2009) is Townsend’s shot at making “an album you can dance to.” It opens with the deliberate crunch and heavy low-end associated with the more dirge-like modes of metal (think Rob Zombie), but subverts it from the git-go with disco polish and an almost giddy positivity. Townsend was, at this point, confirmed in his commitment to a clean-and-sober life. The album could play as a series of 12-Step anthems — if only Townsend weren’t attuned to the irony of self-improvement as an addiction in its own right. Start with “Bend It Like Bender.” If you like that, you could try the title track next. Or just trust me and get the rest of the album.

Epicloud (2012) is Townsend’s (current) magnum opus — his “Andrew Lloyd Webber” album — a grand summary of all the styles he had been experimenting with up to that point. If you like “Grace,” you’ll be on-board for the rest of this disc. It’s got metal, ballads, operatic desperation and carnal punchlines — all of it neatly bookended by a reassuring gospel choir. Its sudden switches of intensity get me giggling one moment, then dabbing at my eyes the next. Anneke Van Giersbergen, the lead vocalist in “Grace,” is frequently at the fore, playing either Yin or Yang as Townsend’s hijinx requires. Just one example: following the cathartic “Grace” with the fiercely comical “MORE!” Epicloud is probably the most accessible synthesis of Townsend’s zaniness and sincerity.*

None too hard on the ears, either.

Deconstruction (2011), in which our Pilgrim braves a face-to-face encounter with the Devil, to discover that the true nature of reality is . . . a cheeseburger. Too bad our Pilgrim is vegetarian. If this sounds like a Spike Jones goof, the vertiginous effect of the entire album is difficult to overstate. Very Proggy, and entirely Metal, it plays like the first time you watched a fractal pattern screen-saver. “Hey, that’s cool!” shifts to “Wow, it keeps changing” shifts to “. . . huh . . . “ shifts to “Mommy!

If you’ve swallowed all three of those pills, you’ll want to know what Townsend’s New Age music sounds like. Ghost (2011) isn’t something that gets a lot of play from me (I can’t quite shake my pan-flute bias), but it’s definitely worth the listen. Just when I’m ready to nod off, the mood turns dark and the drums kick out a double-bass fill.

If you want to look into Townsend’s Strapping Young Lad days, I can recommend The New Black and City — 90s Metal that wears the usual 90s influences (Slayer, the hardcore scene) all flavoured with Townsend mischief. But now you’re on your own, ‘cos I’m out of words. And it looks like he’s just getting started.

"More! More! More! More!"

*The double-disc set includes Epiclouder, a collection of cast-offs from the project. “Cast-offs for good reason,” I thought when I first gave it a spin. But they are catchy, and well-produced. And darned if they haven’t slipped under my skin as well. Quite the bargain, really.

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