Devin Townsend Project - Transcendence
Transcendence sees Devin Townsend happy and at ease with his music and creative process, working to create an album full of invention
Words: Ben Armstrong & Phil Weller
At this point in his career, it’s hard to fault Devin Townsend. The guy is one of the hardest workers in the industry, always making sure to give back to his fans and boasting a crazy batting average when it comes to album quality versus quantity, having released around twenty records in as many years.
The real unique selling point though, you could well argue, is the distinct identity of each project he puts out. From 1995’s Heavy As a Really Heavy Thing to 2012’s Epicloud, each musical journey has felt completely fresh and focused on delivering a bespoke message. His last effort, Sky Blue, never really came to life in the same way though. Compared to previous exploits, tt felt too safe and predictable with Anneke’s (by this point token) inclusion on co-lead vocals and nothing musically to make it really stand out alongside what has thus far been a glutinous and richly diverse back catalogue.
Fortunately enough, 2016 sees Townsend build his vision from the ground up with Transcendence, a record which is full of invention, new ideas and a backward glance to fan favourites Ocean Machine and Infinity from early in his career. Most notably, Devin has chosen to relinquish control over his vision more than ever, with early interviews making it clear that the DTP band would be contributing in the writing stages, and that Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood (of Periphery fame) would be handling production duties.
As soon as revised Infinity classic Truth hits the speakers, it’s clear that this record is a different beast than its immediate predecessors. Nolly’s production style is immediately on show, with DT’s signature wall-of-sound layered more subtly behind the array of crystal clear drums. Even though there’s very few arrangement changes to the track which first surfaced in the 90s, the feel of it couldn’t be more different. It’s less aggressive and more in line with the ambient stylings of Epicloud or Ghost, made more prominent by the inclusion of an extended, serene outro. As with his re-recording of Kingdom, Devin’s message this time is all about love, togetherness and joy.
As is to be expected from the Canadian, his personality, his thoughts and feelings of the present day are reflected across and deeply imprinted upon the album. Less frantic and scattershot than albums like Deconstruction – which found Devin in a difficult mental space and where a demonic revelry wreaked havoc to great effect but still possessed much of his musical flamboyancy - it is the bright, uplifting, happy-go-lucky feel of Epicloud et al that this album ties itself more to than any other. The artful Stormbending, while slow in its pace, is layered with a delicate and careful craftsmanship, each nuance pinpoint accurate and awe-inspiring, its heaviness apparent but cleverly understated. The song concludes in the form of an explosive, symphonic crescendo as epic as anything the Devin Townsend Project has ever produced.
But this record is no mere sum of its collective parts, as the smooth, celestial transitions between songs make clear, and from Stormbending comes a solid one-two of progressive rock majesty. Failure builds on a jolting, low end guitar chug – its almost angelic production taking any harshness away for something altogether more wholesome. It is further decorated with a gorgeous extended guitar solo and a soulful, bombastic chorus that stays with you long after it has played out. Secret Sciences, the second song to be released from the album before its release, slowly shifts through the gears, upping the intensity and stripping the guitars of the haze that surrounds them, leaving them more virile and impactful. They combine to make something more than just music as, in some weird way they tunnel deep into your emotions, finding something more cerebral and real. The latter also gives Anneke her first real starring role, but here she feels like an integral part of the song as opposed to her inclusion being a necessity; her vocal tonality adding further beauty to a song so precise in the way chord and dynamic shifts colour the bigger picture.
It is a record where Devin, who you feel is aided by the greater involvement of his DTP bandmates here, is comfortable in his often overly-ravenous music identity. Where many records of the past were born of a singular musical vision, each one extremely different in its own right, here, fittingly, all those guises transcend and ooze into one masterful construction.
Higher, for instance, naturally draws from a broad spectrum of Devin’s career thus far, with its Ghost-like opening tranquillity greatly juxtaposed by a choral crash and guttural thump somewhere in-between Ocean Machine and Deconstruction, with this theme acting as the anchor of the song. From there it ventures though a huge and imaginative world of its own making, packed with a distinctive imagery that would make the likes of Tolkien, Rowling and Dahl blush, never forgetting to return to home, giving the song a real residual cohesiveness. Whether you are taken through chapters of dark, hellishly adrenalised warfare, dense in its layering and wondrously dextrous in its musicianship, or through the simpler but massive and optimistic soundscapes of Sky Blue, the songs stylistically transcendental nature makes this one of Devin Townsend’s finest moments.
And as the journey continues through the emphatic, soul-baring passion of Stars and a title-track crowned with a stately brass section; there is an entire banquet to divulge and digest. It can all become a little too much, an emotionally exhausting listen. And that is why you have to applaud at the ingeniously placed Offer Your Light. With its foot on the gas, all seriousness is dropped for an upbeat, romping pop metal number that is simply glorious and infectious fun, nodding its head to the Addicted! era. Transcendence is a bigger picture album, taking a step back from the singular vision albums that have come before it to produce a record that flirts with them all and, as such, the record wouldn’t feel complete without something as smile-inducingly mental as Offer Your Light.
It is a record which benefits enormously from its focus on collaboration, which is the true essence of the record. Anneke appears as expected but she’s used sparingly, and to a much greater effect. She’s only fully deployed on the upbeat, pop banger, Offer Your Light which helps lift the song to a point beyond which Devin’s natural range could (see Hyperdrive!), and elsewhere, her magnificent voice is confined to use as a texture, with each musician’s own individual musical voice intertwining to create something grander.
The MVP this time, though, is drummer Ryan Van Poederooyen, who benefits massively from Nolly’s front and centre drum production. Every single fill, roll and hit is audible and though the drums are arguably mixed a little too loudly at times, the overall scripting and performance of Transcendence’s percussion is nuanced, dynamic and pretty much perfect. Loud speakers as opposed to cheap earphones are definitely recommended here for best results.
Now more than ever, it’s clear that Devin is happy and at ease with his music and his process, in a trend which began with the cathartic, all-enveloping four album DTP series and continued across into the uplifting Epicloud and Sky Blue. Transcendence is yet another worthy and unique addition to a catalogue which is, quite frankly, ridiculous in its scope and unparalleled in its success.
The word from Dev is that his next project will be a full symphony, tentatively called The Moth and throughout here we are given glimpses of its potential in subtle flavours which pock the background of many tracks. And with that, you’ve got to believe the sky’s the limit.