Over the course of the last 25 years, accomplished heavy music artist Devin Townsend has remained consistent. Consistent-that is-in that he’s rarely consistent in what we’ve come to expect from him. Constantly making unique inroads with many different styles of music, he has followed his particular muse in any way it leads him for almost three decades.
Although heavy metal and progressive rock has always been his primary focus, each year that passes recently has resulted in new peripheral works that have seen him branch off to everything from country, new age, ambient noise or even orchestral musical theatre. As endearing as that has been to his constantly growing fanbase, it has also made it difficult to classify with much accuracy what he does and what he represents. Who is Devin Townsend? What is his musical identity? With his new album, ‘EMPATH’, we find that Devin Townsend is actually all of these things.
Over the past few years, the success that Devin has slowly worked for has fortunately come with the power to control his own creative destiny. The recent successes with the DVD from a sold-out Royal Albert hall, or his 2012 ‘Retinal Circus’, or last year’s ‘Ocean Machine’ live DVD with the Orchestra and Choir of State Opera Plovdiv has put him in a position where with the new album ‘EMPATH’, he will once and for all define himself as a musical force outside of any particular genre classification.
There has been a strangely conservative trend within the heavy music scene with the industry needing to define artists as one particular thing. Often that relegates musicians to boxes that are very limited. If you play heavy music, what genre of heavy music are you to be categorized under? If you play anything with a pop aesthetic, are you selling out? If you make beautiful chill sounds, and then promptly follow it with savage metal sounds, you are either viewed as doing it to be provocative, or that it’s coming from an unfocussed vision. So what does one do if a single category does not contain the breadth of the expression that needs to come forth? If you have a history of heavy music -yet have skills that extend into different realms- getting any attention from those outside genres is next to impossible. You are automatically relegated to the metal world and that world alone. To be fair: EDM, Jazz, Classical, ultimately any genre…the music world in general requires artists to ‘stay in their lane’ due to a need for categorization or simply the out of necessity due to the glut of albums released every month.
So what happens if you’re an artist that simply uses ‘genre’ as colours in a wide palette? What happens if you’re an artist like Devin Townsend with a history of musical knowledge and experience that extends far past the genre that made him famous? Furthermore: What if you think that Heavy Music is not something to be ashamed of, and you feel it deserves to fit into the typical fold of ‘respected’ music? It has been well known to those proficient in heavy music that it can represent emotions in ways that no other music can, and can add a dynamic to emotional music that makes the topics truly heavy. Devin has always had this ethos, and his fanbase has quietly followed him through a myriad of styles over the years where he has applied this.
If the desire (and the ability) to play different styles is not done to be provocative, but rather to illustrate a full spectrum of musical emotions, why would one not want to follow that?
Enter EMPATH. Devin has decided to see what would happen if all the styles that make up his current interests were finally represented in one place. To finally shake the fear of expectation, and just do what it is he was meant to do creatively, EMPATH, true to the name, is about allowing the audience a feeling for a variety of musical emotions. The musical dynamics represented on this single album are broad, challenging, and immense. To approach this sort of work with a long history of what makes heavy music ‘heavy’, allows this to be done with a type of power rarely heard.
The theme of the work was based in participating with all of what makes life so simultaneously beautiful and challenging, and to not neither fear those things, nor let them define us. As much as this may sound like a confusing output, care was put into the trajectory of the album so that hopefully each section is ‘welcomed’ by the listener when it arrives. A roller coaster of emotion that makes each consecutive section that much more effective. Having a constant thread throughout makes it a thrilling and constantly interesting sonic experience. One that is very much rooted in the hope that through this work, it can be something that may inspire other musicians to do the same. This is not meant to be a ‘glory project’ rather; it is meant to be a celebration of the dynamics of what makes music interesting with great talent involved.
In what started as a clear vision several years ago, Devin realized that time was running out on the inspiration that had propelled ’The Devin Townsend Project’. Although that band (and the series of records that bore its name) had seen his career surge in many fantastic ways, he knew that in order to proceed forward with his creative development, the band was limiting his ability to actualize what was becoming obvious he needed to pursue. When DTP disbanded at the end of 2017, there was concern that the decision was impulsive, rather than what it truly was: a strategic way to eliminate the parameters that being in a traditional rock band imposed on him.
The EMPATH project and the massive amount of artists involved, was based in a need for total, uncompromising actualization of what he had been trying to achieve for much of his career. However, the ambition behind it required a strategy, so Devin began assembling a team of like-minded individuals to help him actualize this task in the most efficient ways possible. To create a completely over the top artistic statement that ultimately makes sense, yet also rings of hope in uncertain times, was a workload not to be taken lightly.
In an unexpected meeting with Frank Zappa Alumni and all around brilliant musical mind Mike Keneally, Devin began bouncing plans off of him as a friend until it became clear that Mikes mind was suited to help Devin organize the logistics of the project.
It began with the drummers, Devin had been writing ideas ranging from extreme metal, to prog, country, new age, orchestral and free jazz. All of which required the absolute best people for the job to not come off as a gimmick. Not content to find one drummer who would be pushed beyond his wheelhouse, Devin set out to find drummers that he could relegate certain songs and sections to from the large canon of music written during the EMPATH period, and then track them in the best way possible. He chose Morgan Ågren (Mats And Morgan, Frank Zappa, Fredrik Thordendal) for the improvisational, quiet and jazz portions of the album. Anup Sastry (Monuments, Periphery) for the prog metal pieces, and Samus Paulicelli (Decrepit Birth, Abigail Williams) for the full metal sections. Repeating the process that had resulted in pleasing drum sounds on his last album Transcendence, Devin enlisted Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood to engineer the three drummers in order to achieve consistent results for what would undoubtedly end up being a monumental mixing task. The whole process was then taken to the famous Monnow Valley Studios in Wales, where Devin was joined by an army of talent. A host of engineers, technicians, the three drummers, an additional bassist by way of internet phenomenon Nathan Navarro as well as co-producer Mike Keneally. The studio was then set up as a residence studio, so the group lived in this fascinating UK location where artists such as Queen, Oasis, Black Sabbath (among many others) had recorded to great success. From there, the arduous task of making sense of music that would ultimately go between the lightest and the darkest sounds they could imagine would begin.
Through the entire process, either intentionally or by happenstance, Devin found himself in contact with many brilliant and unpredictable collaborators and people willing to help and inspire. Among the list of people involved were Elliot Desagnes, Steve Vai, Chad Kroeger, Anneke Van Giersbergen, Ché Aimee Dorval, Ryan Dhale, the fabulous Elektra Women’s Choir as well as several renowned orchestras from around the world. The process became increasingly more fantastic and eclectic the more it all began to grow and take shape.
For the conclusion of the process, for vibe, a cabin in the woods was rented and all the recording gear was then moved in. A host of interesting artists would come by out of either morbid curiosity or simple interest and end up participating in the record. Devin’s focus during this process was firmly rooted in his desire to not only- once and for all- make the statement he had been trying to ‘get right’ in the past, but also do it with a sense of joy and intention that was rooted in helping people and staying emotionally centred throughout. In a time of history where empathy is viewed as a weakness, the idea was to create songs of wildly varying styles to represent the need to view life from ALL its angles. To participate in these many musical emotions was about breaking away from the fears that he felt had held him in one place for so long creatively.
To make an analogy with the album that in order to understand others in this increasingly divisive time, we need to be willing to see things from other emotional points of view, was very important to this process.
The final stages of the album were when the true colours of it all began to appear. After spending a lot of time (and resources) to try and mix this massive statement with several different engineers, Devin realized that this project was not like others, and could not simply be mixed in one way. Typically, mixing nowadays relies on several techniques that, as cool as they sound, simply limit the dynamics of the material. At one moment it’s a metal record, then it’s a prog record, then it’s a jazz record, then it’s a pop record…to mix and master that takes many mix styles with great attention to detail and obsessive tweaking. Devin ended up mixing it himself and the result is a truly accurate representation of what the project was meant to achieve, with a depth to the sonics that only a great deal of care can produce.
In the past, Devin has been told that it is simply ‘not possible’ to do all these different styles of music in one place, yet with a newfound success and significant support from the industry, he was determined to prove that not only can it be done, but in a musical climate where taking chances is typically seen as ‘unwise’, it could be done with supreme confidence and absolute lack of compromise.