If you haven’t heard the name Devin Townsend before, chances are you’ve willfully had your head buried under a gigantic rock for around two decades now. Once a wiry young ball of aggression fronting the seminal industrial metal act Strapping Young Lad, the now 44-year-old Townsend has come a long way from the 22-year-old jag-toothed skullet pioneer that released Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing way back in 1995. Flash forward to 2016 and you’re looking at a guy that has released 23 studio albums and forged a career out of exploring every nook and cranny in the realm of heavy music.
So at this point, it’s hard to know what to expect from a Devin Townsend album. In fact, it’s felt that way ever since he first embarked on this Devin Townsend Project and blew everybody’s expectations away with 2009’s Ki; an album that serves as an exercise in newfound restraint, experimenting with elements of jazz, blues, ambience and psychedelia. Addicted! followed suit in the latter half of that year, taking another huge left and offering up a fat slab of melodic pop-metal and electronica. And with every album since, the Devin Townsend Project has proven to be one of continual self-exploration and redefinition, so it’s no surprise that on the Project’s seventh album Transcendence, we get yet another curveball from way outta left field – this time, in the form of a progressive metal opera.
Transcendence doesn’t follow a literal narrative, but an emotional narrative; each scene is set not as a story, but as a feeling. Advancing seamlessly, each movement in the arrangement provides a new emotion or manipulates an old one – much like a lot of classical music. The instrumentation is incredibly varied and both expertly layered and intricately arranged, giving you the aural sensation of actually sitting in front of one gigantic heavy metal symphony, complete with every bell and whistle you could ask for. In short, it’s like popping on your Sunday best and taking the centre seat in a one-man audience for the most intense modern symphonic performance of your life, with your main man Devy standing front and centre to lead you through with one hand while conducting an orchestra with other.
The show opens with a reworking of the classic Infinity opener ‘Truth’. While the original sounds as though it’s trying to force the sky apart and sing to the heavens, the powerful vocal chorus behind this arrangement makes it feel as though it’s actually descending from the heavens, culminating in this rapturous cacophony and showering light and love down upon the believers. Some incredibly sensitive and beautiful vocal harmonies drift in before ‘Stormbending’ hits like a long-lost cut from 2003’s Accelerated Evolution, with the mammoth chords engulfing you whole and lifting you ever closer towards the light.
Songs like the syncopated riff-fest ‘Failure’ and the infectious ‘Secret Sciences’ offer a more straight-forward approach with the latter dropping a gigantic chant-along chorus reminiscent of Demanufacture era Fear Factory that stays with you for many days after. My highlight, the near 10-minute monster ‘Higher’ which is which exorcism the exorcism scene in the show, opening with shimmering vocal melodies and softly strummed acoustics before dat riff drops from above and crushes absolutely everything in sight, sending the track spiralling into a slow descent into hell. Finally, the title track presents the last part of the emotional rollercoaster you’ve been riding and beautifully ends the narrative of the album, delivering the heavy metal equivalent of the sensation of letting go of your baggage, your ego, everything, and finally transcending.
For the last three tracks, free from the weight of the emotional narrative of Transcendence, it feels like Devy puts down his conducting baton and re-takes the stage for an encore of sorts. He blasts through the industrial/EDM romp ‘Offer Your Light’ with Dutch Songstress Anneke van Giersbergen, before baring his all and delivering a sincere and heartfelt ode to his lifelong love in ‘From the Heart’. Then, like all great encores he decides to finish off with a cover, a blissful and lovingly recreated version of the almighty Ween’s ‘Transdermal Celebration’. The last note rings out, the house lights come up, the energy in the room dissipates into the ether and you’re left to walk home from the show alone but content, reliving the magic and basking in the afterglow.
What more could a guy ask for?
Transcendence is out now via HevyDevy Records