The shimmering voice of the ocean recites a verse from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam – a poem of anguish, grief, and fading mortality – at the start of Ocean Machine: Biomech:

“O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.” 

It’s a fitting start to Ocean Machine: Biomech, Devin Townsend’s masterpiece, a ‘labor of love that was born more out of adversity than almost anything else.’ Ocean Machine, released at the end of July 1997 – five months after the release of the Strapping Young Lad’s debut City – confirmed Townsend’s creative virtuosity to the metalsphere. Ocean Machine was 25 years in the making, the soundtrack to Townsend’s hectic journey through the hazy industry that exposed him to the highs and lows of life.

The 90’s, for Townsend, certainly look hectic on paper: whilst touring the world with Steve Vai  and The Wildhearts in the early nineties, jamming with Jason Newsted, dealing with corporate buffoons Roadrunner Records, recording the punk-opera Punky Brüster – Cooked on Phonics, formulating industrial destruction under the guise of Strapping Young Lad, coping with the harmful effects of hallucinogenic use and mental illness, Townsend was creating snippets of music that would feature on Ocean Machine. Yet this hectic lifestyle would also have encompassed periods of intense loneliness and detachment. Townsend has been starkly honest about his experiences on the road, away from family, under the influence of ‘acid,’ and thus existing in a constant state of flux and uncertainty, so much so that after the release of the album Townsend sought professional help and was diagnosed as having Bipolar disorder after feeling more alone and detached than ever. There’s a lot of information about this, conveyed by the man himself, that will do a much better job than I can at explaining the intricacies of his experience.

My whole point is this: the concept of Ocean Machine is Devin Townsend. Severing the art from the artist in this case would be wrong. The album takes a listener through the key junctions in Townsend’s life and just like memory itself each re-collection takes varied and diverse forms that are channeled through Townsend’s progressive sound. Ocean Machine moves between the soul-numbing experiences on the road with Vai in “The Death of Music” to the loneliness and melancholy of life under Japanese moonlight in “Night,” between the dream-like heaviness of “Funeral” – a song remembering a school friend who was stabbed to death – to the sad atmospheric reverberations of “Voices in the Fan” and alien abduction song “Greetings.”

Linking each is the motif of the ocean, of waves ebbing, flowing, submerging, drowning, cascading, and trickling. In most of the 13 songs the indifference of the ocean and nature seeps into memory and into lyrics; this is what makes the album so special for me. About the seventh wave that creeps up on a person, “Seventh Wave” welcomes the harshness of the ocean: ‘I’ll wait for the ocean to rise up/And meet me as it rose up before’ Townsend passionately drawls in the song’s huge chorus. In “Night” ‘rain, falling down on me’ is repeated with feathery aggression. In the crunch and crash of “Hide Nowhere” Townsend huskily whispers, like spray over rocks, of “Cold blue waves, cold dead sky.” The gorgeous interlude “3AM” shows Townsend at his sensitive best, drawing the album into solemn territories like the pull of waves away from the shore. The squawking of seagulls above synths that shimmer like frothy waves over rocks infiltrates the lamentations of “Funeral,” then surging into my personal favorite track, the emotional epic “Bastard.” Evoking his most deranged post-punk Robert Smith in the following downward-spiral of a track “The Death of Music,” Townsend – in disembodied fragments and snippets of experimental sound – reaches the epiphany that ‘The rain will come/The rain will always be.’ At this point musical conventions have been chewed up and spat out with hopeless disregard for the self and the future.

Townsend’s vocals are at their best in Ocean Machine: simultaneously vast, epic, subtle, vulnerable, and violent. Yet, unlike many of his more experimental and diverse future recordings, his voice never degrades into the bombastic and melodramatic. His vocals serve the song. Instrumentally, the album touches upon a vast variety of genres. Ocean Machine showboats many styles yet sublimates them expertly with Townsend’s crunching metal always at the song’s hearts. The hooky fan favorite “Life” pulses into the electronic rhythms of “Night.” “Hide Nowhere,” littered with shards of disembodied vocals akin to a schizophrenic Queen, settles as the beautiful ambient interludes of “Sister” and “3AM” tranquilize the album. Lulled into a dreamy vulnerability, “Voices In the Fan” ponders the grey melancholy of life, ending with the striking echoes of a Gregorian choir. Soon after “Regulator” jostles into position with industrial forcefulness, chugging and crashing mid-way through the album before the epic trio of “Funeral,” “Bastard,” and “The Death of Music” raises the album to legendary levels.

With the weepy closer “Things Beyond Things” Townsend, taken from an interview, confirms that things are just things and nothing really means a thing at all. All pain and anguish is personal and ultimately, we, and nature, are indifferent to it. Music means nothing. This album means nothing. You are nothing. A pessimistic end to a wonderfully pessimistic album that brings me, and I hope you, too, such enjoyment and comfort.

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  • Francesco Bordoni

    The main riff from Seventh Wave was and remains one of the most perfect, biggest, thickest riffs I’ve EVER heard, and the way it is presented right after that bit from Tennyson is just stunning, it sends giants shivers down my spine every single time. This album is nothing but good times.

  • André Snyde Lopes

    Many people think this is Devin’s best but I don’t really agree. For me it’s a toss-up between Accelerated Evolution and Ki. This one, while great in its own right, is a tad overwrought and overlong.

    • Akerblogger

      Accelerated Evolution is a very close second. It was the first Devin Townsend album I heard and it blew me away. “Deadhead” is my favourite song.

      • Mollusc

        I saw The Dev doing a solo acoustic show ostensibly to promote Ghost and Deconstruction. He started taking requests, someone asked for Deadhead… Gig had been excellent up to that point, but when he started screaming the “you are so vicious…” part, totally blew everyone away.

  • TheCurlyMetalhead

    One of the best albums of all time imo from my fav artist! Wonderfully written, enjoyed every second of reading this :D

  • HeavyMetalHamster

    Betcha that’s a blanked out Tim Horton’s cup…..

    • Nathan McCain

      Absolutely. That colour and rim? 100% a Timmies drink.

    • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

      RRRoll Up the Rim To Win!!!!!!

  • Ferrous Beuller

    That Tennyson touches my teacher buttons. Great review – great record.

  • That was really nicely written. I managed to see the album played live in its entirety in Barcelona this month… and also see Devin entertain the audience for 15 minutes (due to technical difficulties) with jokes like “What’s the worst thing you can hear when you’re blowing Willie Nelson in an alley? I’M NOT WILLIE NELSON!!”.
    But yes, I love this album, although it’s not my favorite Townsend record. (that’d be Addicted!, I think. Ki and Terria are also wonderful).

    • HeavyMetalHamster

      Lol
      Sounds like dirty dev

    • Vaargoth

      I was in BeProgMyFriend too. Such an incredible fest and this one was of my favourite performances.

    • Huck N’ Roll

      I’ve been telling this joke to literally everyone. I’m in so much trouble with HR right now…

      • I’ve recently found out that the girlfriend of my buddy got into trouble at work because of my joke. I told my friend the joke, he told his girlfriend, she told some guy at work (after two warnings that it’s really hardcore) and the cock reported her to HRs. It was way worse than the Nelson one, though.

  • DeadHead

    This album will always hold a special place in my heart. I could relate to a lot of these songs on so many levels when I first heard it 10 years ago.

  • Mollusc

    Anyone else ever think that the multi-tracked vocal part in Hide Nowhere has a bit of a hyper Proclaimers feel to it? I mean that in a good way.

  • HeavyMetalHamster

    Jeez…I got into DT at the Synchestra album (other than the Vai album) …..so this one was old news when I finally heard it.
    It’s definitely very accessible and maybe points towards his more melodic DTP future releases.
    The man has never put out a bad album IMHO.
    And he’s a fellow Canuck so he is obviously gifted…..

  • mtlman1990

    I love this album and Deconstruction so much

  • Eli Valcik

    When I first showed my friend Devin Townsend he described him as a “christmas heavy metal angel.”

  • Thatguy

    A lovely homage to great album. Thanks. And thanks for raising its profile – everyone should be familiar with this.

    When I saw DT live he opened the show with ‘Regulator’. What a great moment it was.

  • Vaargoth

    This was one of the first albums I’ve listened that taught me how emotional can this music be. Ziltoid showed me that Dev is an incredible artist, but was Ocean Machine the one that made me love him for his sincerity and mastermind at equal parts.
    I could see the entirely set this summer and it was an incredible experience. Being able to see the epic ending trio together will be one of those memories I will carry my entire life.
    Credits for Akerblogger for this pleasant reading.

  • Johansbutt

    City wasn’t their debut

  • Frost15

    This album also holds a special place in my heart. One of the best albums I’ve ever heard, posibly even in my Top 10 ever. One of those albums i say you cannot die without having listened to. A masterpiece composed by a genius.

  • Planex

    If I haven’t professed it enough, I’m a big Dev fan. Ocean machine is a very special album which took me a long time to really connect with. The first Townsend album I heard was City, which is one of my favorite albums of all time, and one of the last ones I really got into was Ocean Machine. It’s strange how even though they sound very different, they feel like 2 sides of the same coin. City expresses with anger what Ocean Machine expresses in somber reflection. Both of them absolute masterpieces.

    This YMIO really made my day, thanks Akerblogger and the rest of the AMG crew.

  • BenMech

    Best album of all time.

  • Lone Biker of the Apocalypse

    Since this was released so close to “City” and I was a younger man all about the speed, aggression, and heaviness f the genre, I completely wrote this off when it came out. Yet over the years I have grown to love the album, as it really is a great juxtaposition to the manic phases of “City”

  • Bryan Stroup

    As much as I enjoyed City, I couldn’t honestly say that I was much of a fan of Townsend in general. I thought he was pretty awesome the first time I saw him with Steve Vai, but I didn’t care much for his own bands. Until I heard Ocean Machine just over a year ago…

  • Lithophyte

    Great review. My favourite artist. I got into Devin with a couple of downloads from progarchives (when they were allowed to have them). My day job is climate research and I find that this whole album, but particularly Seventh Wave, channels passion for earth, ocean and nature and helps focus my aggression for what’s being done to it.
    Townsend’s music of this era (e.g., Earth Day from Terria also) is the perfect lens through which to channel these emotions into focus, letting me think clearly instead of being a blubbering mess.
    Great metal with drive will do that regardless, but Townsend’s music can lift and direct – the wonderbra of metal.

  • Kill The King

    Nice!

    Any chance on a review of the new Temple Of Void album?

  • Tanuki

    Fantastic write up. Though I’m a big fan of Devin’s, there was a lot in here that I didn’t know about this album. I think I’ll enjoy it even more knowing a bit more about it’s back story. Thanks for putting this together

  • Equilux

    Nice review.
    With that said,I still consider Devin to be one of the most overhyped musicians in metal history.I never got into this album and into many others from Heavy Devy.His music leaves me completely cold and do not keep me interested.
    But that’s just my impression of course and I will take this as an opportunity to revisit this one,see if something changed.

    • Here’s Johnny

      lol

    • Jason A. Martin

      Nice to see someone else feels that way. I always just felt his stuff was weak overproduced numetal that people called proggy because someone else told them it was.

      • Planex

        nu metal?

      • I’ll give you overproduced…I’m a huge fan of his, but I don’t think all his albums actually sound the great. (And friends who know a lot more about audio production than me tell me they’re downright terrible). But I think he’s earned the prog label for some of his later albums, for sure… Definitely not nu metal though, not even close.

  • Innit Bartender

    I hide nowhere… Oh yeah, such a great album…

  • JL

    This is probably my favorite album from any band or artist in any genre of music over all time. It has been with me for maybe 15 years of my life and I still find myself going back to it a few times a year. An exceptional piece of music indeed.

  • Jm from nj

    Amazing that so many others feel the same way about this album as I do. His masterpiece with several other contenders right up there.

  • Jason A. Martin

    He’s so ridiculously overrated.

  • I remember being introduced to this album by my friend. We were all into SYL big time, eager to hear Dev’s solo record. And he put on “Sister”…and we all were very, very confused.

  • krisdaschwab912

    Although I listen to this album less often these days, I still consider Ocean Machine to be my favorite record of all time. Such moving music. Thanks for the trip.

  • Ingvar Árni Ingvarsson

    Going to see Devin perform the whole thing in a Roman Ampitheatre in Plovidiv. Can’t wait.

  • GWW

    This record probably will never be equaled by Devin. It is a relentlessly fascinating hook laden masterpiece.

  • benzed

    And the rating is?