I have been a fan of Devin Townsend for well over a decade now. I’ve been with him through half his career, including his entire Devin Townsend Project phase. But his most recent output started to feel a little stale. It was like he had painted himself in a corner and was finding it difficult breaking out of a rut formed from Epicloud’s echoes. Ziltoid 2 was overwrought, more of a comedic radio drama than a music album, and its companion piece Sky Blue had no staying power for me. Transcendence fared only marginally better. So when Devin announced he was laying the Project brand to rest, it made me hopeful. Could Empath, the first album since Ziltoid under his own name, be Devin’s new metamorphosis?
Well, yes and no. Empath doesn’t sound like any one of his past albums, it sounds like all of them. Feeling much like a culmination of 25 years of music, it takes bits and pieces from his entire discography and blends it into a gargantuan cocktail that is as ambitious as it is bonkers. At a head-spinning, often non-linear 74 minutes, it sees Devin at his most impenetrable, his most eclectic. Along for the ride is a rogues gallery of guests, many from his past career, including Ché Aimee Dorval (Casualties of Cool), Anneke van Giersbergen (numerous DTP albums), and Steve Vai, and newcomers like Samus Paulicelli (Decrepit Birth), Morgan Ågren (Frank Zappa) and Anup Sastry (Periphery) on drums, and Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa) as music director, plus several others. Empath is an absolutely massive undertaking; the question is whether it doesn’t try to do too much.
That argument will almost certainly be the biggest complaint, considering the ludicrous amount of things going on here. The first single “Genesis” perfectly encapsulates the album as a whole, containing everything from obliterating double bass, disco beats, Ghost atmosphere, meowing kittens over gentle acoustics, and pompous orchestration including the Elektra Women’s Choir, plus one of the best damn choruses Devin ever wrote. Across the album, you can find flashes of Strapping Young Lad brutality (the bludgeoning “Hear Me” and the midsection of lengthy closer “Singularity”), Infinity insanity (the portentous “Why” is basically “Wild Colonial Boy”-gone-Disney), Epicloud orchestral pop (“Evermore”), and even smatterings of Devlab noise (further into “Singularity”). Only Punky Brüster doesn’t seem to be represented. The internal consistency of each of these tracks varies wildly, with some (“Hear Me” and “Why”) more focused on one sound, and others (“Genesis,” “Borderlands,” “Singularity”) running the gamut in a stream of consciousness.
But despite a few flaws, it actually works, provided you enjoy Devin’s idiosyncratic style. The album’s scope and breadth of music keeps the length fresh, and the smoothly constructed transitions (or occasional intentional lack thereof) create a sense of anticipation: what could be next? Each passage contrasts with the next, but the foundations and sense of unity are solid enough not to get lost, though the enormity required several spins before I felt like I was getting a handle on what was going on. Better yet, it means the album rarely get boring, although the gentle “Sprite” is a tad insipid and feels like the only real filler. Still, that’s quite an achievement at 74 minutes.
The quality of the performances has never been an issue for Devin, and he gets the best out of each and every guest. His own vocals have never sounded better, and he gets to show off his insane range and versatility well. What’s a bigger surprise is how stunning the album sounds. Often justifiably accused of brickwalling the production for his beloved wall of sound, the master here is rich and warm, able to handle the massive range of styles, the quiet passages as beautiful as the brutal pummeling. There are hundreds of layers to juggle, but the mix is never less than immaculate, every detail at the right level for its ideal impact. If this doesn’t turn out to be high on the list of best produced albums of the year I will eat my hat.1
Devin truly is an entity of his own. In his videos documenting the making of Empath, he describes his writing process as a form of self-therapy, basically admitting just how self-indulgent his songwriting tends to be. But this, to me, is not a drawback. Devin has a unique headspace, one that is stamped all over his records going all the way back to Ocean Machine and Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing. This headspace is most pronounced on Empath, the most Devin album Devin ever recorded. You may or may not enjoy taking up residence in this space. I do.