Album Review: Devin Townsend - Empath

Artist: Devin Townsend

Album: Empath Genre: Experimental Progressive Metal Release Date: 29 March 2019

Review by Samantha Wolstenholme

When Devin Townsend announced that he was disbanding the Devin Townsend Project for the time being in 2017 to pursue his solo projects, I admit I was equal parts disappointed and intrigued. The trademark “Heavy Devy” sound that DTP exemplified in beloved albums such as Epicloud and Z2 was my introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Devin’s “wall-of-sound” astral auditory aesthetic. The colossal burst of colour and sound and light that I experienced upon first hearing “Kingdom”, “Grace” and “March of the Poozers” in particular had me hooked instantly. In “Empath”, there are flashes of this utter brilliance, but it delves deeper into the psyche of this existential, eccentric artist to emerge triumphant, delivering a Frank Zappa-esque sonic circus that will propel the listener through an unforgettable journey of the senses, regardless of whether they actually enjoy the music or not.

In bringing this vision to life, Devin assembled a veritable star-studded army of diverse musical collaborators, employing no fewer than three drummers – Morgan Ågren for the smooth jazz, Anup Sastry of Monuments for the prog, and Samus Paulicelli of Abigail Williams to bring the full metal heavies. Vocal and other instrumental guest contributions were provided by everyone from Chad Kroeger to Steve Vai to frequent Townsend collaborator Anneke van Giersbergen (whose pure and dulcet tones should have featured more on this particular album, in my opinion). The production side of things, tellingly, was handled by Zappa alumni Mike Keneally, who co-produced the work, Adam “Nolly” Getgood for the consistent mixing of the drums alone, and finally, a world-class array of engineers and technicians at the renowned Monnow Valley Studios in Wales. Oh, and it shows – the production on “Empath” is nothing short of phenomenal.

However, if you think the output from this melting pot of collaborations and varying influences might end up sounding overblown, well, you’d be right. The album begins innocuously enough, unfolding slowly and serenely with “Castaway”, a gentle prelude of soothing beach sounds and sublime choral passages to set the scene for this unique work. Album single “Genesis” follows, which is classic Devy but weirder, an experimental anthem packed to bursting with a rainbow of numerous sounds all at once. It’s mostly an excellent and cohesive track however, except for the bizarre dolphin(?) sound bites right at the end. The album then does a total 180 with gospel rock ballad “Spirits Will Collide”, which leads neatly into “Evermore”, a track that is particularly noteworthy for its powerful and uplifting use of rich choirs and bold brass orchestrations.

Throughout most of these tracks so far, we’ve heard everything from metal to jazz to random 8-bit Pacman/Space Invaders midi sounds. Yet this is where “Empath” takes its truly weird turn, with the arrival of “Sprite” and its spring symphony-esque flourishing flute and string arpeggio licks, followed by the 80s video game meets Danny Elfman movie score meets speed/death metal chaos of “Hear Me”, and the exceptionally out-of-place “Why?”. Why indeed – this Disney ballad confection is worth a listen only to admire Devin’s exquisite Broadway-worthy vocal performance. The swaggering 11-minute Borderlands is a prog-rock track in sonata form – pulsating rock chugs are swapped out abruptly at the 4-minute mark for Caribbean steel drums, new-age musical meditations and synth-laced choir sections, then back to rock again for the third act.

The eerily beautiful “Requiem” sounds straight out of a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic score, and it leads seamlessly into the final track “Singularity”. This monster 24-minute epic in 5 parts is like the moon circling the new world of sound Devin Townsend has created with “Empath”, and the track takes us on its own separate journey. I think this is the most considered and best written track on the album, because the lengthiness it is allowed gives this expansive music more space to breathe, develop and grow organically. The numerous threads of sounds, elements and musical motifs can unfold in a more natural way to build towards a much more satisfying climax, as there is a better sense of direction in this track.

I racked my brain for a long time trying to figure out exactly what to say about this album and how best to review it. To say it’s a unique and completely unpredictable work like no other is an understatement of monumental proportions. After listening to this album, especially if you listen to it all in one sitting, I can promise you that whether you love it or hate it, you’ll be sitting there scratching your head, puzzling over the kaleidoscopic sonic cataclysm that just immersed you completely and trying to process the sheer enormity of what you just heard.

However, at the risk of hellfire, damnation and pitchforks, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that in all honesty, I strongly disliked this album. I couldn’t relate to one single aspect of it – it was all too much, too fast and going nowhere in particular. This album has trouble deciding exactly what it IS – but maybe that’s the point, as judging from how the maestro himself has described Empath, it’s presented like the magnum opus of his personality, existential musings, creativity, everything. It’s the equivalent of Douglas Adams’ number 42 – life, the universe, and LITERALLY everything, from both a musical and philosophical perspective.

Listening to this, I’m reminded of prolific and revolutionary composers Mozart, who was famous for coining the phrase “music for music’s sake”, and Igor Stravinsky, whose infamous live debut of “The Rite of Spring” was so reviled by the crowd that it resulted in riots and mass attendee exodus almost straightaway. Both of these artists were geniuses ahead of their time who wrote music mostly for the purpose of pushing the boundaries perceived to constrain art – music that the audience simply wasn’t ready for yet. With “Empath”, Devin Townsend has clearly not only pushed the boundaries but set fire to the rulebook and thrown the damn thing right out the window.

It’s a cacophony of genres and sounds and textures and flavours – but does that unbridled creativity in itself make this album “good”? Personally, I’m inclined to think not, as I think the most sublime art is an exercise in creating, and therefore finding, order from chaos. But ultimately, this is a very subjective decision that will likely vary entirely for every listener, and it will depend on what music means to you and how it helps you make sense of the world – which at the end of the day, is what “Empath” is all about for our favourite mad scientist of the heavy metal world.

6 out of 10.

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