Album Review: Devin Townsend Achieves Enlightenment with Empath

  • Jeff Treppel

Some advice: don’t play Empath for your significant other if they have no prior experience with Devin Townsend. They will be very confused. His latest studio release is not just a Devin Townsend album, it is all the Devin Townsend albums distilled into one 75-minute stream-of-consciousness flow. It’s basically like tuning through the radio dial in his brain. It can be an… overwhelming experience.

The most impressive thing about the Canadian prodigy is how, through approximately 25 albums that catapult through genres as diverse as industrial metal, trip hop, and country, he always makes his work sound distinctly him. And this is no exception. No matter what Empath metamorphizes into, it always has that certain je n’ais se Devin to it. And boy, does it transform often. The album is structured more akin to a symphonic piece or musical than a pop or rock framework. He paints with the entire musical palette available to him, and it’s an extensive one.

Within the first couple minutes, he’s already washed up on unknown shores, easing the listener in with gentle wave sounds, Hawaiian lap steel, and a woman’s choir. Then it’s into “Genesis,” as audacious a statement of intent you’re likely to find on, well, anything. He dances nimbly from EDM to metal to cinematic orchestration to prog to funk to showtunes and back again. There’s even a rousing chorus to ground the madness: “Let there be light/Let there be moon/Let there be stars/And let there be you/Let there be monsters/Let there be pain/Let us begin to live again.” There are enough riffs and genre switches in there for an entire album, and yet he fits it all seamlessly into six glorious minutes. And so it goes for the remainder of the record. Whereas on previous releases he mostly separated the different styles into individual songs, here he throws himself free of those shackles and lets loose. It’s all music, after all; why segregate it by arbitrary genre boundaries?

As you may have gleaned from that lyrical snippet, this Devin is a long way from the one that screamed “I FUCKING HATE YOU” a whole lot in his first statement of intent, Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing’s “S.Y.L.” It’s an uplifting, life-affirming album, even when it looks at the dark side of things. The closest the record comes to Strapping Young Lad, “Hear Me,” asserts aggressively that “All the world is bleeding and we know the reason why.” Instead of rage directed at the world, however, it feels cathartic; a release. And, of course, he sandwiches that heat blast between two of the weirder tracks, the hippy-dippy new age storytime of “Sprite” and the jaunty, show-tuney “Why.”

Did I mention there’s a lot going on? I haven’t even touched on the 23-minute closer, “Singularity,” where all the different multiversal Devins collide in one spectacular six-part prog rock suite that ties everything else on the album together and then blows it apart in a massive intergalactic space battle. Going back and listening to his work with SYL for context, the growth Townsend has made since then can’t be understated (and City is a top 100 all-time metal masterpiece, for sure). It’s like he’s redirected that early, unfocused passion into sheer musical ambition, and succeeded. Because it messes with expectations so much, Empath may not be as immediate as some of his recent work with the Devin Townsend Project, but once you’ve adjusted to his wavelength, it rewards your patience. It’s an impressive artistic achievement. Just remember, for the sake of your hypothetical relationship, that this is as deep-end Devin as you get.

Devin Townsend’s Empath is out March 29 on InsideOut/Sony. You can listen to the track “Genesis” here and pre-order the album here.

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