Devin Townsend - Empath - (10/10)
Published on March 15, 2019
One thing that I find myself saying a lot lately is that genres are becoming a thing of the past. It is so hard to create something completely original these days, so blending genres together or even writing music completely regardless of any genre tag has become a bit of a trend. However, with Devin Townsend’s latest masterpiece ‘Empath’, this blend of genres does not come from a desire to be original or provoking but simply from the man’s need to accurately achieve his vision. I’ve been looking forward to this album for a very long time and now that I’ve listened to it a lot, I’m still baffled from its diversity. Here we’re not just talking about a soup of metal sub-genres. It’s about a mix of radically different musical dimensions from progressive metal and rock, to blues/jazz influences, pop, EDM, disco, classical and even a crunchy death metal edge to the whole ensemble. In a way, this album is a coming together of everything that Devin has done so far, but also an exploration of new territory. And all of these contrasting forms of expression are used to create what is probably the most emotionally various record that I have ever heard. Nothing on this album is done for the heck of it. Every aspect has its purpose in relating to a feeling. It may be better to quote the master himself:
“If the desire (and the ability) to play different styles is not done to be provocative, but rather to illustrate the full spectrum of musical emotions, why would one not want to follow that? ”
If there’s one song that sums up what Empath is about and ultimately what Devin is about, it is the single “Genesis” which acts like an overture to the album and creates an exuberant and ever changing soundscape that emphasizes the cohesion of all these different dimensions. Check it out!
What I really love about this record is that it dismantles the preconception that heavy music is an immature style. By making heavy music work together with all the “serious” genres out there, Devin has put us on the map of serious music alongside all the pretentious jazz or classical musicians in the world. What this means is that Empath sounds mature and cultivated while still sending the message and emotion at the same level of intensity associated to heavy metal. The progressive aspect that defined his music for so long is still strong and present in his work, especially the massive guitar lines. Vocally he is a master of expression, adapting his interpretation to the shape that the music has at a given moment, and I always felt that the vocal part of his work is what makes it tangible and easy to relate to from a listener’s perspective. On Empath though, the instrumental aspect is as expressive as the vocals. Especially the orchestra and choir play a huge role on the album. If “Genesis” hasn’t sold you on it, the scale of Devin’s flexibility both as a performer and as a composer becomes obvious starting with the ending of the 5th track “Sprite”. Going from a section of bubbly synths and keys towards the outro and then into a part of black metal style almost ritualistic vocals was probably the greatest shock that the record gave me. And it really took off with the sheer monstrosity of death metal aggression that comes in “Hear Me”. If that wasn’t enough, the next song titled “Why” goes full on opera mode and showcases Devin’s rather convincing and believable tenor impersonation. The entire emotional roller coaster culminates with the massively complex and captivating 23 minute long “Singularity”.
One would ask how all these things are possible and I want to further point out the mindset and circumstances that surrounded Devin while creating this album, but also all the different talented people that made his vision work so smoothly. This is Devin’s first solo release since 2007’s “Ziltoid the Omniscient” and I was saddened to hear about the dismantling of DTP, but I think this event played a huge role in how Empath turned out. It meant that he was now free to pursue his vision without compromise and without adapting to the image of a band that no longer represented him. This is where the amazing line-up that built the album comes into play and if you’d like more insight into the creative process behind it you should check out the Empath documentary series (episode 1 link below) and see how a masterpiece comes to life. Now the people that Devin collaborated with were perfect for the job and I’m about to lay some really heavy names in front of you so hold on tight. Firstly the album and especially the drums were co-produced with Adam “Nolly” who has earned my respect since I heard the magic that he worked on Periphery’s music. He can create this very deep but still surreal clean sound and it fits the album like a glove. Furthermore there are the drummers, vocalists, choir and orchestra. Because this album is so diverse it would’ve been impossible to lay all the drumming on a single person, which is why Empath benefits from the talents of 3 drummers. Morgan Akren dealt with jazz drumming, Samus Paulicelli dropped the death metal grinding edge and my hero Anup Sastry best known for his work in Periphery, Monuments and Intervals recorded the progressive heavy drums. I find Anup’s style to be very groove oriented and heavy, and I love his parts best on the album. I must also point out the work of Elliot Desgagnes from ‘Beneath the Massacre’ as he brings that extreme death metal side of genuine harsh vocals on a Devin Townsend record for the first time.
If there’s a downside to this album it is Anneke van Giersbergen, and more specifically the lack of her. Anneke is one of my all-time favorite singers and of all her projects I felt like Devin made use of her talents best, at times better then she does herself. To me a Devin Townsend album without Anneke has become a bit of a paradox. On Empath she is only present on “Hear Me” where she shines beautifully contrasting with Elliot’s growl and in the very end of the album. But that’s just my opinion. I could talk about the people on this album forever but you’re better off just watching the documentary. It has taken me a while to understand really how this album functions and you have to view it differently from the way in which we usually look at music. It’s a very introspective listening experience and bit of a progressive meditation that really comes to life when you sink into it and disconnect from the reality around you. It can come across as gibberish if you dive in with preconceptions of how Devin’s music should be or of how music should be in general, but if you are patient and open minded when you first play it, then it feels harmonious and beautiful. I think that ultimately the fact that I was able to perceive this meditative aspect of Empath is what proves its success. This is easily the best album that I’ve heard this year (so far) and one of the most honest and complete creations that I ever had the chance to listen to. Out March 29 through HevyDevy Records, InsideOut Music and Northern Music.