Devin Townsend returns with his transcendent magnum opus Empath
By Sofia Bening
When’s the last time you were surprised? When’s the last time you were moved? When’s the last time you heard music that made you feel so many different emotions all at once that you had to make sure it wasn’t all a dream?
Alright, I apologize for coming at you on such a dramatic note, but I believe we’re lucky to be alive. No, I haven’t been taking tantric healing yoga classes, acid, or anything other mind-altering substance. I’ll tell you what happened: on March 29th, Devin Townsend unleashed the monster that is Empath, his 10th solo studio album. And when I say we’re lucky, I mean we’re lucky to receive this sonic capsule containing Devin’s genius.
While I’m aware of how much I sound like I’m over-exaggerating, I implore you to hear me out. Firstly, to those who are not acquainted with Mr Townsend (or “Hevy Devy” as he’s affectionately known to his fans), here’s some background: Canada-born Devin Townsend has been in the music industry for almost 30 years now, first gaining recognition as the vocalist for legendary guitarist Steve Vai. As a solo artist as well as with his bands Strapping Young Lad, Devin Townsend Band and Devin Townsend Project, he’s released 23 studio albums and three live albums.
Regarded in the metal world as a god of sorts, Devin is known for blending various musical styles; his roots are firmly in heavy metal but he has also ventured into operatic, orchestral and electronic territory in his songs. He’s also famous for his trademark production style which features a heavily multi-tracked wall of sound, his masterful guitar playing, and his versatile vocal delivery, ranging from guttural, skull-crushing growls to a soaring tenor. He’s also known for his hypnotizing live performances that can be a gut-wrenching emotional rollercoaster, or just a heap of nonsensical fun, complete with dancing pink testicles (see ‘The Death of Music’ for the former and ‘March of the Poozers’ for the latter, both performed live at Royal Albert Hall).
Okay, so why should you care? Well: I can promise you that you have never heard anything remotely like Empath before. In your life. Ever. Devin has already established himself as an extremely unique musician, with many referring to him as someone who has pretty much created his own genre. But this latest effort from him is on another level. It is most definitely his magnum opus. Every track is a totally different journey, and listening to the entire album is a transcendent experience.
Empath is a celebration of life, of feeling, of humanity, of all of us and one another. In this album, Devin condenses his prolific career and the versatility he’s displayed throughout it into 10 tracks—it’s a culmination of everything Hevy Devy. There are tender moments and there are explosions.
‘Genesis’—the first single and opening track—is a tour de force, a fearsome six-minute monster that starts with an angelic choir singing the words “Surrender it all/Receive this love” before a pounding bass drum and synths lead into Devin’s voice bursting like a dam over what sounds like a mix of guitars and strings attacking in blasts. What follows is a crazy, full-speed-ahead train ride through pop-rock, gospel, heavy metal blast beats, 8-bit techno, disco, circus music and an acoustic guitar break ornamented with kitten meows. It’s glorious, it’s batshit crazy—and it all works so well. In the chorus, Devin roars, “Let there be light/Let there be moon/Let there be stars and let there be you!” ‘Genesis’ is a true ode to the universe vis-a-vis its own universality, encompassing every auditory experience imaginable. The accompanying music video is spectacular (I won’t say much more but if you’ve been waiting to see cats, pretzels and cows fly through space, look no further).
After ‘Genesis’, Devin wastes no time in whisking you away with ‘Spirits Will Collide’. The anti-suicide message of this song nestles beautifully within the gigantic “wall of sound” that he’s known for, with an angelic women’s choir perfectly complementing Devin’s own powerful, husky pipes that sing, “So they rise, the fear and pain but this isn’t where this ends/Don’t you forget that you are perfect/Don’t you forget just who we are/We’re strong enough.” It’s a triumph, both in its uplifting lyrics and soaring, larger-than-life instrumentals. It’s also incredibly moving, and I attribute that to how Devin manages to almost physically embrace you with the bigness of his music, which fills you with a sense that you’re far from alone.
The rest of Empath is a journey that I leave to you, dear reader, to experience for yourself. In “Hear Me,” we’re treated to some of Devin’s heaviest material yet: relentless blast beats, screeches and growls coming down like torrential rain. “Why?” is what I imagine would happen if Disney got a heavy metal makeover.
However, the real triumph of Empath is “Singularity,” the epic 24-minute finale that is pretty much a metal symphony. I could never do it justice with description of any kind, so I invite you to set aside a half hour and discover what it means to temporarily leave this realm. This song being a symphony would make Devin our modern-day Beethoven or something, and that honestly makes perfect sense. In his time, Beethoven, too, did things that no one else was attempting, and changed classical music forever. I truly believe that’s what Devin is doing to metal now; the only difference being that he’s completely bald, known to be one of the nicest guys around, and not deaf (please, Hevy Devy, never change!).
So, there you go. I know I’ve said a lot, and I’ve done lots of gushing. I promise you, this album needs to be heard. It’s a work that will challenge and defy your perception of what music is and ought to be, and will probably linger with you for a long time after. Whether you choose to take me up on this offer, it’s up to you. But Empath is a true celebration of our universe and ourselves—and right now, more than ever, it’s just what we need.