The Unmatched Brilliance of Devin Townsend

In the documentary for his album Empath, Devin Townsend commented that many people have trouble understanding much of his musical output because his albums vary drastically in style. His work with Strapping Young Lad was as extreme as metal can get. On other albums he shows prog, classical, country, and even pop influences. He explained that he doesn’t play only one type of music because he would get bored. He doesn’t listen to only one kind of music for the same reason. 

I share Townsend’s sentiment. Why on earth would you want to listen to only one kind of music? Perhaps that’s why I’ve never really seen myself as a real metalhead, even though I really enjoy metal. You go to a metal concert, and many of the people in attendance only listen to metal. That’s fine – people can listen to what they like. I happen to get bored by listening to one kind of music, which is probably why I like progressive rock so much since it includes a broad array of sounds. But even within contemporary prog you’ll get those fans who will only listen to Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater, Marillion, etc., or those folks who still only listen to Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, etc. and haven’t bothered to dig into the music being made today.

DevinTownsend_DevolutionTo those people who aren’t familiar with Devin Townsend (which includes Steven Wilson, by his own admission), you’re missing out on perhaps the most creative genius working in the music industry today. In the Empath documentary he talked about working with Mike Keneally, who has worked with many brilliant people, including Frank Zappa. Townsend says he would never dream of comparing himself with someone like Zappa, but I would. Townsend is every bit as creative, albeit in different ways. That documentary, which I believe is only available on the super deluxe version of Empath that Devin released last year, helps shed some light on Devin’s creative process. It also shows him in a very open and honest way. His new acoustic live album, Devolution Series #1 – Acoustically Inclined, Live in Leeds, was his attempt to strip away all the fluff from his stage shows and connect with audiences in a very open way. 

The live footage from this show in Leeds was included on a blu-ray in the super deluxe version of Empath, and it’s rather refreshing to watch compared to most live shows released for home viewing. It has a few camera angles, but it doesn’t switch every three seconds to something different. It’s stripped bare and basic. Part of that is obviously because Townsend is the only one on the stage, but it also matches the vibe Devin created at the show. It’s just Devin, his guitar, and a synth setup that allows him to add elements of the “wall of sound” for which he has become well-known. This takes the musical sound on this acoustic set to the next level. The music is simple, but the synth and reverb sounds create an atmosphere that makes it so much more compelling than a typical artist’s acoustic set. Only Devin Townsend could pull this off this well.

Now Townsend has released that show on CD and vinyl, and at an hour in length it is quite accessible, especially for those who may be new to his work. In the grand scheme of things I’m still pretty new to Townsend’s music. He’s released 24 studio albums at this point, and I’m just a poor boy without enough money to go out and buy all of them right now. Some of the songs on this album I hadn’t heard before, but I’ve still found myself drawn to it several times. Watching the blu ray of the show last night with my headphones in, I found both the lyrics and Devin’s vocal delivery emotionally moving. A lot of people are prejudiced against distorted vocals because they don’t sound natural or it scares them or whatever reason, but Townsend is the best in the business at it. He has remarkable vocal control. He can shift from intense distorted screams in one breath to a high falsetto clean vocal in the next with no issues at all. He uses his screams strategically when the music calls for it. It helps build the emotions that the music and lyrics elicit. 

The other aspect of this live record is Devin’s interactions with the crowd. At times the show comes across as a stand-up comedy routine. Townsend is absolutely hilarious, and his cynicism, which comes across in many of his lyrics, helps add to that humor. He even inserts commentary to the audience in the middle of some of the songs, throwing in some humor as he goes. It’s hard to describe with words. You’ll understand what I’m trying to say once you listen to it. The most musically stunning moment comes on the song “Coast.” Townsend shows off some serious skill on the fretboard, which serves as a good reminder that Townsend is an exceptional musician in addition to his vocal and lyrical talents. The “Intro” track includes Devin talking to the audience followed by him tuning his guitar, but he tunes it with the synth sounds tied into it, so the result is actually a calm atmospheric track. Who else could turn guitar tuning into a beautiful piece of art? 

I think I may prefer this version of live Devin Townsend to the one masterfully presented on his live album from last year, Order of Magnitude – Empath Live Volume 1. That’s another fantastic live album that you should certainly check out. But right now as I write this, I find myself connecting with the honesty that comes across in  Devolution Series #1. I wish I could be as honest with people on a personal level as Townsend seems to be in his live shows and through his music in general.

The only complaint with this live record is that it doesn’t include anything from the Empath album, even though the show was after that album released, and I know he at least played a few tracks from the album at some of the shows on the tour. But he also worked off of a list of songs that he chose on the spot, rather than a formal pre-arranged setlist. In that regard the setlist shows Devin’s honesty in the moment as he chose what to play during the show. 

If you’ve been hesitant to dig into Devin Townsend’s music because of some of the more extreme music he has made in the past, please don’t let that stop you from checking out this live album. The vocal performance is phenomenal, with each style of singing serving the emotions conjured by the lyrics. Townsend’s humor in the show makes this a must-listen – he’s a talent like none other. I can’t think of any other artist who could make this sort of show work this well. Perhaps most importantly Townsend demonstrates that his music is brilliant, even at its barest and most primal. Many bands will do acoustic versions of some of their songs, but they usually aren’t very good. With Townsend these songs come to life in a new way that’s both fresh and revealing. Strip back the heaviness, the noise, the wall of sound, and we’re still left with compelling songs. Townsend is indeed a genius, even if he won’t admit it. 

The video below isn’t from the Devolution Series #1 – Acoustically Inclined, Live in Leeds album, but it’s from the same tour and is representative of the music and presentation on the live album. You can see how he masterfully blends the music with audience interaction, even using some enthusiastic fans (“that guy”) to contribute backing vocals when needed. The juxtaposition of songs like Strapping Young Lad’s “Love” with his solo song “Life” off of 1997’s Ocean Machine shows both Townsend’s brilliance as an artist and the quality of his music. Even at its most basic and fundamental, this music speaks, and it speaks loudly and clearly. The second video below is the first video in the YouTube playlist containing the whole album up on Devin’s YouTube channel

Devin Townsend’s website:

2 thoughts on “The Unmatched Brilliance of Devin Townsend

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