DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT Albums Ranked

DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT Albums Ranked

Devin Townsend has a lot of things to say, and many forms in which to say them. The Canadian singer-songwriter multi-instrumentalist has previously appeared to us under several monikers — Noisescapes, IR8, Ocean Machine, and Strapping Young Lad, just to name a few. But there’s also his well-documented penchant — some might call it a predilection — for writing albums in a manner that roughly corresponds to whichever facet of his personality he feels is most in need of expression at that point in time. Unsurprisingly, these two traits make for a rather formidable cocktail: a collective and personal discography that is at once an unending stream of consciousness and a series of clearly delineated time-stamps from one of the most prominent sonic tinkerers in modern progressive rock.

Take Ocean Machine: Biomech, for instance, an eclectic — if slightly uneven — solo album that Townsend released in mid-1997. The record’s progressive-ambient style had its feet thoroughly embedded in a clearly expressed desire to add something to Townsend’s repertoire, yet it might have been quite unremarkable to the casual eye had it appeared on music store shelves all on its lonesome, like a single passenger casually alighting at Kwinitsa station from the VIA Rail to Vancouver. However, seeing as it appeared a mere five months after City, the Strapping Young Lad extreme metal album which Kerrang! magazine famously claimed was comparable to “sticking your head into the jet nozzle of a Stealth Bomber,” it was hard to disregard the notion that in the case of an artist as chameleonic as Devin Townsend, simply examining a work at face value might not be enough. As if to underscore the fragile state of mind needed to thread two such unrelated worlds together, the artist would check himself into a mental-health hospital later that year, where he would eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Over the next few years, we watched as Townsend’s other albums, like Terria, Devlab, and the infamous Ziltoid the Omniscient — a comedy rock opera (of all things) in where a fictional extraterrestrial travels to Earth in search of “the ultimate cup of coffee” and, in failing to find it, promptly summons his entire planet’s legions to invade Earth — appeared to pursue this stream of tangential, self-exploratory works to its logical conclusion. Ziltoid, for all its insistence at not being taken seriously and legendary self-production, seemed like a natural ending — the perfect place to lay down a full stop. Indeed, Townsend’s announcement, shortly after Ziltoid’s release, that he no longer planned to tour or make albums with Strapping Young Lad or The Devin Townsend Band seemed to corroborate that understanding. In other words, something as sonically vast as the multi-album suite Devin Townsend Project did not seem at all likely at the time. It’s never been explicitly clear, exactly, how the Devin Townsend Project fits into the overall portrait that Townsend has painted of himself, because for all of Ki’s ethereal sobriety, Ghost’s tentative, forlorn beauty, and Addicted’s frantic, pedal-to-the-metal approach, the question still remains: when you’ve spoken to the world non-stop for the past twenty years, might there even be anything worthwhile left to be said.

Below is a list of Devin Townsend Project albums ranked from his, I don’t dare to say worst to best (ding!), but you get the point.

Epicloud (2012)

You get a sense of some of the battle-worn weariness on “True North,” the first proper song to emerge from the dense, swirling folds of Epicloud. “I love you, I need you, I’ve always been around you,” howls Townsend and his backing choir around a swirl of knuckle-headed riffs, hugely amplified synths, and massively produced drums. Just in case you missed the upshot of that sentiment, the song chooses to intensify in pitch and tone over the course of the next few minutes — this is Devin Townsend, and he really needs you, dammit. Eventually though, the track does pull over and yield to the album’s first moment of true power, the first single “Lucky Animals.” The discord between these two opening salvoes of Epicloud couldn’t be more astonishing: for all its whimsicality (a chorus that goes “ANIMALS! ANIMALS! AM I LUCKY?!”) and dire lack of subtlety (there’s the unmistakable revving of testosterone-powered motorcycles in the background at one point), “Lucky Animals” gets its message across without much fuss. More to the point though, Townsend seems to make the most sense when he’s not taking himself seriously at all, and I think he knows it too — for it can be the only reason why, I surmise, a re-recording of an older song somehow made it onto the album as well. The presence of “Kingdom,” originally recorded for 2000’s Physicist, would normally be symptomatic of some seriously scattershot decision-making in terms of song selection, but framed here as the gift to long-time fans that it is, the concoction is able to go down quite easily.

As ever, Townsend’s arrangements are well-executed even if they’re not outright inventive: snarly guitar riffs pile atop one another and drums form a virtually continuous cascade from track to track, with the occasional appearances of long-time conspirator Anneke van Giersbergen packing a sense of ethereal loftiness into the album’s solar plexus. There are other, more subtle inflections too: “Divine” and “Lessons,” for instance, would not have appeared out of place on Ghost, with the former working off a gamut of gentle strumming and layered vocals, while the latter is an exercise at cultivating quiescence in the midst of an album full of unbridled chaos. Yet the dominant sense running all throughout Epicloud is definitely one of grandeur and deliberate theatricality. It is clear that Townsend delights in going over the top, even when he doesn’t have any particularly transcendent sentiment to express. The results of such an approach are predictably mixed. For all their orchestrated bombast and searing wall-of-sound production, songs like “Where We Belong,” “Grace,” and “More!” feel empty and bereft of a soul. Even the moments that actually do sound like gangbusters only serve to highlight the gap that exists between themselves and the rest of the chasing pack. Most tellingly perhaps, is the fact that the Queen-esque vocal harmony heard on album-opener “Effervescent!” makes an appearance once again in the dying embers of the final track, “Angel,” thus allowing the album to both begin and end in the same way. Although probably envisioned as an attempt at providing a sense of symmetry to proceedings, it ultimately ends up being symbolic in a completely different way.

Z2 (2014)

Townsend has an edge on the competition when it comes to success, but as with all volumes of output, there are some hits and some misses. Where Epicloud seemed to stagnate, Sky Blue thrives by taking the same direction of metal heavily influenced by pop and electronica and hitting on catchy, fun tracks like “Sky Blue” and “Before We Die.” Perennial DTP contributor Anneke van Giersbergen seems to have had her imprint reduced ever so slightly as well, making her parts feel special rather than common and paying dividends for the flavor and appeal of Z2 as a whole. Really, though, the album just feels a bit more coherent, even with aggressive tracks such as the album’s heaviest, “Silent Militia,” which touts crisp low-end highlighting Devin’s trademark screams without breaking the flow of Sky Blue.

The formula isn’t exactly perfect, but it is more polished and perfected since Epicloud. Dramatic and spacey tracks like “Midnight Sun” and “A New Reign,” while certainly not bad or boring on their own, can grow a bit tedious in the tandem they’re presented in, while their bookends (“Fallout” and “Universal Flame”) have that danceable groove that distinguish them as boppy, fun, and immediately stimulating. As with Epicloud, there’s another feeling that much of Sky Blue (and Z2 as a whole) are meant to be fun for fun’s sake, and, hey, if there’s a few little bumps in the flow, so what?

Now, while Sky Blue may be the direct descendant of Epicloud and Addicted, it feels a bit untouched by the legacy of Ziltoid the first. Fret not — it doesn’t really get in the way of the music on Sky Blue and, to be honest, it feels like it keeps a certain weight from hindering what’s essentially Dev’s take two with the Epicloud style and crew. Certainly this isn’t the case for second disc Dark Matters, yet it’s a bit impressive how much the paradigm has shifted from its 2007 predecessor.

Dark Matters, like Sky Blue, is nowhere near as heavy as the original Ziltoid the Omniscient — which is understandable considering Devin’s musical evolution from that point to the present day, though it does present a bit of a theming conflict. How could something so impossibly heavy be followed by something with a lighter, more comical air? Sure — both albums are notably silly (Z2 notably features a breed of “poozers” which fly around with fart noises and a continued concept of planetary coffee theft), but Ziltoid prioritized music over comedy, and it seems to be the other way around on Z2. There’s nothing quite as heart-stirring as “Hyperdrive” or as intimidatingly heavy as “Planet Smasher,” which holds the album back musically, though there are rare exceptions, such as the pummeling invasion epic “Deathray,” which is sure to be a crowd-pleaser at future shows.

Transcendence (2016)

“Transcendence” marks one of the first productions where Devin does not take total management over the album’s outcome. By stepping outside of his typically controlling comfort zone and allowing the team around him to implement their own strengths to the album, the songs themselves further resemble the forced transition from Devin’s frantic control over every detail to his own soothing ascendancy. Adam “Nolly” Getgood (ex-bassist for Periphery) does a fantastic job with the crisp producing and mixing the album to set the production at the right level of bombast to appear as epic as it needs to sound without coming across as ostentatious. And yet, where so many textured elements are crammed in at once to increase the grandeur, some songs just about get away with not sounding bloated. At nine and a half minutes, this is the case in the protracted “Higher” where it’d be perfectly justified if you start to nod off due to the repetitive vocals and lack of variation in the first half of the song. Mercifully, the second half of “Higher” is packed with Gojira-ish breakdowns and Opethian drama that gives you an unsympathetic wake up call.

With Devin stepping down, the other band members bring forward their own individual skills and blend them together. From the glimmering choir and industrial guitars to the infectious chorus and divine singing from Anneke van Giersbergen, the united musicianship makes “Offer Your Light” a joyously explosive song from start to finish. Ryan van Poederooyen also deserves credit for his excellent drumming throughout Transcendence, predominantly in the quirky (and ironically triumphant) “Failure.”

Ki (2009)

It’s both easy and obvious to talk about how Ki sets out to be a quiet record, but doing so would sell the album short. At points Ki gets quite loud. The distinction is rather one of restraint. Ki gets loud, but it never gets heavy. It is instead an album of peaks and valleys. It unravels at its own pace and for some, this is a flaw, since its pace is one that is sometimes meandering and perhaps a little overlong. But Townsend insists that Ki unfolds as such because it is merely the introduction to a series of four records, with the next two developing in a much more dramatic and heavier fashion. Regardless of that, Ki was a welcomed antithesis to Devin’s more notable work. Going into Ki, it’s easy to fall into expectations. I myself had been under the impression that Ki was a mostly ambient album. That is surely not the case, as evidenced by “Coast,” a dredg-like number featuring a mostly soft spoken Townsend crooning over a groovy, tight-as-sin bassline. “Coast” succeeds on multiple levels: it is both the best song on the album and a larger metaphor for Devin’s newfound restraint. The track, which flies by far faster than I’d like, ends on a slightly industrial note, threatening to rev-itself into Strapping Young Lad territory amidst layered, somewhat angry sounding vocals. It doesn’t. Instead it fades alongside Devin’s loose, bluesy guitar work, which can be found peppering the songs throughout all of Ki‘s 66 minute runtime. This contrast between tight and loose (often acted out by Jean Savoie’s work on the bass and Townsend’s guitar playing), soft and smashing is what carries Ki. Gone is Townsend’s trademark wall of sound production, and Ki feels more dynamic as a result. “Disruptr” is in many ways executed like a coffee-house metal track, with it’s light aesthetic contrasted by chugging and shouting. Yet while it comes close, it’s never quite heavy.

What’s obvious is that Ki feels larger than it really is, sometimes to a fault. While it makes a point out of sounding mostly unified (barring the somewhat out of place, Elvis infused “Trainfire”), it definitely takes its time getting the message across. Though it’s certainly interesting to note that “Coast,” “Disruptr,” “Gato,” and “Heaven Send” seem similarly written around a simplistic three or four note pattern, this familiarity could be a little meandering for some. Tracks like “Winter” and “Ki” do occasionally devolve into extended, loose guitar jams, and it’s this tendency to get lost within itself that holds Ki back. Nonetheless, Ki was/is a welcome change of pace for Townsend. This is truly the work of a man stripped of his coffee addiction. It takes its time, and occasionally it does so quite liberally, but for the most it feels like a cohesive album replete with loose musings.

Addicted (2009)

At first, Addicted sounds like rather average Devin Townsend material. Slow, ominous guitars and pounding bass drums introduce the title track, and then Devin lets out a bloodcurdling shriek. And the listener wants to bang their head. Then, something happens. Vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen’s soothing voice rings above the pounding guitars. And the listener wants to dance.

Addicted presents Devin Townsend at his most poppy and his most accessible. Townsend’s voice is often melodic and serene, while Giersebergen’s is charming and airy. Every song contains instantly memorable riffs and melodies, and there is even a piano-driven ballad, “Ih-Ah!,” thrown in for good measure. Were this album given to your average Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift-loving girl, she would very likely greatly enjoy it.

And yet, despite all of its potential to appeal to the masses, Addicted is still heavy. Townsend’s guitar tone still has that edge to it that made Strapping Young Lad’s music so forceful and corrosive. Even though he does sing in a clean tone more often on this album, Devin frequently yells in his frenzied and frantic shout.

Addicted carefully balances heaviness, melody, and danceability, and the mix of these juxtaposing elements gives it a very unique feel. Very few artists have the courage to blend a club beat with a pummeling guitar riff, and then add soothing female vocals into this eclectic mix. Even fewer artists have skill to accomplish such an ambitious task and produce an album worth listening to.

Deconstruction (2011)

As Devin put it himself, Deconstruction felt like the album he had to make, whereas Ghost felt like the album he wanted to make. Well, that doesn’t seem to be without cause — if you listen to Deconstruction you’ll notice that everything he’s ever done seems to have led directly to this point and fed into this whale of an album.

Deconstruction carries with it the seriously, head-crushingly heavy music that the world came to know and, in some cases, love when Devin first fronted Strapping Young Lad and released 1995’s Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing. Devin pounds out the semi-industrial, relentless sound that was eager to lend itself as the anthem flags bearing the so-called “big middle finger” could be waved to time and again. From this vantage, it’s City with a little more melody and a little less cynicism. It’s Alien, but drawing its inspiration from Devin’s introspective on his career, rather than self-torture inflicted by going off of his bi-polar medication to appease the fans.

This album merely draws on past experiences and brings them into the limelight. Something HevyDevy, himself, called “accountability” as a creative artist — taking the elements he’d incorporated in works before, polishing them up, and making them into something bigger he says he’d always intended for them. And, oh, does it show. Even in stripping down the album — deconstructing it, in a sense — you can see the layers and layers of emotion, passion, and raw self that Devin has poured into it.

Ghost (2011)

Classifying Ghost as Metal in the slightest is a major typographical error. In fact, it hardly qualifies as rock. Some will call it new age, some will call it soft rock, but it’s kind of a subtle soft ambient folk soundscape sound. Convoluted, perhaps? Far moreso than the sound itself. Regardless of labels, its true nature is a cool-off from the madness of predecessor Deconstruction. According to Townsend, the two albums are meant to be experienced together, and that without Ghost, Deconstruction is out of context. And from here we can see it’s vice versa. The two are yin and yang; both polar opposites of one another: Deconstruction, rife with layer upon layer of dense, synthetic, metal chaos; Ghost, a mellow breeze of soft, organic instrumentation. The closest Ghost ever gets to “aggressive” is “Blackberry,” and that’s a mellow, lazy river flow, banjo-driven rendition of Ki‘s “Trainfire” from even the most skewed perspective.

The first thing to note should be that, unlike most other Devin Townsend albums, flute and keyboards are the primary driving instruments on this album, with acoustic guitar only occasionally taking a leading role, and drums being equated more to ambient percussion on this album. For a man known in a genre where the bass is all too often mixed out almost entirely, it’s worth noting that the bass on this album is rich and full, creating an ambiance all its own that does a great deal to steer the album onwards.

If Deconstruction seemed unconvincing or insincere, it’s possible that Ghost comes across as one of the most honest efforts made in music today. It’s not quite the same raw energy of Devin bearing his soul as on Ocean Machine, but that’s not the person he is today. Devin Townsend is a much more open and self-aware entity these days, and his soul’s been borne before the world time and time again. This is him coming to acceptance with a desire to lay off the metal and create something new. Something he might be worried and anxious about, but something that’s true to his own direction as an artist and a testament to who he is today as opposed to who he was in the days where Ocean Machine was an escape from Strapping Young Lad. The spirit’s the same, but the message is different. Deconstruction, from the perspective of Ghost becomes a massive exorcism of metal demons that have plagued Devin and kept him from Ghost, while Ghost itself becomes, well, just what you’d expect. A sigh of relief.

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