Devin Townsend - "Empath"
Devin Townsend - “Empath”
For most people when having a mid-life crisis the cliche is to buy a new fast sports car, travel to places unknown or basically upend and change your life in any way possible out of its norm because the realization of its inevitable end has permeated your thoughts.
Now, if you’re Devin Townsend and you’re having a mid-life crisis you write an album called “Empath” that is artistically and conceptually so obtuse and complex that trying to put this album in one genre box is as improbable as the music contained within the album itself.
Castaway, the opening track is a quaint yet serene sounding beginning that falsely lures you into the madness that sits in wait like a ravenous prey ready to attack your auditory senses. This track also serves as a sort of bookend to some of the audible themes within album itself, there’s a lot of water and island/ocean vibes in this album. It’s as if the narrative itself is all about water and a cleansing relaxing feeling. Almost like letting go. A catharsis.
Genesis, which by the time of writing this review was the first track to be released to the public, while initially polarizing with the fan base, it seems a lot of listeners eventually came around. The track itself build and builds with such a relentless chaotic fury with an almost cinematically epic approach, something “Empath” is filled with. Devins influences from movie composers is very evident all throughout this record and its execution is almost flawless with the record he’s made. The track at one point slows down with kittens meowing and lulling the listener into a fall sense of calmness before the track bursts back into overdrive with Devin’s unique level of brutality and diving back into that maelstrom and whirlwind of sounds and genres.
Spirits Collide will most likely be the most divisive track on this record though, the pop and easy listening sensibilities that went into the composition of this song are unparalleled it has a ballad type approach fused with a very Enya type chorus that has this tranquil beauty to it but its also so incredibly catchy that if you don’t catch yourself singing along to it, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Devins pop sensibilities and chord progression in this song truly show what a master of song writing he has become at this stage in his career and his vocal delivery is some of the best I’ve ever heard him do. This is a man pushing himself beyond all boundaries and limits as a musician in this one track alone.
The next 3 tracks feel as if they were all parts of the same song just split up almost. Evermore has so many intricate details in the ambience of the song, there’s synth, saxophone, choral arrangements all manner of soundscapes but the main thing you can hear that really drives this song is the bass, in which Nathan Navarro meticulously and emphatically permeates this track. Its smooth and gentle embrace lures you deep into the depths of this track, while layers of programming and synth pepper the ambiance. This song is bold in scape. Sprite starts off with an odd narration of what the song is about and in some respects like I mentioned, feels like a continuation of the previous track. Albeit with less going on and a more simplistic approach to the composition and execution. The song makes you feel like you’re soaring in the sky or romping through a sunny field with all manner of woodland creatures as if in a fairy tale.
Hear Me connects straight from the last track as well Im still trying to figure if this was all done on purpose or if it was an accident but none the less, it really works and makes the songs coalesce in a very disparate way. You have the closing synths from Sprite that continue on into “Hear Me” with a chorus building off of those arrangements. But very quickly dives straight into classic Devin/Strapping Young Lad territory with crushing riffs and Devins mid range vocals we’re used to. It builds to a chorus and then blasts full speed back into warp territory with drums and riffs while cascading straight back into dissonant open notes and rhythms. Chad Kroeger of Nickelback makes his guest appearance in this track.
Speaking of guest appearances, let’s delve into the extremely complex execution of this for a moment. I had read the following from the press release: “Devin had been writing ideas ranging from extreme metal, to prog, country, new age, orchestral and free jazz. All of which required the absolute best people for the job to not come off as a gimmick. Not content to find one drummer who would be pushed beyond his wheelhouse, Devin set out to find drummers that he could relegate certain songs and sections to from the large canon of music written during the EMPATH period, and then track them in the best way possible. The way in which he did this is that he chose, Morgan Бgren (Mats And Morgan, Frank Zappa, Fredrik Thordendal) for the improvisational, quiet and jazz portions of the album. Anup Sastry (Monuments, Periphery) for the prog metal pieces, and Samus Paulicelli (Decrepit Birth, Abigail Williams) for the full metal sections.”
So every track you hear depending on the composition of the drum parts, is an entirely different person drumming! That is such a monumental and complex way of making these songs work. Meanwhile, all the low guttural death metal vocals you hear parsed in various songs are executed by Elliot Desagnes from Beneath the Massacre, he brings a level of stark brutality that gives this tangible auditory dichotomy to all the bright tones within this record.
So into the next track we have Why? This song is heavily imbued with that cinematic soundtrack approach again, there are bright tones to this song and they are offset by the appearance of Elliot’s ferocious vocals again. It’s got choral arrangements and symphonic elements galore. I would genuinely like to hear this track without vocals on it, its just that captivating. Not that Devin’s vocals detract in any way from this song, its just that the music and composition are so beautifully done that it’s worth hearing on its own merit.
Now we come to the penultimate track on “Empath”, Borderlands. This song is easily the most catchy and infectious song on this album. In fact the main guitar riff has been stuck in my head for weeks now since listening to it and I love every moment of hearing it. It really sticks with you and I can see this song being the one most listeners will gravitate towards, and again, it really shows Devins true ability with song writing here. The build up to that riff is so spastic with saxophones, synth progressions and electronic programming until its finally released in all its aural grandeur. The riff gets harmonized along with some keyboard before changing the pace of it to a more chord driven aspect.
With Borderlands being the 2nd longest song on the album at around 11 minutes it never ever feels that way at all. In fact you almost don’t want this song to ever end! Eventually the song comes back around to that water theme I talked about in the beginning of this, you feel like you’re sitting on an island with that cool breeze showering around you and the waves lulling you into tranquility. The song fades into the ambiance of the water while Devin and the female vocals trade off between each other.
Requiem is a “filler” track for lack of a better word, that again is reminiscent of a movie soundtrack, Devin’s influences of modern composers is fully on display in this track and then the madness that is Singularity, A 23 minute opus that defies all sensibilities of song writing in many ways. there’s no easy way to describe or sum up this track because its so expansive and layered, there’s hints of Jason Becker in the opening moments with a myriad of other influences and styles all distilled and encapsulated into this piece of art. At moments it sounds like a Goo Goo Dolls song and at moments it sounds operatic. Around the 9 minute mark the tone of the song seamlessly changes and coalesces, it is masterful in its gradual execution.
Overall “Empath” will test not only the new listener, but long time fans of Devin’s as well. But once it grabs you, you will easily see how this album is going to be one of the best he’s ever crafted in his whole lengthy discography.
Its complex, stark, blissful and immaculate all at once, you are listening to a master at work in the height of his craft. From the press release it says “Devin ended up mixing “Empath” himself and the result is a truly accurate representation of what the project was meant to achieve, with a depth to the sonics that only a great deal of care can produce.”
“Empath” is an easy 9/10