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Devin Townsend is a genius. During a career in music that has lasted 23 years, his body of work is yet to be bettered. Starting in 1993 when he was asked to perform lead vocals on Steve Vai’s album Sex & Religion, he further went on to found the extreme metal industrial band Strapping Young Lad before branching out as a solo artist under the titles of Punky Bruster, Ocean Machine, Devin Townsend, The Devin Townsend Band, Casualties of Cool and Devin Townsend Project. Under these monikers, he has released a total of 23 full length studio albums which range from heavy metal to ambient, rock opera to new age, mock punk to pop, stadium rock to concept, and, Frank Zappa to Beethoven. To have this variety of influence, yet still have a unique sound all your own is incredible. Not only that but the absolute quality of his output is so high that every new album is greeted with an excitement and eagerness not felt anywhere else in metal music (honestly!).
And so we have his new album as the Devin Townsend Project (DTP) called Transcendence…their eighth as a unit and so close to being their finest hour.
Beginning with a re-working of the track Truth from his 1998 album Infinity, we are thrust headlong into a mostly instrumental power house of a song. Crunching guitars, eerie vocals and fanfare keyboards drive it on and although it actually isn’t much different from the original, it is noticeably thicker and more defined with a brand new vocal ending that showcases Devin’s gorgeous harmonic vocals that ease us into the second track, Stormbending, perfectly. Starting slow and with intent, and, guitar led from the outset, the song has an almost proggy feel as chords switch and change with increases and decreases in both tempo and sound. Throughout, Devin’s vocals range from soaring to gruff and the glorious synth ambience courtesy of Mike St. Jean gives it an otherworldly feel.
Failure starts with a very Muse like atmosphere until the riff kicks in and it becomes very much the DTP. Carried by this riff and complimented by the pounding drumming of Ryan van Poederooyen (who is outstanding on this album), Devin speaks to us more than sings until the gorgeous chorus lifts the song into the heavens and leads us into a stunning solo that twiddles and dances all over the place. Secret Sciences introduces acoustic chords and a very sing along lead vocal before, finally, we hear the insanely stunning female vocal from Anneke van Giersbergen creeping in. Again, the song has a proggy feel as the guitar and drumming feel like they have a life of their own (jazz in feel) carrying Devin’s vocals of confession along for the ride…until, again, an incredible chorus comes in.
Then comes the best song on the album; Higher. A lone acoustic guitar plucks away leading us to an intro of harmonic vocals Freddie Mercury would be proud of before a stop start rush of sound declares “Higher, higher, higher, higher”. Anneke and Devin share vocal duties perfectly during the following chugging sections interspersed with the “Higher…” chorus before the song goes full on mental. The middle section brings forward Devin’s heavy metal heart and soul as well as his unique talent in combining randomness and pinpoint musical perfection. The final third brings the song back down to earth, so to speak, with an outstanding wall of pure music that will lift you from any deep dark hole you find yourself in…a true mini epic Devin does so well!
Stars is, in essence, a pop song. The feel, structure and performance screams chart success. Yet, there are hints of darkness and despair hidden in plain sight. First and foremost though, this is all about the melody and instruments as the vocal drifts becoming part of the music rather than being the lead of it. Transcendence (the 2nd best song on the album) stomps its way in…marching if you will. The drumming and fanfare keyboards power on as the group choir vocals bring to mind a protest or chant about unity. In between we have Anneke and Devin once again taking vocal duties slowing the song down…almost as if their single voices speak from the crowd. Then comes the albums first slight misstep in the form of Offer Your Light. A rushing rave keyboard barges in and signifies a shift in direction for the rest of the album as Devin and Anneke repeat lines against an up tempo rock song…almost childish in nature, it isn’t bad by any means – in fact it gets you singing along with your own power metal vocal but it does feel slightly out of place.
Following that we have From The Heart. An odd song with an odd story. Devin actually interpreting the chords and chorus from a song called ‘Baba Hanuman’ by Benji And Heather (which in itself was a cover of the original by Krishna Das) for the purpose of recording it for this album. Its quite a sombre, reflective tune with a chant like chorus and Indian style feel. Huge guitar chords and moody synths give it the DTP sound but like Offer Your Light, it feels slightly out of place. And finally, to end any album with a cover song is a bold move. To end this album with Transdermal Celebration, originally by the band Ween, is a very bold move. A rock song full of big pop guitar chords, happy go lucky strumming, anthemic vocals and orchestra sounding keyboards, it may give the album a euphoric end but, once again, it feels slightly out of place.
And so overall, what we have here is an album which showcases a band at the height of their powers…indeed, leading up to the album release Devin has made a point of saying that from the off, this album was all about him stepping back and allowing him and the band to write the music as a complete unit. I would even go as far to say the first seven tracks are the finest this band has recorded; progressive music that truly soars and is as beautiful as it is heavy and rocking. Yet, the last three tracks seem out of place and belong on another album. It forces the album down a path it clearly wasn’t going, both lyrically and musically, and really does jar you. Believe me, I am not saying these songs are bad (Devin Townsend doesn’t do bad songs), just that they shouldn’t have been on Transcendence. An interesting thought because it seems Devin himself questions this (to some extent) as in the liner notes for the cd, he states that Offer Your Light “almost didn’t make the album” and “I found myself debating if I should end the album with a very grim and foreboding track called The Occupation instead”. Although, the liner notes do make a point of why and how the album finished the way it did.
Frustratingly, the special 2 disc version has a second cd entitled Holding Patterns (described as demos yet far from it…these are finished songs that didn’t make this or any of his previous recent albums) which continues the high quality of music from Transcendence and actually includes a couple of songs more than worthy for that album…Celestial Signals, Support The Cause and Into The Sun especially.