Inside Out, 2016
In stark contrast to the many artists who like to take their sweet time when it comes to making new music (I’m looking at you, Tool), Canadian polymath Devin Townsend churns out new albums as if his life depends on it. Transcendence is the 7th album to be released under the “Devin Townsend Project” name and Devin’s 24th overall (from the extreme metal of Strapping Young Lad to the country rock of Casualties of Cool). Everyone has their own favourite style and era of Mr Townsend’s work and Transcendence comes across as an attempt to satisfy them all. Whether it succeeds in doing that is another matter entirely though…
Devin Townsend is undeniably a very forward-thinking musician; at his best, his idiosyncratic blending of loud and soft styles has put him lightyears ahead of his peers. Transcendence, however, starts by looking backwards with a remake of “Truth”, a song that originally appeared on the early solo album Infinity. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a quintessential example of Devin’s “wall of sound” technique; heavily layered vocals and instrumentation, and thoroughly bombastic. A powerful overture, though it’s unclear why it was deemed necessary to revisit it.
The two subsequent tracks are amongst the album’s highlights, and neatly illustrate how Transcendence is an attempt to marry the intricate and chilled-out sides of Devin’s repertoire. “Stormbending” and “Failure” both pay tribute to classic prog rock, with the former’s dreamy yet powerful soundscapes recalling Pink Floyd and Dream Theater, and the latter’s odd time signatures and jarring guitar sound evoking King Crimson and Tool. Particular praise must be given to the guitar-playing on both tracks; the interplay between Devin and fellow guitarist Dave Young is superb.
The two other big highlights are the title track and “Offer Your Light”. “Transcendence” has a hypnotic mid-paced rhythm and tempo, and a catchy, chugging guitar riff very similar to much of Tool’s work, with a prominent vocal contribution by Dutch siren Anneke Van Giersbergen; recruiting her as a regular DTP guest was one of the smartest moves Devin Townsend ever made. “Offer Your Light” meanwhile is the only out-and-out fast-paced rocker on the album, with Devin’s snarling screams and guitar intertwining sublimely with techno synths and Anneke’s vocals.
While these high points stand proudly alongside much of Devin Townsend’s other work, the rest of Transcendence is, well, a bit dull really. “Higher” features some top-quality metal riffs but they’re hidden somewhere in the middle of its 9.5 minute meandering duration. “From the Heart” and “Transdermal Celebration” (a cover of a song by Ween) show Devin at his most emotional but they outstay their welcome, both exceeding 8 minutes. And “Stars”, with its calm campfire-singalong atmosphere, sounds, for a lack of a better term, just a bit too nice; is this really the same guy who sung (i.e. screamed) “Oh My Fucking God” and “Satan’s Ice Cream Truck”? Ok, Devin’s come a long way since Strapping Young Lad, but the majority of his DTP work, despite being catchy and fairly commercial-sounding, has still been characterised by his trademark heaviness; that’s distinctly lacking on this album.
For fans who primarily like Devin Townsend for his crushing heaviness and kooky Canadian wackiness, they won’t find much to write home about on Transcendence. It is clearly one of his more thoughtful, introspective albums, and it does flow nicely from one track to another in a manner reminiscent of many classic prog rock albums, but it treads a fine line between being engaging and boring. He gets it right on several tracks, such as “Failure” and the title-track but, for the sake of balance, a few heavier, faster tracks wouldn’t have gone amiss. There’s no point fretting though; Devin will have another new album out in a few months’ time no doubt, hopefully that’ll offer something different.
P.S. Be sure to pick up the deluxe version with the bonus disc of demos; lots of heavy, kooky stuff on that (such as the excellent “Canucklehead”)
P.P.S. But avoid reading Devin’s pretentious track-by-track commentary in the lyrics booklet, unless you’ve recently been poisoned and urgently need to vomit