Devin Townsend may be the closest thing extreme metal has to a singer-songwriter. As evocative of Van Morrison as Meshuggah, Townsend has amassed a trove of idiosyncratic, deeply personal music over a 20 years that contains enough albums and collaborations for a career lasting twice as long. The hardest metal has always come from the most unlikely of places: death and black metal emerged from from the chilled idyll of Scandinavia (well, and also Florida, but if you've ever driven behind people in Florida, death metal makes perfect sense). Townsend, born and bred in British Columbia, also came from calmer settings, and the rage that ripples through some of his work appears less his war with that environment than his deep desire to fit in with it.
One of Townsend's defining characteristics is his offbeat sense of humor, which helped get him his first major gig. For whatever reason, Townsend assumed that the best way to make his demo tape stand out from the stacks of CDs and cassettes was to wrap it in underwear. The trick worked, and guitar virtuoso Steve Vai plucked a 19-year-old Townsend from Canada to sing lead vocals on his attempt at a "band" album, the disjointed but interesting Sex & Religion. Vai's album might have displayed how out of his element the guitarist was when forced to write actual songs instead of solo showcases for himself and his prodigiously skilled backup musicians, but it also showcased an off-the-wall talent with an esoteric wit and an incredible range. Vai, who got his start as a player in one of Frank Zappa's lineups, inadvertently found one of the few musicians who would later be heralded as Zappa's heir.
But working as a gun-for-hire didn't particularly suit Townsend. Genius cannot work for someone else, and while there does not appear to have been anything remotely approaching animosity between Vai and Townsend, neither was in his element. After a brief stint as a touring backup for The Wildhearts, a band that found some glorious combination of Guns 'n' Roses, Metallica and The Beach Boys, Townsend properly struck off on his own, and he's been a powerhouse ever since.
Townsend's output can be generally divided into two groups: the music he makes under his own moniker (with an occasional "Band" or "Project" after "Devin Townsend"), and that which he makes as the head of Strapping Young Lad. The latter made his name, SYL's schizoid brand of industrial groove metal winning over metal critics with a combination of furious and humorous lyrics and Townsend's impeccable production, a crushing yet crystal clear sonic wash that makes Phil Spector's Wall of Sound resemble the sparse crackle of an old blues recording. Strapping Young Lad served as the primary outlet of Townsend's aggression, acerbic self-loathing at 185 BPM. For one of his albums, Alien, the bipolar musician stopped taking his medication and the recording reflects the fluctuations he suffered because of it, often within each song. For example, "Love?" -- the band's most successful single -- contained angry-man rejection and intense, crippling longing in the same verses, a sort-of five-minute version of Notes from Underground. Elsewhere, tracks displayed the unorthodox inspirations that swirl through Townsend's head, chiefly on "Skeksis," a track named for villains of The Dark Crystal and lyrically structured around a musical take on the conclusions drawn from Fermat's Last Theorem.
Strapping Young Lad existed in a field populated by like-sounding grind factories that buzz out riffs as fast as a guitar player can keep up with a drum machine, but Townsend and co. always stood out from the pack. It is something of a tired maxim that the best musicians are the ones who play least -- this is an oversimplifying extrapolation of the importance and grace of restraint -- but Townsend is one of the few who exemplifies this approach. In both SYL and his solo work, Townsend has given audiences glimpses into a prodigiously talented axeman, but he primarily works in moods and tones, even in the more straightforward sound of SYL. I've never wondered which Strapping Young Lad song I'm listening to when a riff kicks in: they're all distinct, all separate from each other, and most songs contain an impact beyond mere headbanging goodness.
For my money, however, it is Townsend's solo work that defines his fullest capacities as a musician. Townsend's first solo effort, Biomech, came first under the moniker of Ocean Machine, which later became an addendum to the album title, not a separate group. Released the same year as Strapping Young Lad's second (and best) album, the pummeling City, Ocean Machine was at the other end of the sonic spectrum. Where the SYL album packed Townsend's howling pain and nervosa into layered blasts of shrieks, perfectly executed double-bass drums (Gene Hoglan is a percussive John Henry in a sea of drum machines) and crashing riffs, Ocean Machine is far more insular. If City was a scream of rage, this was the ragged after-rasp, a pained croak through ruptured vocal cords that etched out an image of a man standing on the edge of a cliff trying to think of reasons not to jump. It is an album of almost painful beauty, frightening and isolated but plaintive and outreaching. Where the non-sequiturs in the Strapping Young Lad lyrics typically played as jokes, the esoteric memories foisted in chunks here (i.e. "Here I am/Driving through Japan" in "Night") constrict full meaning solely to Townsend's understanding even as he lets the audience into his thoughts.
That personal-to-the-point-of-obscure style pervades Townsend's canon, from a whispered "fuck off" in the middle of "Nobody's Here" on Terria that comes where one might otherwise have whispered an admission of love to the oddly endearing touch of off-poetry "You are the sun to my chameleon" on Synchestra's "Pixellate." Townsend crafts albums out of fractured moments, and those fragments are hard to shake loose. The bridge of Ziltoid the Omniscient's "Solar Winds", the soothing guitar solo of Terria's "Deep Peace," the totality of the minimalist triumph "The Death of Music" on Ocean Machine; these are the longer moments in the man's discography. I've not even counted the impassioned scream in the middle of "Night," the twanging break four minutes and 30 seconds into "Tiny Tears" or the yee-haw yelp of renewed vigor on "Supercrush!"
Townsend has always been prolific, usually good for an album a year and often for more than that, but newfound sobriety has turned an already dedicated artist into a force to be reckoned with. Since bottoming out after the release of the goofball concept piece Ziltoid, Townsend has returned with a four-part series as "The Devin Townsend Project," a title aptly summarizing the artist's attempt to take stock of himself. Two of the four albums have already been released, while the other two have been postponed only because Townsend continues to add songs to them, bumping at least one, and possibly both, to a double album. It's been a treat to hear how much fresher he sounds when he already sounded damn good, and where most artists slow down as they near 40, Townsend appears to be just entering his prime. I can't wait to hear how he keeps evolving.
Top Five Albums
1. Ocean Machine: Biomech (Devin Townsend, 1997)/Accelerated Evolution (Devin Townsend Band, 2003)/Addicted (Devin Townsend Project, 2009)
As I said in my review of Addicted, that album fits in with the other two as a "Bosch triptych in reverse," charting Townsend's ascent from hell to the mixed bag of Earth and, finally, to Heaven. It may be a complete cheat to put his three most accessible albums in one slot, but they feed off each other and demonstrate his abilities better than anything else he's done. From the spacious opener "Seventh Wave" to the triple-punch of "Funeral," "Bastard" and "The Death of Music" (quadruple-punch, if you count the hidden track "Things Beyond Things), Ocean Machine is intense, its pain in no way diluted for being chilled. Accelerated Evolution splits between pure pop metal and intense, pleading desperation ("Deadhead" is heartrending), capturing Townsend's bipolarity as well as Alien. And then there's Addicted, in which heavy metal is filtered through Enya and Europop. You gotta love it.
(Key track(s): Bastard; Deadhead; Numbered!
2. Terria (Devin Townsend, 2001)
The nearest thing to heavy metal's Walden, in which our maladjusted protagonist retreats into the sounds and textures of nature to try to sublimate. Like Thoreau, he is of course not really isolated but sounds like he is, and that's just as important. Also like Thoreau, he must eventually leave when he unintentionally conquers the world with which he wished to become one. It is hands down the most complex album Townsend's recorded, not in technical flash but emotional obtuseness and abstraction. But it's also his most rewarding, and the more times I head out to British Columbia with him for a retreat, the more fulfilled I am when I return.
(Key track: Nobody's Here)
3. City (Strapping Young Lad, 1997)
The best balance of Townsend's earlier humor and the force with which he'd propel later SYL albums, City is bursting at the seams with inventive, hilarious, terrifying extreme metal, its defiant anthem "All Hail the New Flesh" rubbing up against the rawer, less secure "Detox." Six years would pass before Townsend reconvened SYL, and the more carefree, anarchic humor that runs through tracks such as "Home Nucleonics" wouldn't again rear its head in so open a fashion.
(Key track: All Hail the New Flesh)
4. Alien (Strapping Young Lad, 2005)
If City was the most balanced SYL album, Alien works just as well for being the most unbalanced of them all. Apart from the aforementioned "Skeksis, " Townsend incorporates black metal into the opening "Imperial," quirky vocal harmonies in "Love?" (Eduardo Rivadavia of Allmusic aptly described the sound as "King's X from hell"), beautiful space in "Two Weeks" and the panic attack-literalizing static and hiss of "Info Dump." This album best exemplifies Townsend's ability to collide disharmonious sounds into a working, cohesive whole, and the tension between unity and discord is sometimes unbearable in the best way.
(Key track: Zen)
5. Infinity (Devin Townsend, 1998)
Terria may be Townsend's most complex album, but this is certainly his weirdest. Infinity is the most disconnected album he's ever put out -- including the final SYL album, a label-mandated affair that reeked of halfheartedness -- but luckily all the parts are worth listening to. It jumps from the euphoric opening teaser to a Wildhearts-esque love ditty (Ginger even co-wrote the lyrics) before dumping into "Bad Devil, the sound of Baron Samedi unleashed upon Nawlins through the power of rock. Where else can you hear a heavy metal trombone? The second half of the album contains the more personal touch of Townsend's best work, but it also has some of his strangest material ever, particularly the "wait, what the hell was that?" burst of gibberish that is "Antz." It's a mixed bag, but one of those mixed bags where all the different candies are still tasty.
(Key track: Life is All Dynamics)
Honorable Mention: Cooked on Phonics (Punky Brüster, 1996)
A one-off piss-take of the pop-punk resurgence of the mid-'90s, Cooked on Phonics profiles a death metal group that goes punk for the money and sells out everything for that bite of the cherry. Some of the jokes fall flat and one cannot listen over and over without breaks lest the gags that do work go stale, but this is probably the best indicator of Townsend's wit and his moral view of artistic integrity. Also, frankly, some of these tunes work as fantastic pop-punk songs. For completionists, only, perhaps, but still an album I return to with surprising frequency.
(Key track: Ez$, or the hidden tune "The Girls Next Door")