Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Devin Townsend Project — Addicted

[This review was also posted on Sputnikmusic.com]

From now on, when someone espouses the opinion that drugs fuel artistic creativity, let us hope that enough people know the name of Devin Townsend to dismiss such repugnant, irresponsible nonsense. Following his 2007 effort, thescattershot, one-man band effort Ziltoid the Omniscient, a weary Townsend announced his intention to retire from touring and take a long break from recording, alluding strongly to a burn-out, drug-induced or otherwise. Now, two years later, he's sober, planning a return to touring in 2010 and releasing the second of four albums' worth of material he wrote in his new-found sobriety.

Addicted comes six months after his first collection of new output, Ki, and it's about as far sonically from that record as you can get. Ki displayed a heretofore unheard softness in the mad metal genius' work, and this fresh new approach made up for much of that album's inconsistency. Addicted, though, places Townsend back in his most rewarding element: the sort of New Age/Europop/industrial metal mixture that informed his two most accessible works, Ocean Machine and Accelerated Evolution. Both of those albums, for all their immediacy and catchy qualities, displayed darker sides: Ocean Machine is an often-chilling meditation on whatever issues were plaguing him at the time -- the theme of mortality arises more than once -- and Accelerated Evolution can be divided into two halves. The first dealt with Townsend's insecurities over his relationship with his wife as well as general trauma, while the second took the songs in an altogether more positive direction.

In that sense, Addicted forms a perfect progression: if the depression of Ocean Machine informed the first half of AE, so too does that album's second half set the stage for this one. So fresh-faced is Townsend's new outlook on life that all of Addicted's tracks end with exclamation marks, a move that might seem cutesy until you listen to the actual music. For all of the Dev's noodling, use of Pink Floyd-esque ambiance and epic production jobs, he's always been remarkably unpretentious, and his forthright, confessional tone brings a rarely seen depth to the genre (he might be the only artist in progressive metal I would call a singer/songwriter).

The opening title track conveys precisely where Townsend stands with his demons, denouncing and overcoming them through self-control. There's even a flash of his humor in here, as he chants of "Benedictus" gradually morph into "Been a dick to us" in response to the effects of his addictions. This reflective track leads into two of the most overt and unabashed pop tunes Devin has ever recorded: "Universe in a Ball!" and "Bend It Like Bender!" Both are irrepressible fun, but they also have their moments of deeper intelligence, with the former positing "There's a universe in your soul" (the song itself might be literally suggesting that an entire universe of potential life is located in a testicle) and the latter gleefully stomps over the artist's previous predisposition to ponderousness by suggesting we not take things so seriously.

If anything, even these more straightforward tracks demonstrate how Addicted is, lyrically at least, Townsend's most beautiful album. The songs display a dedication to get clean, as on "Supercrush!" where he sings, "I don't wanna save my soul now/I don't wanna lose control/And even if it takes a lifetime to learn/I'll learn." They also depict a sort of cosmic unity and solidarity, and Addicted at times sounds like the musical equivalent of an AA support group.

Contributing to this atmosphere are the vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen. I admit that I wasn't big on the backing vocals of Ki: Ché Dorval wasn't the best match for Townsend, who has one of the most impressive ranges in metal, and I found her contributions to be at best unnoticeable and at worst distracting. But van Giersbergen has a formidable talent, and whether Townsend brought out the best in her or he just knew exactly how to work her voice into the mix (likely a combination of the two), she hasn't sounded this good since she first started with The Gathering. She sings the lead on a reworking of Ziltoid's "Hyperdrive," one of the better songs on that album, and the results are extraordinary.

The only noticeable flaw on the album is the more laid-back "Ih-Ah!" It's not a bad song by any means, but its starkness interrupts the "epic" fee of the rest of the album, particularly after "Resolve," one of the album's heavier tracks. Still, it fits lyrically with the album, and if you're not too caught up in the bouncy mood of the rest of the album it's a perfectly lovely tune.

What comes after it, though, is beyond reproach. Townsend usually starts stronger than he finishes, but the trio of songs that closes Addicted mark his best end run since Ocean Machine. "The Way Home!" lets ex-DTB drummer Ryan Van Poederooyen cut loose as Devin brings out his soaring vibrato, which is put to even better use on "Numbered!" The finest track of the album, "Numbered!" takes all the best elements of the rest of the songs and mixes them into a euphoric climax of Anneke's wordless singing over Townsend's orchestra of multi-tracked guitars before cutting out for a chilling chorus sung in a cappella.

Townsend has promoted much of the album as a light pop record, but that belies the amount of effort he put into this. Certain tracks reference others lyrically and instrumentally , and all roads lead to "Awake!," the album's fantastic closer. With its fist-pumping, hair-raising chorus of "All the world's a stage and we are home again," "Awake!" offers the clearest connection to Townsend's previous proggy noodling in its long, gentle outro . Yet it also uses its extended length to tie not just the rest of the album together but his career as a whole, past, present and future. Thatoutro recalls his twisted masterpiece Terria, and one of the many layers of his vocals at one point screams "DECONSTRUCT!" (alluding to his next album) until it, along with the rest of this effervescent arrangement, fades into an ethereal, ghostly whisper.

By placing his current series of albums under the header of "The Devin Townsend Project," Townsend is opening himself up to criticisms of self-absorption and vanity. Yet the name is fitting, for not only does it represent the artist taking stock of his career and life in sobriety but it applies directly to the music. Townsend appears to be parsing out his various musical styles for each release -- his light-hearted pop here,SYL-like heaviness and technicality with Deconstruction and New Age ambiance for Ghost -- and perfecting each aspect separately. If Ki was more interesting than great, that is because that particular facet of Townsend's style -- the quiet, reflective one -- has never really existed on its own before. With Addicted, however, Townsend has made one of his finest albums and, in the context of his two previous pop-minded efforts, a sort of Bosch triptych in reverse: he started in hell with Ocean Machine, moved into the mixture of agony and ecstasy of life on Earth with Accelerate Evolution, and here he finds, well, perhaps not heaven but a clear and positive state of existence. In a year that already gave us Merriweather Post Pavilion and It's Blitz!, Devin Townsend, of all people, has made the feel-good record of the year.

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