Prepare for a vivid journey into the mind of a genius with Devin Townsend’s latest release, Empath. A colourful, creative, eccentric and slightly mad piece of art laid down in musical form.
Empath is Devin’s 9th release as a solo artist. It will also be his 25th release overall if you include his other projects Casualties of Cool, The Devin Townsend Band, The Devin Townsend Project and of course, Strapping Young Lad. His last fully solo release was 2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient though he had a solo release as part of the double album Z2 under The Devin Townsend Project. His last full release was also under The Devin Townsend Project with 2016’s Transcendence.
We checked out one of the singles from Empath recently, called Evermore. You can read our thoughts on that here. Hint for you. I loved it.
Empath is a long and expansive album. Creative, eccentric, mostly brilliant but occasionally odd. There are only 10 songs on here but the album is around 74 minutes long. Extended really because of the length of two songs. Borderlands weighs in at a hefty 11 minutes though the knock-out blow comes on album closer, Singularity. A whopping 23 and a half minute long journey.
We start off with an intro track that really just extends the start of the second track, Genesis. The intro is Castaway. A collection of different sounds and styles setting the scene for the rest of Empath. Gentle waves in the background with clean ringing guitar melody could have you preparing for meditation before the sounds of a 70s musical start. Slightly oriental tinged melody and gentle theatrical choirs take over. It creates a picture of the sun rising above the seas horizon. Genesis, track 2, takes over mid singing. Literally cutting a sentence in two as it changes songs. It’s a strange place to cut purely because it doesn’t flow when listening to it.
As one song changes to another, there is a little blip. Something that doesn’t matter much when the blip comes in a bit of music. Here it comes in the vocals and for a millisecond makes the modern music player sound like the CD needs cleaning.
Genesis sees Castaway’s choir joined at the start by a gentle tapping drum as it builds. It kicks in with a powerfully delivered vocal line from Devin before a catchy song with a vast amount going on starts off. Lots of backing vocals and sampled effects fly in and out at different points while Devin delivers vocals like he is on a stage in The West End.
The verses are great but mad with musical elements going from chiptune through to operatic. The chorus jumps in and is the first bit of a more traditional heavy metal sound with a thick bassy riff and quick drums. The chorus is amazing, really catchy and the drum beat that follows it is insanely quick with heavy guitar slams. A weird and winding solo jumps in, still with quirky sampling, and a passionately sung harmonic section. This fades down to sampled waves and birds before heading into a rolling thunder section with a wicked riff and head banging rhythm. It’s a lot to take in. Brilliant but slightly mad too.
Spirits Will Collide starts with the grandiose sound of symphonic backing with pounding drums and a towering guitar line. This fades out to a nice clean singing melodic section with gentle gang vocals and a slow tapped rhythm. We move from this to a fuller sound with Devin leading the vocals beautifully as the instruments ramp up the volume and majesty. This back and forth style eventually culminates in everyone singing harmoniously together creating a sound that will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. It’s a real life affirming track. I love it. It genuinely makes me feel good just listening to it. It is by far my favourite track on the album. Evermore follows next. Another wonderful track we reviewed separately and you can read that by following the link above.
So far so good and now things take a turn into the eccentric and surreal on the next song, Sprite. A spoken word intro that appears to be introducing something like a kids movie with it’s “Once upon a time, in a small town….”. It’s made up of hypnotic clean choruses with cartoonish operatic sequences that bounce all over the place followed by grandiose choruses. Occasionally poppy, occasionally symphonic with gentle touches of metal added through the odd booming background vocal, Sprite is equally interesting and challenging to listen to.
It really represents Devin and his whole approach to music on a single plate. Sprite fades out to background faded whispers delivered in a devilish tone and that carries straight through to the next song Hear Me. A furious and raging track with blasting drums and speed riffs. Cinematic backing gives a bit of an epic feel to proceedings as it fades gently into female vocals singing “all the world is bleeding”. It kicks back in with force and fury from Devin’s screamed vocals. The music hammers away at you like a power drill, relentlessly. The choruses are excellent too. Compared to Sprite it is a much more reserved song. Aside from some odd sounds, tones and timing we stay heavy throughout in a track that could be fairly described as pit destroying.
Why? takes yet another direction as we are transported to what makes me think of a Disney Princess movie. A sincere and beautiful ballad with glorious choral tones and bouncing orchestral melodies. Save for a few deathly growls at the beginning it is mostly a reaffirming ballad that is pleasing to listen to. Borderlands comes next with near 11 minutes that starts with a rooster noise before taking you on a serene trip surrounded by electronica. Little backing vocals, animal noises, a baby crying, warped electronica. It is an assault of creativity that builds into a huge guitar driven chorus that flies everything back together for a moment.
The sound of waves crashing on a beach and steel drums lead into a mellow, reflective segment before a huge choir section starts building again. It rocks up a bit after this with a slamming bass line and powerfully delivered vocals before returning to samples and backing noises for two minutes at the end including some disturbing laughs just near the close. Keeping Empath flowing, this ending leads directly into the penultimate track, Requiem. A bit like Castaway, it’s a 2 minute teaser with music that follows the trend of what we have heard before. Bouncing melodies and building atmosphere that really just sets the stage for the big 23 minute long ending, Singularity.
I’m not too sure about Singularity. Perhaps it is too much for my tiny brain to handle? It feels like it could have been split down further into shorter songs. It tells a single story, yes, but it is in line with the rest of the album so could have been split. Still, it moves, as you would expect, through different phases and there is a lot going on. We start off with soaring lead guitar, a Clapton like virtuoso solo that leads into a softly sung ballad with plenty of backing and meticulously placed orchestral elements. It starts building up with a hip hop styled beat before the guitars start invading.
What follows is an emphatic section with huge drums, intense guitars and powerful vocals. This switches back to the balled style before building again with some seriously impressive repeating drum patterns and an extended roar. We head into a slamming riff with roared vocals and death metal blast beats. A bit of groove follows before we are suddenly back on island with twinkling orchestral elements and echoed clean singing.
This leads into the bit of the song I struggle with the most. It feels like Devin brought 1000 instruments into the studio and with 7 minutes left still had 50 to use so just chucked them all in. There are noises and tones going off in every direction and they range from chiptune to the triangle to a crunching riff over deep spoken vocals. It is a vision of chaos, probably purposely, and challenging to listen to. With the end fast approaching the chaos settles into a more standard verse with catchy vocals and a decent riff before ending.
Devin Townsend is a musical genius with the ability to project his will in musical form while transforming it into visuals in the listeners mind. Empath does that exactly. If you open your mind a little you can be taken directly on the adventure with him. Be careful though, much like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, it is not an easy journey. Empath is chock full of idiosyncrasies and eccentricity. It is a challenging listen, not a bad one, a challenge. Especially in the second half of the album. You may have to fight every bone in your body ordering you to stop because “it isn’t metal” but if you can open your mind enough, there is great reward on offer.
Empath is a piece of art as much as a rock album but purely from the songs I enjoyed the most, it is top heavy. All my favourite songs exist on the first half of the album with Spirits Will Collide being a clear winner for me. That song is worthy of 10/10 alone. The second half of the album is a harder listen but there are gems on there and moments within the longer songs I love. Empath is an experience really, having profound impact on your feelings and while I don’t love all of it, I wouldn’t change any of it either.
To end though, having experienced songs like Singularity, it is unlikely I will return and replay it many more times whereas Spirits Will Collide will be getting worn out. It’s a 10/10 album for creativity and experience but a little less for how much I really enjoyed the expansive songs or will enjoy again in the future.
Check out Evermore now on all the usual streaming platforms. Preorder your copy of Empath from his Omerch shop here or from Inside Out, here. Keep up to date with news on the new album and more at Devin’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages by following the links.
Empath by Devin Townsend (HevyDevy Records)
The Final Score - 8.5/10