Album Review: DEVIN TOWNSEND Empath
It’s become almost cliché at this point to label Canadian virtuoso Devin Townsend a musical genius; yet, the ways in which his career has culminated in a fearlessly and endearingly distinctive level of aural and academic profundity means that nothing less would suffice. In fact, his prophetic willingness to alternate styles, concepts, and even personnel as needed (all the while maintaining an overarching trademark essence) has led many aficionados (myself included) to see him as a modern-day Frank Zappa. More than any of its predecessors, Empath totally encompasses that unparalleled breadth of limitless and vital imagination and introspection. At times blissfully serene and brutally suffocating—as well as colorfully madcap and poignantly philosophical—it’s Townsend’s ultimate attempt at simultaneously exorcising personal and artistic quandaries amid a stunningly adventurous, organized, and powerful statement.
Above all else, Townsend sees Empath as a means of exonerating himself from restrictive categorizations and obligations to fully realize and express all that he is at once. (See his episodic Empath documentary for even more insights.) In other words, the LP is (as the press release puts it) meant to “see what would happen if all the styles that make up his current interests were finally represented in one place. To finally shake the fear of expectation, and just do what it is he was meant to do creatively.” While it’s not quite that all-encompassing, it is incredibly multifaceted yet unified, incorporating elements of folk, orchestral, ambient, pop, progressive rock, jazz, and EDM in-between some of the most vicious and divine compositions he’s written. Of course, the multitude of musicians on Empath—such as drummer Morgan Ågren, vocalists Anneke van Giersbergen and Che Aimee Dorval, and guitarists Steve Vai and Mike Keneally (who also co-produced)—exponentially expand Townsend’s ability to completely capture that vision.
Thematically, the sequence explores familiar territory (regarding “what makes life so simultaneously beautiful and challenging” while “neither fear[ing] those things nor let[ting] them define us”) better than ever before. Part of that entailed finally “mak[ing] the statement [Townsend] had been trying to ‘get right’ in the past” in a way that was also “rooted in helping people and staying emotionally centered throughout.” On that front, Empath is an absolute success, as the sheer scope of musical and intellectual ideas contained within is as technically astounding as it is universally inspiring.
Part of what makes the full-length such a thrilling opus is its abundance of multipart compositions and sustained continuity. The first single alone (“Genesis”) is a towering achievement of stylistic mixtures that features more innovation and intrigue than many of his contemporaries’ entire collections. At just over six minutes in length, it stampedes around classically-infused pop exuberance (a la Addicted), dense death metal complexity (a la Physicist), lovingly transcendental transitions (a la Ghost), and a multitude of zany segues without ever feeling unfocused or extraneous. Later, “Borderlands” adds even more animal noises and country rock influence to its mostly serene foundation, while the closing twenty-three-minute epic, “Singularity,” is like the far more meditative sibling of “The Mighty Masturbator” mixed with the full range of Casualties of Cool and Deconstruction. Add to that a few pleasing interludes (such as the exquisitely symphonic “Requiem”) and repeated motifs (such as the tropical environments that begin with opener “Castaway”) and it's likely the most ingeniously fluid and self-reflective record of his career.
Naturally, the relatively straightforward inclusions impress as well. For instance, “Spirits Will Collide” contrasts angelic background mantras with operatic lead responses to yield an immeasurably empowering proclamation (“So they rise / The fear and pain / But this isn’t how I am / Don’t you forget that you are love / Don’t you forget that you are them”). Afterward, “Evermore” offers many quick twists and turns while remaining immensely catchy and engrossing, whereas “Why” is gloriously healing and baroquely/chorally decorative. In contrast—and in a very polarizing but ultimately negligible decision—“Hear Me” integrates Nickelback singer Chad Kroeger into its relentlessly histrionic fury. Without a doubt, however, the standout of these more upfront endeavors is “Sprite” due to its hypnotically moving falsetto verses and triumphant choruses (as well as its introductory narration that—SPOILER ALERT—ever so slightly tips its hat to Terria). From start to finish, it’s wonderfully meaningful and resourceful.
Effectively conveying why art is special in words is always difficult—especially with someone like Townsend—so all of the above can only do so much justice to what makes this LP such a career-spanning marvel. As cleverly and touchingly rewarding for longtime listeners as it is effectively representative for newcomers, Empath is undoubtedly one of his greatest accomplishments. After all, Townsend has always been unmatched in his singular aesthetic choices and confidence, and he’s never offered such a comprehensive yet cohesive display of his abilities as he does here. As such, Empath is another work of grand measure, gorgeous humility, and yes, absolute idiosyncratic genius.