Canadian virtuoso Devin Townsend is often regarded as progressive metal’s most modest and diverse mad scientist (partially because his work encapsulates so many other genres). In many ways, that all started with 1997’s Ocean Machine: Biomech. Sure, his earlier work with Steve Vai and Strapping Young Lad demonstrated his eccentric brilliance—and 1996’s Punky Brüster is technically his first solo outing—but few would argue that Ocean Machine truly alluded to all of the sundry silliness and self-evaluation to come.
Naturally, Townsend chose to commemorate the record’s 20th anniversary with an elaborate concert. It's now available as Ocean Machine: Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv. Recorded on September 22nd, 2017, the package includes an impeccable full rendition of Townsend’s sophomore sequence, as well as “a set of fan-requested tracks alongside the Orchestra of Plovdiv State Opera.” It is a brief but entertaining and informative behind-the-scenes supplement. As worthwhile as it is, it earns even more inherent value as a final snapshot of what the Devin Townsend Project—which he recently disbanded to “move into the next phase of [his] life and career”—achieved at their zenith. As a result, it’s an essential testament to his dedication, skill, and overarching genius.
Where many artists would showcase the main attraction initially, Townsend goes the opposite route and starts with his miscellaneous collection. Although these selections were chosen by his devotees, they still provide a fine overview of his solo catalog; Transcendence, Infinity, and the sequential streak of Terria, Accelerated Evolution, Synchestra, and Ziltoid the Omniscient getting sufficient attention. (Even the Christeen EP gets a nod with “Om.”) As you’d expect, all of the songs sound very close to their studio counterparts, and the orchestra adds elegant—if mostly subtle—complements throughout. For instance, “Gaia” features additional woodwinds, “By Your Command” is made even more epic with extra strings, “Bad Devil” reaches maximum madness with added horns, and the poignancy of “Deep Peace” is fleshed out further with an assortment of classical timbres.
The recreation of Ocean Machine lacks those symphonic treatments, but it’s equally outstanding because of how sentimental and refined it is in this context. In fact, Townsend even gives a touching introduction to original bassist John 'Squid' Harder, who plays for the whole thing. As such, the performance feels more like a celebration of Townsend’s entire career—as well as the bond he shares with his enthusiasts—than it does a mere live amalgam of studio material (you can sense the appreciation, humility, and pride on both sides of the stage during closer “Things Beyond Things”). Obviously, he offers humorous and humble anecdotes between several tracks (during the whole night), adding charm and consequence to the evening.
Visually, the film is shot and edited very well. It holds interesting camera angles and quick editing offering both close-ups and wide shots of the band and audience. As for spectacle, there isn’t much aside from shifting colored lights and patterns (plus some fireworks), but that’s actually a benefit because it maintains a theatrical focus on the aforementioned people and grand scale of the venue.
The thirty-minute bonus video (“Organizing the Chaos”) is mostly your standard blend of artist insights and preparatory footage. That’s not a knock against it, of course, as all of it is wonderfully friendly and revealing. What sticks out most, however, is the more unexpected moments, including Townsend’s colorful appearance on a foreign talk show, intimate chat with Harder (who has MS), and earnest explanation for moving past DTP. As any fan knows, Townsend is as meticulous, serious, and determined as he is welcoming, relaxed, and modest, and “Organizing the Chaos” shows all of that very well.
Ocean Machine: Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv is perhaps the quintessential Devin Townsend concert release, not necessarily because of its music (which is remarkable, don’t get me wrong) but because of what it represents. It’s a faultlessly performed and a captured testament to not only its namesake LP but to Townsend’s musical legacy (including DTP) and relationships (especially with Harder and fans) overall. Above all else, it’s a loving send-off to an important era in his career, leaving robust closure and respect for what’s been done so that the next phase of his artistry—starting with Empath and The Moth—can arrive on a fresh wave of singular splendor.