Album Review: Devin Townsend - 'Empath'

4 April 2019 | 11:56 am | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

Pushing shit way past '11'.

More Devin Townsend More Devin Townsend

Empath is finally here and what a challenging record it is! This is an album that has so much going on; it's rarely ever just one thing.

HevyDevy is no longer under the moniker of "Devin Townsend Band" or "Devin Townsend Project", just back to good ol' fashioned Devin Townsend. A name-change that also marks the release of his most eclectic and mind-blowing effort to date, Empath, which is really saying something given his storied career. With Empath being his 25th album(!), this feels like a culmination of everything he's released. There are these great little tastes and moments from each other album and project that he's worked on sprinkled in to make a near-perfect amalgamation of his overall artistry. In progressive music today, Devin is here to prove that he can still throw down the progressive gauntlet with the very best by dropping this magical art-piece. Empath breaks not only every single expectation you may have ever had about it or Devin's music, but it also breaks so many rules too. An album like this just shouldn't work on paper, yet it does. All because of the sole driving force behind it. Devin has seriously reached transcendence (ha) in terms of musicality, talent, and songwriting with the glorious sounds of Empath.

When the record's first single, the mind-boggling Genesis, was released, it was vastly polarising. It's so over the place in terms of genres and themes, with animal sounds, prog-metal moments, blast beats, funk parts, and choral sections, and everything else in between speeding through your brain. It's quite over-whelming! Devin himself even stated that song was more an overture than a true single. It had little bits of everything, as to give fans what the album itself would be like in the grand scheme. There were many thrown off with how many ideas were crammed into that one song, but one must remember that everything Devin does is done entirely on purpose. The songs will sound over the top at times, and that will throw people off for sure, but this is the almighty Devin Townsend we're talking about. This is a dude who has a real method to his genius madness; a guy who no chains can bind in terms of musical output. And that's abundantly clear on Empath. For he could've made some limp-dicked prog-rock album and no one would be mad. Instead he made... this.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

This album is seemingly all about nature, being connected, eco-systems, and of human love for all other living things. Thus, everything begins with the soft sounds of the ocean waves and seagulls chirping of 'Castaway', first heard during the intro to the Genesis music video. Now, I'm sure that anyone who knows HevyDevy most likely heard Genesis upon its release, so I’ll just say that Genesis is to Empath as what Empath is to Devin’s entire discography. If you know, you know.

Among the record's 15 tracks, you’re bombarded with Devy’s wall-of-sound writing style. You're  the fiddle here, and he plays you throughout, sending massive choruses, huge instrumental layerings and sweeping operatic arrangements your way (Spirits Will Collide); offering some seriously irresistible groove (Evermore); gifting you some blissful soundscapes (SpriteWhy?); and being sure to drop unrelenting neck-breaking fury (Hear Me, There Be Monsters). I am only just really scratching the surface-level here; every nook-and-cranny of each track reeks of not just sheer emotion, but a beautiful, musically grandiose scale too. Truly, everything Devin has done before now is all chewed up, combined together and then spat out into a weird, alluring and interesting smorgasbord of sounds. It's even a very real accomplishment that no songs here have any ideas or sounds harshly clashing in a poor or unintentional way. Not even one.

For those who prefer the Strapping Young Lad sound, because there's always a few, I’d strongly advise such crowds to check out the Hear Me and There Be Monsters movements off the record's closing five-part epic, Singularity. For those wanting the more relaxed, atmospheric, and orchestral-themed tracks, head right to: Sprite, Why?, and Requiem, just to start off with. Hear Me is easily the heaviest track of the lot, surprisingly featuring Chad Kroeger for vocal harmonies at several points in the song. I also cannot forget to applaud Samus Paulicelli (publicly known as 66Samus) for that mind-boggling performance behind the kit on Hear Me. With that being said, Devin employs the use of three drummers, the other two being Anup Sastry (Intervals, Skyharbor), and Morgan Ågren (Kaipa). Prog-metal, for as far as the eye can see!

[caption id="attachment_1106745" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Devin Townsend, 2019. (Photo by Adam Gasson/Total Guitar Magazine via Getty Images)[/caption]

On top of the multitude of drummers and instrumentalists that bolster Empath - I wouldn’t have enough time  to name all of them and their wonderful additions - the amount of extra vocalists present also adds more depth to the musical structures of 'Empath'; from Anneke van Giersbergen on 'Hear Me' and 'Here Comes the Sun', Ché Aimee Dorval (co-vocalist of Casualties of Cool), the aforementioned Mr Kroeger, and several others. With all of those vocalists providing so much variation and talent to this record, I don't think one could accurately or even confidently say that the vocal performances are lacklustre or boring. In fact, some of the best vocal performances are found on Why? and in the final chapter of the final track, Here Comes the Sun. It is worth mentioning that the legendary Steve Vai also provides a brief yet stellar and moody guitar solo in the last several heavenly minutes of Empath. Because of course he does.

On Why?, it sounds like I'm in a grand theatre, watching a well-produced Disney Broadway performance play-out. I mean, I genuinely thought rabbits, squirrels, and birds were going to come right through my window and fold my laundry for me when first listening to this track. That effect, that kind of full-on mental transportation, is what Devin's music strikes you with so well. Devin sounds as amazing as ever on this ethereal track, the man himself showing off his wide vocal range. He even sneaks in this insanely animalistic scream in the first part of the song; a scream does not even sound human. That scream doesn't really fit the song given the happy, calm and forest-setting of the track overall, but it still works. Trust me. Why? is easily my favourite track, as it's a straight-forward relaxing song with a quick jab to the kidney. It's hard not to love and become enamoured with the wacky and unpredictable nature that these songs possess.

However, I will say that I was left slightly wanting a song showcasing Devin’s beyond emotional high-pitched screams as say, heard on Deadhead off of Accelerated Evolution. It still amazes me how high he can get his screams at times. Not only that, but how you can also hear him changing to higher pitches as he even puts more into his voice for those screams. His vocal performances on this record are great, yes, but other than Why?, I wasn't absolutely floored by his vocals as I have been in the past. A very small nit-pick perhaps, but one thing I did notice while listening. (On-stage though, he sounds fantastic. If you have not seen his Deadhead Live at Royal Albert Theater video, then you need to stop reading and watch that shit right now.)

Once the reggae-inspired bass lines of Borderlands hits, you know you’re in for yet another crazy but fun ride. Which is such an exhilarating thrill that hits at the start of every song: you just don't know what you're in for once you press play. That particular song makes me feel as if I'm relaxing beach side, shades on, cold beer in my hand, just taking in the sun. Although Borderlands does tend to drag on a tiny bit, I still really enjoyed it despite that repetitive riff you hear over and over. Once Borderlands wraps up, you are given a nice and beautiful break in the shape of Requiem, all before the twenty-three-minute epic that is known as Singularity takes you away. This thing is in five-parts and honestly, just needs to be heard to be believed.

Regarding the album's production, it's stellar in terms of polish. After all, this is a new Devin Townsend album that I'm raving about: it's always going to be mixed and mastered to such a gleaming, finely-tuned point. It was produced and engineered by Nolly (Adam Getgood), which would explain why it sounds as amazing as it does; which is what you need when you're dealing with music as detailed and as bombastic as this. Also, there are another ten tracks found on the album's second disc. These tracks are considered demos, but they're basically ten more songs ready to satiate your thirst for more upon finishing the journey of Empath. There are just so many excellent tracks on here, and quite simply, I will leave the rest for you to explore. It's absolutely well-worth the trip.

Empath is a dense album, perhaps one of the more challenging listens that I’ve come across in a long while. However, it is done so tastefully and stitched together so well that you want to dive deeper into it's threads and seams. Devin just has a knack for, well, music in general and his talent and skills shine brightly across this new epic. Alongside the many other musicians featured across this record, HevyDevy has crafted one of the most interesting and imaginative musical experiences I’ve heard all year, let alone in recent years. Empath is something special that I urge everyone to check out, especially those who aren’t particularly into metal. To deny the insane amount of musical talent shown on Empath would be to reject reality. If the progressive and metal communities were to create some sort of time capsule for future ears, made up of the scenes greatest artistic achievements, you can bet Empath would rightfully earn such a spot.



Spirits Will Collide



Hear Me




Singularity – Adrift

Singularity – I Am I

Singularity – There Be Monsters

Singularity – Curious Gods

Singularity – Silicon Scientists

Singularity – Here Comes the Sun!

'Empath' is out now.