Devin Townsend is quite the busy guy, isn’t he? Ever since his humble beginnings in the mid-90s, the prolific metal musician has always pushed forward through a multitude of projects and releases, sometimes pumping out 2 or 3 albums in any given year. His most recent album was 2016’s Transcendence, the last to be released under the Devin Townsend Project moniker, and from there he took a somewhat longer than usual break from releasing recorded material. It may not seem like much, but the time between that record and his brand new solo album Empath was three years, which can feel like an eternity in Devy years. Given that he’s talked at great length during these past three years about his various musical intentions post-DTP, it figures that Empath was going to be something quite special if he was taking more time with it. So how did his first proper solo album in who-knows-how-long turn out?
The album’s introduction presents the unusually calming sounds of a relaxing beach, as the waves crash back and forth with the sounds of seagulls flying overhead. The serenity is then melded and offset by the first proper track “Genesis.” The song functions as something of an overture for the record, in the sense that it accurately captures all the sensations and musical ideas embodied by every subsequent tune. “Genesis” veers between the larger-than-life new-age spiritual hard rock sensibilities of the DTP, copious amounts of symphonic horns and epic choir vocals (courtesy of the Elektra Women’s Choir), some odd danceable grooves, and a good amount of pummeling blastbeats. It has tinges of past Devin releases from all his outlets, from Deconstruction and Sky Blue to even aspects of Casualties of Cool. It’s a strong first impression for the record, and more importantly, one that sets the stage for a vast and varied experience.
One thing that’s consistent through much of the record are the symphonic elements peppered in each track. While none of it equates to the much-discussed “Devin Townsend opera about the penis”, it’s clear that those ideas from some of the DTP albums made their way here. Songs like “Spirits” and “Why?” are driven almost entirely by orchestral instrumentation and choir vocals, with the latter track especially having lush beautiful compositions evoking the vibe of a classic fairy tale. Other songs on the record intermix these elements against more hard-edged rock/metal songwriting, such as the single “Evermore” which contains sections of rapid drum fills that are contrasted by the off-kilter groove of the chorus and its inspiring triumphant melodies. “Sprite” opens with some narration about a bird learning to fly, setting up a song that is similarly full of unusual syncopated instrumental rhythms, prominent synths echoing the guitar melodies, and dense layers of complex vocal melodies creating a peaceful vibe that is only offset by a few seconds of growled vocals and a dark ambient outro that calls to mind his solo release The Hummer.
While the new-age influences are as strong as ever, Devin doesn’t forget his metal roots on Empath. There are songs and segments on the record that are easily some of the heaviest and most intense he’s recorded to date, hitting hard enough to echo the old days of Strapping Young Lad. The centerpiece of this heaviness is the monstrous track “Hear Me,” which rips right out of the gate with shredding tremolo guitars and blastbeat drums as it segues into a constant drive of pummeling beats and guitar chugs. Devin’s vocal performance here switches from the usual triumphant and melodic tones of the record thus far into his more bellowing metal sensibilities, creating walls of vocal noise amidst the rest of the musical chaos. Much of it calls to mind elements of Deconstruction from the DTP, but the Strapping Young Lad influence is present and clear, including a thick heavy triplet groove segment that’s a dead ringer for The New Black. The album’s closing 23-minute suite “Singularity” also showcases this style as well, with the third part, “There Be Monsters,” unleashing some vicious walls of noise that invoke the seminal metal classic City as well as some groovier elements reminiscent of the Alien album.
Part of what ties these disparate moods together as well as they do is the assembling of the right talent to aid Townsend in his work. In particular, the drumming on the album stands out thanks to the three different musicians brought in to lay down those tracks. Empath showcases the talents of Morgan Agren (who previously appeared on Devin’s Casualties of Cool), Anup Sastry (formerly of Skyharbor), and popular Youtube metal drummer Samus Paulicelli (known better as 66Samus). Each member brings their distinct sensibilities to individual tracks, and often times record together on the same songs which adds much flavor and variety. Songs like “Borderlands” give Morgan room to showcase the straightforward-yet-tightly performed rhythms he brought to Casualties, while the previously mentioned “Hear Me” allows Samus to just rip and tear into some prime hard-hitting metal. Anup Sastry’s penchant for dynamic Periphery-style drum grooves is present on “Spirits Will Collide” and the “Silicon Scientists” portion of “Singularity”, and the three come together phenomenally on “Genesis” as they trade off distinct sections of the song in exciting distinct ways.
Empath is the masterstroke of musical ingenuity that we’ve come to expect from Devin Townsend at this point. The album manages to strike a fine balance between an aspiring look towards his musical future and a fond look back on the past, creating a distinctly modern musical work out of a mix of bold new ideas and pastiches of the many projects he’s recorded with before. The production, once again handled by Adam “Nolly” Getgood, brings out the best of every element, smoothly blending in the choirs, synthetic elements, and metal instrumentation into a dynamic package. It’s every bit the can’t-miss album that one could want out of the man, and it was well worth the three-year wait it took to get it.
Final verdict: buy it. Why would you not want Devin to have your money?
Empath is available from Inside Out Music on CD, vinyl, digital download, and streaming services.