[29 October 2013]
As the foremost authority on eccentrically experimental progressive metal (among a host of other subgenres), Canadian virtuoso Devin Townsend is revered as much for his bold, zany ideas as for his incredible musicianship and diversity. Having crafted such off-the-wall concept albums as Ziltoid the Omniscient (about an alien puppet determined to conquer earth for coffee) and Deconstruction (about a man whose quest to understand the meaning of life leads him to Hell, the devil, and cheeseburgers), he is no stranger to taking his audience to humorously sardonic places. Obviously, fans expect him to continuously push boundaries, and with his most recent project, The Retinal Circus, he certainly has. A thrilling blend of standard concert fare, visual theatre, and wild stage antics, its absurdity, ambition, and staggering showmanship make it an incredibly engaging experience.
Recorded on October 27th, 2012 at the Roundhouse in London, The Retinal Circus was essentially a means for Townsend to elevate a one-off concert into the realm of performance art. Rather than simply play an assortment of classic songs to celebrate his lengthy career, he frames these tracks as chapters within the context of an absurd sci-fi story (which is narrated by guitar legend Steve Vai, who helped jumpstart Townsend’s career with his Sex & Religion album in 1993). As for the performers, The Devin Townsend Project was joined by vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering, Devin Townsend, Ayreon) and bassist Jed Simon (ex-Strapping Young Lad).
Musically, most of Townsend’s solo efforts are covered; only Ghost, Ki, Accelerated Evolution, and Terria are left out. Vai introduces the show and discloses that the plot of The Retinal Circus revolves around “a young man [Harold] who goes to sleep and, through characters, dreams the emotional metaphors that climax in the realization that life is all about relationships.” Afterward, the band launches into “Effervescent!/True North” and “Lucky Animals”, which are the first three songs from his last opus, Epicloud. While they sound almost identical to the studio versions, the latter piece features an extra bit of aggression halfway through, which is a nice touch.
Vai tells the audience that “these animals have evolved into apes”, which sets the stage nicely for “Planet of the Apes” from Deconstruction. In the process, Townsend issues the first of several remarks about how lame his musical is. Self-deprecation has always been a part of his persona, though, so it’s not that surprising, and the band does an amazing job with the recreation. Surprisingly, Townsend then delves into his back catalogue and pulls out the brilliantly schizophrenic “Truth”, “War” and “Soul Driven” from his sophomore LP, Infinity. Although they’re noticeably less sophisticated than his later work, they demonstrate how his genius was palpable from the start.
Synchestra and Ziltoid the Omniscient round out the end of the first half, with “Vampolka” and “Vampira” sounding just as inventive as ever. The emotionality and dynamic catchiness of “The Greys” and “Color Your World” makes the pair a perfect duo for the live setting, while “Planet Smasher” is infused with even more energy thanks to added timbres (such as horns) and fiercer percussion. There’s also the title track from Addicted, which is awesome in its own straightforward way. In fact, it features one of the most infectious choruses in Townsend’s catalogue.
The second disc begins during the last few seconds of the intermission. Townsend thanks the audience and mocks the silliness of the story. He then transitions into a solo take on “Hyperdrive” from Ziltoid. Although it probably would’ve been better with the entire band, this version is certainly a more personal and chilling novelty. “Ih-Ah!” is next, and it’s every bit as lovely as on Addicted. Next up is “Where We Belong” in its entire transcendental splendor, as well as the synth pop frenzy of “Bend it Like Bender!” Surprisingly, he incorporates two Strapping Young Lad songs—“City” and “Love?”—into the mix. They’re arguably the heaviest and most unrelenting tracks, but they’re a welcome addition nonetheless.
Townsend also goes back to his debut with the empowering and optimistic “Life”. It’s actually very poignant to reflect on how far he’s come since the Ocean Machine: Biomech album (even though that LP is very impressive in its own right). There’s also the aggressive “Kingdom” from Physicist and “Juular” from Deconstruction; both are recreated flawlessly. The show concludes with another early track, “Colonial Boy”, as well as “Grace” and “Little Pig” (from Epiclouder, the bonus disc/second half of Epicloud). These last two pieces definitely allow the performance to end with closure and affection, as their sing-a-long qualities make the end feel communal and celebratory.
The Retinal Circus is a phenomenal experience, which means it earns its place alongside just about everything else he has done. The setlist is expansive and varied, as it does a wonderful job of encompassing his entire discography (although the absence of the aforementioned four albums is a bit of a letdown). Outside of the music, the ridiculous banter and storyline make it an involving trip even as a purely auditory journey. I’ve often held that Devin Townsend is this generation’s Frank Zappa, as both figures pushed boundaries with their idiosyncratic, genre-defying fusion of humor, theatrics, and unbelievably intricate compositions. The Retinal Circus is another fine example of this connection, and it’s a must own release for fans.