There's no modern prog musician whose approaches, innovations, and reinventions are as multifaceted, brave, intricate, and original as those of Devin Townsend.
Above: Press photo. Photographer unknown.
These days, the term “genius” is thrown around too often. Watch any documentary or interview regarding any other form of entertainment and you’ll no doubt hear actors, directors, musicians, producers, programmers, and writers remark that someone else is an “absolutely genius”. Of course, labeling someone as such is always a subjective choice, but the tendency to apply it to too many people exists nonetheless.
To me, a creative genius is someone who manages to expand upon his or her field in ways that no one else ever has. Geniuses implement techniques, ideas, and general experimentation in a way that reveals something new and influential about the medium. In essence, their processes and concepts are wholly idiosyncratic and haven’t really been done before, yet they astound nearly everyone who experiences them.
When it comes to progressive and avant-garde music, a few obvious names come to mind, such as Ian Anderson, Kate Bush, Arjen Anthony Lucassen, and Frank Zappa. Each one of these performers has [to varying degrees] taken established forms to new, dauntingly unique, sundry, and daring places. However, there is likely no modern musician in the genre whose various approaches, innovations, and reinventions are as multifaceted, brave, intricate, and original as those of Devin Townsend. Granted, his music only appeals to a selective (yet endearingly devoted) audience, but there’s no denying that he operates in a world all his own.
Born in 1972, Townsend is a Canadian jack-of-all-trades musically, as he is capable of writing, singing, arranging, and performing everything on his releases (as 2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient proved). Although he initially found success as the frontman for hardcore metal madmen Strapping Young Lad, as well as the eccentric sidekick of Steve Vai, in the early '90s, few listeners would argue that Townsend’s solo work is what truly makes him an outstanding artist. Every one of his solo releases contains astounding diversity, audacious constructions, unparalleled musicianship, and most importantly, evidence of an vision unlike any other.
In celebration of Townsend’s one-of-a-kind discography, as well as in anticipation for his newest opus (and latest change in direction), Casualties of Cool, I’ve decided to break down three of his most impressive and distinctive selections. These aren’t necessarily his best pieces, nor are they enough to represent all of his different personas and styles, but each one of the following tracks illustrate why he is, among many other things, an uncompromising, prophetic, and fearless musical genius.
(Note: I’ve decided to leave off one of Townsend’s most brilliant compositions, “The Mighty Masturbator”, not because it doesn’t belong here, but because I’ve already discussed it thoroughly in “The 10 Progressive Rock Epics You Need to Hear Now.”)
”Earth Day” (from Terria, 2001)
Townsend is nothing if not introspective and philosophical, and he’s arguably never been more candid, spiritual, and cathartic than on his fifth LP, Terria. Released roughly a year and a half after its predecessor, Physicist, the record sought to appease fans who felt that the Physicist was too vicious, repetitive, and inaccessible (after all, it is a relentlessly heavy album). By contrast, Terria is more much melodic, atmospheric, plaintive, and tasteful (although it’s still packed with metal moments), making it one of his most fragile and rewarding works to date. In a way, it feels like his attempt to capture what Joni Mitchell did with Blue, and despite the fact that there are plenty of gripping instants and affective soundscapes peppered throughout, the true gem of the disc is its third track, "Earth Day" A lengthy excursion into schizophrenic transitions, soaring harmonies, and humorous yet profound and poetic lyrics, “Earth Day” is a quintessential case of Townsend’s beloved juxtapositions.
I’ve often said (even to the man himself) that Townsend is a modern day Frank Zappa, and “Earth Day” offers several reasons why. For one, it’s an incredibly elaborate configuration, full of sporadic shifts, dynamic personalities, and mind-blowing time signature changes. For example, the piece begins with angelic chaos, as Townsend’s falsetto echoes over symphonic guitar riffs, authoritative percussion, and other sophisticated effects. This opening also exemplifies his trademark “wall of sound” technique (which begs for a comparison to Phil Spector too, of course), which relates to the way Townsend often suffocates his listeners with several interconnected sheets, including vocals, instrumentation, and effects. It can be a bit overwhelming at times (and “Earth Day” is certainly not for the faint of heart), but it’s also undeniably stunning and distinguishing.
From there, the track consistently alternates between devilish intensity and majestic ponderings; indeed, it features too many tempo changes to count, as well as an assault of dissimilar vocal treatments. At times, it’s almost too much to take, but then the music segues into another calming passage encased in charming decorations. Yet, his true skill rests in the way he regularly combines these polarizing qualities, overlapping beautiful harmonies with guttural foundations to create a blend that only Townsend can make. There are at least half a dozen sections in “Earth Day,” and each one suggests something special. Naturally, the fact that Townsend is able to fuse them all seamlessly (including several refrains) is what really makes it remarkable. Like so much of his music, listeners are left asking, “How the hell did he write that?”
Lyrically and vocally, “Earth Day” is also akin to some of Zappa’s work, as it places Townsend’s emblematic zaniness and comical yet profane immaturity over the aforementioned complex music. Zappa was occasionally labeled as merely a clown by those who underappreciated how dense and imaginative his compositions were, and while Townsend hasn’t really suffered the same fate (as far as I know), his music often shares a similar synthesis. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of contemplative phrases too, but there are also a few absurd bits as well.
The aforesaid opening falsetto is accompanied by the following lyrics: “Eat your beets / Recycle! / Recycle! / Don’t eat your beets / Recycle! / Recycle!” Needless to say, it’s an eccentric way to start, and the passage is repeated throughout the song, proving that Townsend never takes himself too seriously. Also, he sometimes screams, “Recycle!” which is essentially the exact opposite of how he sings the rest of it. Actually, Townsend switches between these two modes throughout the track; he even ends his “Peace! / Love! / Joy! / Hate! / Hell! / War! /...Destruction!” section with heavenly layers, while his “Sometimes I think that in every straight is a gay!” and “Fuck! / Listen to me! / Just shut the fuck up!” outbursts sounds razor sharp.
The core of song, though, is its existentialism, with lines like “Man Overboard (I'm so far away)” and “I saw God /She said, 'If you don't believe me, guaranteed you'll never leave me' / On your way, and out of my time / But I didn't even know if it was true or just a result of chemicals” offering more substantive and personal revelations. It’s here that Townsend sounds extremely insightful, even going so far as to reference how drugs were messing with his sense of self and reality. In the end, “Earth Day” isn’t necessarily about any of its off-the-cuff subjects; it’s about the balance between the silliness and somberness of life, and the way Townsend presents it is nothing short of genius.
”Feather” (from Ghost, 2011)
As I said earlier, part of the reason Townsend is so revered is that he’s extraordinarily diverse; in fact, I’m not sure I’ve everheard another musician who dabbles in so many drastically different approaches and influences (I’d argue that his work defies categorization; he is his own genre.) You honestly never know what his next album will sound like, and nowhere is this courageous reimagining more apparent than on his 2011 opus, Ghost. A tranquil and colorful journey overflowing with lovely subtitles, it’s perhaps his most atypical outing; still, it’s precisely these exquisite deviations from the norm that make the full-length so damn gratifying, and there’s no better justification for it than "Feather".
A bit of background information is needed to fully grasp why Ghost (and “Feather” in particular) is on this list, as it’s far from the bombastic tour-de-force that Townsend is known for. The fourth entry under the “Devin Townsend Project” moniker, Ghost was released simultaneously with its technical predecessor, Deconstruction), and the two releases couldn’t be more different. Like the masterful duality of Opeth’s Deliverance and Damnation, this pairing offered (as Townsend called it) “the storm and the calm” of his musical landscape.
Deconstructionis a purposefully pretentious and ridiculous concept album bursting with grandiose brutality, over-the-top production, and an assortment of tongue-in-cheek lyricism, while Ghostis quite soothing and serious. Townsend may have his blatantly virtuosic and cartoonish side, but underneath it all lays a mature, pensive, and humble soul aching to cognize and express the vast poeticism of existence. “Feather” is a breathtaking exploration of that.
“Feather” begins delicately, with a combination of flute, soft percussion, minimal piano, and a gorgeous yet simple acoustic guitar arpeggio lulling the listener into its dreamy world. Next, he sings with tenderness and understanding, offering supportive words such as: “Hey little one, think about our time / When all the pain we've overcome,” “If all for three is all for five / Then we'll have peace until we die,” and “And all I ever think about is you / It's only farther feathers...” In-between these words, guest vocalist Katrina Natale sings, “Close your eyes and go to sleep” and “Peace to you,” and her silky timbre make for an ideal complement. Townsend also covers the landscape with high-pitched harmonies throughout, creating a powerful feeling of peace. It’s unquestionably gorgeous and emotional, giving listeners a glimpse into how Townsend has come to terms with his demons, mistakes, and fortunate potentials.
Halfway through the song, things become even quieter and more pacific, with Natale’s phrases mixing over life-affirming sounds and perfectly organized silence. The remaining minutes of the song exude more of these miscellaneous effects and spurts of instrumentation until nothing is left; it feels random yet very thematic, and it conveys the feeling of drifting off to sleep amidst the warmth of nature and existence. All in all, “Feather” is more than just a remarkable journey; it’s also the symbolic manifestation of an artist who’s finally found inner peace. Most of all, “Feather”, like all of Ghost, is astounding because of how different it is from most of Townsend’s other work (especially its concurrent sibling, Deconstruction). Townsend’s range spans exponentially farther than any of his peers, and the fact that he wrote both Ghost and Deconstruction at all—let alone at the same time—makes him a genius.
”Ki” (from Ki, 2009)
Over the years, I’ve had many discussions with friends and fellow genre writers about the brilliance of Townsend’s music, and the same question inevitably came up each time: “If you had to pick just one song to exemplify his cleverness to a new listener, which would it be?” To this day, I’d still pick "Ki". A hectic yet harmonious and intricate sign of extravagant production, stellar musicianship, melodic/lyrical self-acceptance, and awe-inspiring inventiveness, “Ki” is a masterpiece unto itself. I’ve probably never been as instantly overwhelmed by song before.
Ki is the first release by The Devin Townsend Project, a fact that’s is important to note when evaluating his discography. In 2006, Townsend disbanded his previous projects to focus on family, spiritual growth, and most importantly, detoxification from drugs, creative pressures, and negative mindsets. In essence, he needed to be reborn as a person and an artist, and Ki (which represents the Japanese notion of “life force”) serves to sort of introduce Townsend 2.0 to the world. As a whole, the album is more simplified, organic, and ethical than previous outings, as it deals with his past troubles, present triumphs, and positive outlook on the future. Without a doubt, the title track is the LP’s ultimate summation of Townsend’s newfound spiritual freedom, as well as one of the densest creations he’s ever made.
“Ki” segues in from the previous track, “Lady Helen,” with a warm acoustic guitar riff, beautiful harmonies, and dazzling effects. It feels grounded yet transcendental. This blend now gives way to his first verse: “Days alone, never felt like this / The lights of home, a year away / And it's too late to fight it all, just drive / and the streets...glow /And the night...the night is soft.” His melody and tone carry wisdom and reconciliation. Afterward, another riff accompanies more vocal coats that evolve into another moving passage, and he repeats the following realization several times with fragile conviction: “We endure and pass the motive / We endure and pass the moon.” It’s easily one of the most serene and luscious moments he’s ever crafted, and it’s made even more valuable by the growth and acceptance it represents.
As stunning as the first few minutes of “Ki” are, the latter portion is what really blows you away. After the previous section dies down with assorted acoustic guitar daydreams, Townsend introduces an intimidatingly exhaustive and hypnotic arpeggio; seriously, it has to include roughly one hundred notes, which is a testament to how prolific and capable he is on the instrument. Behind it, madness builds as his “wall of sound” technique encompasses everything; Incoherent yet still striking harmonies battle with programmed rhythms and subtle layers of effects. He adds a new element every few measures until it’s nothing less than absolute, crushing splendor unlike anything you’ve ever heard. His final contribution is the following line, which he offers with characteristic operatic delivery: “So we fall on warm silence! / I know, yes I know, we all go away!” It then dissolves into the next track, “Quiet Riot.
However, its impact still remains as “Quiet Riot” plays, for it’s likely one of the most profound, ambitious, and distinctive tracks you’ll ever hear. I’ve listened to it countless times over the years, and my jaw still drops by the end. Just about everything Townsend does is a tribute to his staggering intellectual and musical abilities, but “Ki” is probably themost autonomous example of why he gives the industry (as well as his fans) something truly unique, unflinching, and priceless at every turn. To put it bluntly, it is a work of genius.