Devin Townsend Project
Over the course of Devin Townsend’s storied career, a single constant has persevered: change. As far back as Steve Vai’s Sex & Religion, which Townsend fronted, to 2001’s landmark full-length Terria to the multi-instrumentalist’s country rock outfit Casualties of Cool to his stunning new album Transcendence, the Canadian isn’t too interested in keeping an even musical keel. To stay the proverbial course is, well, anathema. For certain, he’s far too impatient to write the same Strapping Young Lad song over and over—which is why he folded the band in 2007—and it’s likely there will never be a fourth or fifth Ziltoid album (a third if we’re lucky) because by that point he’ll be in a totally different frame of mind for galactic puppets gone awry. To understand why Townsend, consciously and subconsciously, favors change is to know the man and his music today.
“Music, in my opinion, is ideally the exhaust for whatever you’re going through in life,” says Townsend. “Rather than the focus, it should be the outcome. As such, each record just naturally leads to the next. If they’re done correctly, they become an accurate representation, like a snapshot of a particular frame of mind. Like this is where I was at when I was 23 [City]. This is where I was at when I was 29” [Terria]. At the age of 44 - I guess that’s where I’m at? - to make this accurate requires all these new adjustments and analysis that end up propelling the themes that ultimately reveal themselves. The theme for the new record seems to have prevented itself as a form of surrender I think. Learning to integrate that became the process for Transcendence.”
When Townsend says “adjustments” he means near-wholesale breakdown of how things have typically worked in his camp. Prior to Transcendence, he had to be in control. Every note played, every studio knob turned, and each floor tom hit had to go through Townsend’s near-maniacal filter. A Caesar’s thumbs up or, worse, thumbs down, so to speak. But something inside changed. Whether it's just age or maturity, it became clear that this type of artistic control seemed to mirror fears in other aspects of life, both personal and professional. The younger, controlling side of the brain says ‘Don’t do it, Devin! Change is bad’ While the older, more mature side says, ‘Give it a shot, Devin! You’ll be in an old folks’ home before you can say Transdermal Celebration, so what's there to lose?’ For Townsend fans the world over, he responded to the rational part, by giving up, more or less, a significant portion of his old process for the DTP album, it ultimately became clear that this was the next step all along. It seems perhaps overly dramatic, but once the decision to share how DTP worked with others, it became clear that not only was it an obvious move, but his skill set was utilized more efficiently as a result. From this sort of 'leap of faith' he ended up with not only a phenomenal album in Transcendence, but also a view into work past this project and how to move forwards with others.
“The Devin Townsend Project is still essentially a solo project,” he reminds. “One of several, but the difference is that I've had a dedicated team of talented folks here that really had great ideas. of the ways I consciously stepped out of my comfort zone was to the solicit feedback from not only the band, but also to production and engineering. Opinions from people I trust at the management and label, and all with a sense of building a kind of archetype of the DTP sound that would not ostracize people who enjoy the style, but keeping it fresh for me as well. One of the things I did was present my vision - which I’ve always done - and within that framework, I’d massage it with the team. For this record, in those sections, I’d bring it to the band and say, ‘Look guys, here’s what it’s supposed to do. This is how it’s supposed to make me feel. And how the audience is supposed to feel. This is how it interacts with the parts prior and after. That’s why it exists. It’s not complicated because we’re trying to jerk off here. It’s complicated because, in my mind, the emotional component of the section is complicated. But in lieu of how quickly I tend to purge music I’m thinking: how can we make it cooler while I can still move quickly? 'Here’s the basic chord structure guys, this is what I think it should basically do, be it angular or in thirds or whatnot... Dave [Young; guitars] and Mike [St-Jean; keyboards] Ryan (VanPoederooyen: drums) and Brian (Waddell: bass), can you think of something cooler there? I’ll be back tomorrow.’”
Transcendence, however, almost never happened. Content with other things - like Casualties of Cool, his upcoming symphony and being a family man - the next phase of The Devin Townsend Project (or lovingly shortened to DTP) had nearly run its course. As with Strapping Young Lad and The Devin Townsend Band, when ‘The End’ is written in neon purple and is blinking in fast, nauseating patterns, Townsend will pick up sticks and walk away. Townsend was on the precipice of convincing himself to fold The Devin Townsend Project, actually. But something stopped him from putting the band on permanent ice. The main brain of Synchestra, Epicloud, and Ziltoid the Omniscient had finally realized he wanted to share, within limits of the vision that dictates it, with the others involved. Not only would it provide fuel for the tanks, but the guys in his band were brilliant.
“It took a year to try and figure out a template for what DTP should be and still be of interest to me,” remembers Townsend, “And as much as I’ve been a control freak for so long, I’m also at an age where I recognize those elements - like friends - in my life are ultimately more important than music, and the need to control something like the DTP at this point is more rooted in insecurity now that necessity. I do enjoy being part of a team. I like to think after so many records with these guys that I don't really have to be at the center of everything. I can trust a team of people - the right people - to help where I need help. I need an engineer who has better ears than me. My ears are getting tired after all these years. If you put together a team whose strengths are better than yours, and then you put in your strengths, then what comes out of it, for no other reason than for an experiment, is really cool. And in line with my need for a project to have a theme to draw me into it, that’s what this records theme became. It’s an experiment put to music. If anything really kick started the inspiration for the record, it was that. The desire to get the DTP 'right' for what it is.”
Recorded at The Armoury Studios in Vancouver, Canada with Townsend and Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood (Periphery, Animals as Leaders), Transcendence sounds absolutely massive. From the moment ‘Truth’—a re-work from the Infinity album—monstrously blends into the soul-stirring ‘Stormbending’ to the undulating cool of mid-point jam ‘Secret Sciences’ and Ween cover ‘Transdermal Celebration’, Townsend and crew have engineered a modern-day classic. The sheer scale of tracks like ‘Failure’, ‘Higher’, and the majestic title track is at once daunting and inviting. Transcendence pulls the listener in like a movie score. It has the emotional heft of Rosenman’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and the mega-riff power of Black-era Metallica.
“The sessions were pretty nice,” Townsend says. “I could leave the guys, knowing they weren’t going to phone it in. They absolutely nailed it. I didn’t have to be there other than to clarify things if needed. I could focus on what I needed to in my world and once the band tracks were done, I found myself with the most comprehensive framework for me to then 'do my thing to' that I've ever had. It’s also so well-massaged into being that there was no turd polishing needed in the studio. That, for me, was really nice. Also Nolly was involved. His ears are not only arguably more tuned in than mine, but also 15 years younger. His connection to mid-range and high frequencies was…I didn’t have to think about it. I’d say, ‘Hey, the kick needs to be punchier.’ They’d come back punchier. Not punchy with some weird mid spike, something I would’ve done because I didn’t understand what was fundamentally causing it, but simply 'right'. In that sense, it was a very smooth recording. I did turn into a total mental case about four weeks in however, (as is tradition) but I like to think I didn't impose that on anyone this time.”
Even if Transcendence had its 'bikini wax' moments - (Townsend metaphorically refers to his process as 'professionally hitting myself in the face with a hammer') - the final product is fantastic. In many ways, it’s typical The Devin Townsend Project, however there is now an inviting sense of depth and relative breathing room in the sound. Always professional and sonically awash in darks, lights, and colors between, it turned out not only to be an acceptable new DTP record, but arguably one of the best. What also added to the overall quality was the addition of five guest musicians - including but not limited to ex-The Gathering vocalist Anneke Van Giersbergen, vocalists Ché Aimee Dorval and Katrina Natale - and a five-person choir called Tigers In A Tank. Their contribution to Transcendence’s overall ambiance is noteworthy and necessary.
“Well, I love working with female vocalists because I’m not particularly fond of singing and I really react emotionally to female voices,” posits the frontman. “I kind of fell into singing. I could never find someone who would sing like I wanted, so I begrudgingly took the job. Anneke’s obviously worked with me for a while now. Ché was on this record because she was with me in Casualties of Cool. And Katrina sang one song on the Ghost album. Also, I wanted the three of them on this record if this was to be the last DTP record. They bring it all together. So, sticking with the same people is the same reason I’ve been married for so long. Once I find great people, I have no need to look elsewhere for the similar things. It’s kind of great as it eliminates option paralysis in that area, though as different needs arise, often things evolve as well. As for the choir, it’s typically been inefficient. For the last record, I went to Amsterdam and it was crazy. I went to Sweden and it was cool but super-expensive. On Epicloud, I had a gospel choir, but had to over-dub a lot. For this one, I asked my buddy Eric [Severinson] to find three capable women and two men. I was able to create the choir by doing over-dubs and recording on-the-fly. It turned out great and it was very efficient.”
With over 60 songs in the bag for Transcendence, (not all, he is quick to point out, of the same quality) Townsend obviously had to pare down. The songs that made it, however, are breathtaking in their scope, beautiful in their presentation, and heavy – noticeably - enough to out-bombast the sum of The Devin Townsend Project’s previous full-lengths. Certainly, Townsend knows how he feels about the songs on Transcendence (and its accompanying second disc). Each song, from ‘Truth’ and ‘Secret Sciences’ to ‘Stars’ and ‘Offer Your Heart’, provoked a reaction from the man.
“My litmus test for whether or not a song or a record is working is really about my visceral reaction to it,” Townsend says. “If I react to it, then it’s correct, for me. That reaction could be repulsion, it could make me cry, it could irritate me, I could be loving it, it’s pretty much all the same. As long as I’m affected by the song, then I know I have something accurate.”
As for the Townsend’s loyal fans? The very fans who’ve been waiting with bated breath for Transcendence?
“If it gives me a reaction, then I hope it’ll contribute something to their world. Ultimately, I'm happy to contribute my observations to the massive sea of music. If there's anything that became clear to me throughout this all is the value of being part of something as opposed to being too concerned about 'being' the thing'