2016 came and went and surprise surprise, the gift that keeps on giving released yet another album. I am of course talking about Canada’s own Strapping Young Lad, Devin Townsend (although at age 44 that might be pushing things a bit). September 9th 2016 marked the release of Townsend’s 17th solo effort, Transcendence, bringing his total discography count to an impressive 23 albums and thankfully, the metal making machine shows no signs of slowing down just yet.
His newest album Transcendence was released under the moniker of the Devin Townsend Project (or DTP for short), a concept devised in 2009 to last a total of 4 albums… with this release being the 7th, the man has a good work ethic that’s for sure!
Townsend has always been one to relish in making his music as large in scope as possible, whether it’s through the concepts he presents in his lyrics or simply the titanic production values, and Transcendence is no different, in fact this is one of the most impressive sounding albums released in the last few years. This could largely be in part to this being the first of Townsend’s album to feature an additional producer other than himself, that person being Periphery’s Adam Getgood.
Townsend’s production style on his albums is constantly evolving, adding additional layers of synth pads and reverb in the background to an extent where other artists wouldn’t dare. While this is still the case on Transcendence, certain tracks such as Failure feature them significantly dialed back in the final mix. This creates a much more breathable album with a more audible guitar and drum presence possibly showing Getgood’s more modern metal, Djent style influences, where older Townsend releases such as Sky Blue had a much more homogenized approach to the mix where the sound of each instrument would seamlessly blend in with the next to create a homogenized powerhouse of sound.
Let us begin.
Transcendence opens with a bang that’s for sure, however the explosion originates all the way back from 1998 on the album Infinity. Townsend opens his newest album with a re-recording of the fan favorite track Truth and, it’s pretty spectacular. Not only does the modern production immensely help the mixing of the band instruments, but the sound of the orchestral hits and choirs are vastly superior especially in conjunction with the slightly reduced BPM, making the song feel even grander.
Having started his professional music career as lead singer for Steve Vai in ’93, Townsend has always kept his singing presence a major part of his writing, saying he uses multi-track vocals like they’re going out of style would be an understatement. Not only does Truth feature both vocals from Devin and longtime DTP collaborator Anneke Van Giersbergen, but also from extremely talented Ché Aimee Dorval whom you may remember from Townsend’s 2014 Casualties of Cool album. This all works to the tracks advantage, mixing both the old and new together in a perfect amalgamation to open the newest chapter in Devin’s relatively short but expansive career.
One avalanche of a guitar slide later and the album swiftly transitions from the sublime harmonized line,‘I am home’, found at end of Truth into the second track Stormbending. Whilst both stand alone as separate songs they work best in conjunction with each other in order to open the album in a rousing way that merely prepares the listener for what is yet to come. Stormbending was the only song on the album to receive an accompanying music video which whist has no bearing on the quality of the music, is worth experiencing all the same. The track ends with a beautiful haze of melody and echoing fuzz left over from the guitar tracks and it is this high energy yet dream like sound design that gives Townsend albums their character.
Whilst always being a very competent rock vocalist it is only really in the last 5 years where Townsend has really allowed his softer side to show with his work with Strapping Young Lad being has most abrasive, and it is on Stormbending where he really begins to flex his vocal chops. The way in which his vocal presence morphs throughout the track is really something to behold, opening with powerful crystal clear vocal melodies and then moving into more choir oriented passages. It is then at this point where his true vocal colours begin to reveal themselves, with an impressive mixture of bellowing screams and near-operatic lines being the real stars of the show!
With the two-part opener out of the way track three, Failure, is the next major step into the album and it is here where Getgood’s production influence really begins to show, with the track feeling much more regimented and structured when compared to the fluidity and spontaneity of Truth or Stormbending. This is partially due to the Dream Theater-esque, off-kilter 6/4 guitar riff. Whilst the guitars are implied to be the main focus of the song through the opening riff it is actually the drums that deserve the praise here, in fact it must be said that the drumming is not only solid throughout the entire length of the album, it brings life and energy to every song. Even in sections that can become slightly repetitive, the drumming always seems to find a way to add some level of depth and purpose to every note played by the rest of the band.
The following song Secret Sciences is certainly what most would call a slow burner but I can assure you, the wait is well worth it. It takes almost four minutes for the main hook of the song to show any signs of rearing its head, yet this elongated opening feels very deliberate. The song opens with an acoustic guitar running through a fairly basic chord progression however swiftly transitions into a more prog affair. One run through of the verse later and what appears to be a pre-chorus is heard, building the listeners expectation for the chorus however, nope, verse two. It is then after the second run through that the tension that has been building throughout the last three and a half minutes is allowed to be released. The chorus on this song is nothing short of spectacular, while not particularly complex or meaningful on a lyrical front, there is something to be said here about the balance of the simplicity found in contrast to the complexity of the rest of the song. If I were to describe it in more modern dance music terms, and believe me when I say I take no pleasure in using them to talk about metal, this would be on par with the satisfaction of a bass drop.
It is in the next track, Higher, when the main theme of the album is brought up, transcendence (well…duh, we already knew that). Joe DiVita from Loudwire describes the track as a ‘nearly 10-minute personality clash’. Which, not being wrong in the sense that this track feels very tonally different from the rest of the album, with its more than unconventional melody, the lyrics tell a different story. They tell a story of understanding that life is not always going to be perfect however we can always strive to go ‘higher’ and transcend all the bullshit we tend to surround ourselves in, which sounds like more of a unity of a person’s motives as opposed to a clash of ideologies. At is at this point where the album reaches its heaviest from a metal standpoint. This cacophony of Devin’s trademark screams and blast beats from the drums is a welcome addition to those who have been fans of his since his earlier far more aggressive music, however this, what could be described as one of the most beautiful sounding car crashes ever to be put through my hi-fi unit respectfully backs away to allow just enough time for the softer elements from the tracks opening sections to bookend the song.
Next up on the track list is Stars probably the most commercially safe on the entire album, however that is not to say it is without merit, quite the opposite. One of Townsend’s talents is that he can write music that appeals to both pop and metal audiences alike and whilst other bands have attempted this attitude, only a handful have ever come close where others simply crash and burn (did somebody say Nickelback?)
Frequent reviewer Johnskibeat from The Line Of Best Fit took issue with the more pop oriented elements found within Stars, claiming that the ‘chord structures begin to feel a little anachronistic’, and yes whilst some songs tend to fall into the ‘this sounds eerily familiar’ camp, they are executed with such flare and theatricality, only the most black hearted of cynics could hold that against them. Especially as Townsend himself always states when he takes direct influence for a certain song, again with 2014s Sky Blue being the perfect example as a handful of tracks where essentially tributes to famous 80s dance pop hits.
And here we are, the title track of the album, Transcendence. The song wastes no time and for better or for worse dives straight in, having all cylinders burning on full, with a baritone choir backed with a full horn section and the DTP band themselves, and it is probably my least favorite on the entire album. It’s not that the song is bad per say, just other than the stellar chorus the song seems to exist only to retread certain melodic themes and clichés that we have already heard to death by this point, and my lack of enthusiasm for the dull melody possessed by the opening choir isn’t helping. I guess to bring out the silver lining to my disapproval of the song would be that the rest of the album transcends just being ‘good’ to a point where this perfectly serviceable DTP song just sticks out as being that one song you skip in the playlist.
I almost feel like whomever was responsible for the ordering of the track list knew that Transcendence would be a bit of a downer in the whole spectrum of the album, and thankfully not only is the following song better, it is quite possibly the most instantaneously addicting song ever written. Where Transcendence faltered in its predictable melancholic approach, Offer Your Light grabs you in places you hope the airport security won’t, and doesn’t let up until the very last second. Aaron Lambert from Metal Injection states that Mike St. Jean’s ‘subtle nuances add to each song’ and whilst the keyboards have always been audible on the album, it is here where they are truly allowed to shine.
Offer Your Light opens with sure to be fan-favorite rip roaring synth pop line, with the melody, so unapologetic, it almost feels like the keyboard player has been waiting for this moment all his life. It is soon accompanied by the rest of the band with their entrance announced with yet another low string guitar slide; bringing the total up to 3 for the album if you’re still counting, with only an army of 13-year-old guitarists-in-training playing Ozzy’s Crazy Train as competition with Townsend for the most overused yet still lovable metal guitar cliché.
The song itself simply soars, there is no other way to describe it. The clarity of Anneke’s vocals in the verses mixed with the raspiness of Townsend’s in the chorus makes this quite possibly the best on the album or at least the most likable. If you listen to only one song from Transcendence, make it this one.
It is at track eight, From the Heart, where the album begins to start wrapping up, however as this is a DTP production that doesn’t mean that they are going soft on us. From the Heart continues in a similar inspirational/ positive vain that Stormbending belongs to. Except with a far more chilled approach with the song transforming into a reverb-soaked guitar based atmospheric track. Which perfectly segues into the last song on the album, Transdermal Celebration.
It is unusual to have a cover song featured within an album and have it fit so oddly well but Ween’s Transdermal Celebration feels right at home here alongside the other nine songs, with the soft acoustic guitar based riff being a refreshing change of pace and with Townsends over the top production style greatly advantaging the newer version over the old.
Metal Insider’s D. Zachary Fehl, stated in the conclusion of his review of the album that he ‘found himself gravitating to the center tracks, and away from the edges’. At first glance the average listener (including myself) may not aline themselves with Fehl’s experience, however it is important to note that this album, much like Townsend’s career, houses a large variation of material and not all of it is going to appeal to every demographic in the same way. People will likely expect different things from this album, some will go in with the mindset that there will be far more catchy hook-based songs as opposed to the sometimes overly long prog-rock experimentation that occurs, however for those who have been listening to the DTP albums for a while they will find that this album perfectly encapsulates the best elements of the best songs from all 6 previous releases however whilst at the same time bringing something new.
Prog Report contributor Joe Wright noted that this was likely due to Townsend ‘relinquishing control over parts of the creative process’ and it really does show. Where in interviews Devin has stated he is not one for guitar solos in every song whether the song would benefit from one or not, however he could have fooled me as not only does Transcendence have a solo on nearly every track, but thankfully they all work to their respective songs advantages, possibly showing his bands more traditional rock influences.
Will this album stand up alongside the quality of the rest of Devin’s body of work, only time will tell however as you can probably already guess from reading that, it is almost a certainty.
9.5/10 – Damn near perfect!!