Fuck. Where to start? This one's off the scale. What scale? All sorts of scales, my friend. Nothing can fully prepare you for the delightfully deranged and emotionally heterogeneous listening experience and journey that 'Empath' offers up. You'd think that over twenty years of listening to Devin Townsend would be ample preparation. No. Not at all. It's a diachronic amalgam of everything the man's done... and then some. All on the same record. All within the same song, for some tracks. And all within the same bar of music, at times. His perennially fertile creativity is at its most potent on ‘Empath’. Crazy? Yep. Sublime? You bet. Energising? At times, yes it is. Emotionally nourishing? Yes again, in all kinds of ways. One of the finest albums ever recorded by anyone ever? Oh fuck, yes.
Part of what makes ‘Empath’ so special, apart from Devin’s compositional overdrive on genius and some masterful musicality from all involved, is the delivery of drastic contrasts that can be heard throughout. But hey, isn’t that just like life itself? Indeed. And this one runs the emotional gamut from pessimism to optimism, through an endless labyrinth of twists and turns that meander between challenging/accessible; exhilarating/calming; anxiety-fuelled/composed; absorbing/jarring; cacophonic/euphonic; disturbing/reassuring; unsettling/comforting; heart-warming/soul-chilling; intense/chilled… an so on. Never has there been an album in the history of music with so many contrasts and changing moods - both between and within songs. On paper, a potential mess, right? In actuality, Devin’s made it all work seamlessly.
Stylistically, it’s also all over the place… but in a very positive way. Choirs; orchestras; extreme metal; pure, blissful ambience; weird jazzy shit; films score magnificence; electronic elements; sounds from 16-bit video games; bird and animal noises; laughing kids; and other unidentifiable and unclassifiable weirdness. All very fucking marvellous, I must say. ‘Sprite’ opens as if it’s Jacka-fucking-nory… a children’s story, of sorts. And one of the heaviest and crazily cacophonic tracks Devin’s ever recorded (‘Hear Me’), is followed, jarringly, by the calming, euphoric joy of ‘Why?’, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a musical (the man’s vocals, on this one, are simply spectacular… as they are throughout the album, to be honest). And where did ‘Requiem’ come from? A short, but off-the-scale-sublime instrumental that is breathtakingly beautiful - as fine a piece of filmic music as anything composed by Howard Shore. And the closing, ambitious twenty three and a half minutes of ‘Singularity’… amazing. Ambitious, did I say? That sums up the entire album. Dev’s aimed high here, and succeeded in all kinds of magnificent ways.
The music, throughout, is dense with layers. Layers have always been Devin’s thing. Sometimes conflicting sounds within those layers, for a more subconscious, unsettling effect (‘Infinity’ was majestic for such); other times, a more euphonic fusion of orchestrated sounds to provide a richly resonant and harmonious affect ; and the times when he’s been on layer overload where it hits hard and heavy in the most emotionally exhilarating of ways, where it feels as if the cognitive, emotional and bodily experiences of consuming his music are all in glorious unity. Transcendent, if you will. Well, ‘Empath’ has been crafted with layers in all the aforementioned ways, and is one of the most emotionally transcendent listening experiences I’ve ever had. I hasten to add that I’ve been digesting the delights of ‘Empath’ through a pair of rather nice, flat-tuned headphones, so guess I’m getting as close as possible to the intended sound and mix… all very fucking flawless, I must say. So much clarity, considering the amalgam of disparate elements.
Many guests and collaborators are to be found on the album - some of the usual suspects, like Ché Aimee Dorval, Anneke Van Giersbergen, and his old buddy, the legend that is Steve Vai, but also newcomers such as Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger (and what do you do if you manage to secure a guest slot from Kroeger? Slap him on the heaviest number on the album, of course!). And the rather amazing and luscious sounds of the Elektra Women’s Choir. Oh, and three drummers - Morgan Ågren, Anup Sastry and Samus Paulicelli - to help reify the rhythmic and stylistic diversity he envisioned between each of the songs. It’s all worked a treat. With the help of a number of technicians, engineers and co-producer Mike Keneally, too.
As much as Devin's always been on a cathartic journey through his music (and offered up cathartic potential to his listening audience), he’s thrown everything into this one - his body, heart and soul... and the kitchen sink. The man’s delved deep into his psyche and emotional core to conjure up pure musical transcendence. Dev’s made some truly incredible records over the years but, with 'Empath', he's excelled even his own mightily high standards. This new one provides indubitable proof that he's one of the most deliriously entertaining, interesting, challenging and talented musicians and composers currently occupying this fucked up planet of ours. 'Empath' is the man's masterwork. If this doesn't win a ton of "best of" accolades at the end of the year, I shall eat all of my socks. Every one of them. And I have a lot of socks. This will not only be my album of the year (nothing will beat this… mark my words), but it’s one of the finest works of the twenty first century. Was he right to call time on the Devin Townsend Project, to embark on the next chapter in his musical evolution? Irrefutably so. Here’s the proof.
Review by Mark Holmes
29th March 2019
3) Spirits Will Collide
6) Hear Me
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"The man’s delved deep into his psyche and emotional core to conjure up pure musical transcendence. Dev’s made some truly incredible records over the years but, with 'Empath', he's excelled even his own mightily high standards. This new one provides indubitable proof that he's one of the most deliriously entertaining, interesting, challenging and talented musicians and composers currently occupying this fucked up planet of ours."