Artist: Devin Townsend Project
Label: Inside Out Music
Few things in the world these days get me more excited than a new release by Devin Townsend, who, in the span of about a year, went from being “that Canadian musician from SYL who doesn’t suck” to one of my top three favorite musicians of this era of my life (you know, because it changes). I had been under the impression that the symphony was going to be the next release, so when word of Transcendence came out I was both shocked and stoked. I mean, the symphony is still on it’s way, but we get another album while we wait!? HELL YES!
So what do I know about this album? Well, this was Dev’s first-ever attempt at loosening up and letting his band collaborate with him on the album. Make no mistake, he’s still the mastermind, but he let others help write and mix the album. A bold move for someone so set in his ways, but that’s something I’ve always liked about him – he’s always pushing his boundaries and trying new things. Transcendence, as such, promises to be an experience, if nothing else.
And, because a new Devin Townsend Project album is a big deal where I’m from (pick a place, I pretty much mean anywhere), I’ve brought in a more hardcore Devin Townsend expert to help me out – a fellow by the name of Mark Chumienski.
Hear the album now as you read:
“Truth” starts things off and it’s very familiar, as it is a remake from Townsend’s Infinity album from 1998. It is very much the same, only updated into that modern Epicloud/Sky Blue sound. This is at least the third time he’s updated (covered?) one of his own songs, after “OM” from Christeen (+ Four Demos) and “Kingdom” from Physicist, though admittedly, we both expected him to cover “Namaste” if he was going to redo a song, especially considering the album’s artwork and name. He’s added some ethereal vocals at the end, which is excellent, but without the lyrics on hand, neither of us could figure out what is actually being sung (alas, the setbacks of the advanced promo). Anneke van Giersbergen is back again (hell yeah!) and sings the “hallejuah” part. All-in-all, it’s a nice to start to the album.
“Stormbending” continues the sort of ambient Sky Blue sound, along with some bits and pieces from Addicted and Epicloud as well. We had a bit of a conflicting opinion on this song. I think it’s pretty decent but doesn’t stand out much, though I really dig the guitar-work towards the end. Mark, on the other hand, said it grabbed his attention on the first play-through, though couldn’t really put a finger on what exactly it was that had caught his attention.
This song starts off with a guitar riff that sounds rather ‘non-Devy,’ so to speak, though it does give me a bit of a “Save Our Now” feeling nevertheless. Likely that’s some evidence from the input of the other band members. It’s also short-lived, as it sweeps into the first verse, where Mark started to get a reminiscent feeling of “Grace” [Epicloud], and though it took me a good long while to pick up on it, I agree. There is a riff used in this song that he’s used before in one of his older songs… damned if either of us can remember which song it’s from [ed: it might be “Planet of the Apes”]. He then goes into a very rare guitar solo that has an almost Peter Frampton kind of vibe to it. This could be considered a bit of a nostalgic track, sound-wise.
04. Secret Sciences
This track starts out normal enough and again, there is a distinct Addicted sound. Conversely to “Stormbending,” “Secret Sciences” was the first song that kind of caught my attention with the, “let it go” part in the chorus, which I really enjoy; however, Mark did not share my enthusiasm for this song, as about a minute into the song, it changes gears. I don’t disagree that the song comes across a bit disjointed at times, but perhaps I’m not familiar enough with Weird Al Yankovic’s voice to see Mark’s comparison to him when Dev is singing melodically. We’ll leave it up to you to decide if you agree.
“Higher” has perhaps the most mixed sound, starting out in a way that makes you expect a mellow ballad perhaps, and then after the first chorus just goes dark. There’s a very Deconstruction vibe in this song. It’s all over the place while also being a bit repetitive. The unfortunate part is that it’s one of the longer songs on the album, clocking in at just over 9½ minutes, so while I like the beginning and the part that starts at about the 3:25 point, the repetition of “higher” in many places keeps throwing the song off for me, ultimately making it something I can’t completely enjoy. I’d go so far as to say that this song sounds like maybe three good songs, one pretty-decent song, and one crappy song got into a violent accident and fused into one song that sadly suffers from the mess.
Here, the band does a better job of mixing the mellow sounds with the fast-paced, in a vast improvement over the last track. I get a bit of the same chill high energy you get from the ending tracks off Sky Blue (“Before We Die”) and Dark Matters (“Dimension Z”). We both agreed that this was one of the few songs to grab the listener’s attention on the first play-through. Dev is singing over both himself and at least one of the female vocalists at times, though I couldn’t say which of them is in there with him. Big bonus points to the vocal blending as such. This song definitely has the coherence and listen-ability that “Higher” lacked.
Reeeeeally smooth song transition from “Stars” into this one, so much so that you might not even notice that the song has changed, which is awesome. The first couple minutes are upbeat with some almost monk-like singing, with one of the ladies (who I suspect may possibly be Katrina Natale, as I don’t recognize the sound as Ché Aimee Dorval or Anneke van Giersbergen) in the backing vocals, though van Giersbergen also backs Townsend up again in the foreground here. This was one of the album highlights for Mark, and is definitely growing on me the more I listen to it.
08. Offer Your Light
After the almost 8-bit-esque style electronic intro, this is by far the fastest song on the album. Townsend is again accompanied by van Giersbergen in this one and it works very, very well. However, we both found that in spite of this, there’s nothing about this song that really stands out. Perhaps the issue with this song is exactly that it is so fast on an album that is otherwise pretty chill and progressive as a whole. Or maybe it’s because “Higher” is the low point and the album’s building back up. Or, maybe it’s just because it’s wedged between “Transcendence” and “From the Heart,” which are two slower songs? Either way, it’s a good tune, but perhaps it would be more at home on a different album.
09. From Your Heart
This seems like a very personal song from Townsend. Musically there’s nothing novel or exciting about it, but lyrically he sings about his choices, life in the band, and how this all affects his relationship with his wife, and it makes the song powerful and occasionally gives me goosebumps, even when I’m not paying full attention. It’s not a love song in the classic sense, nor an 80s-style power-ballad. This is the kind of love song you get from someone whose music is the exhaust pipe of his life experiences… an artist who uses music as a medium, rather than simply a musician. We’ve got van Giersbergen holding her awesome torch again, as well as Ché Aimee Dorval (at last!). If Dorval appears anywhere else on this album, we haven’t found her yet. The slow guitar outro is also really nice. I’ll go ahead and call this a rather beautiful song.
10. Transdermal Celebration (Ween cover)
The album closes up with, of all things, a cover of Ween’s “Transdermal Celebration,” which happens to be nearly 5 minutes longer than the original, so that was certainly intriguing in and of itself. And it’s cool, and epic, and kind of takes me somewhere into a progressive place in outer space. If you listen to the original, you can easily see why Townsend chose this. Ween, at least in this particular song, sounds very much like Townsend. It’s hard to put into words, but it translates well into the DTP style. It does turn out, however, that a fair bit of that extra length is the loooooong fade-out, and to my vague disappointment, there is no secret track. Overall, this song has some of the most overt energy of anything on the album, second only to “Offer Your Light,” which is a shame, though it does mean that the album ends on a high note.
Bear: So how did Townsend’s experiment with being less of a control freak pan out? Ultimately, I think it was wise for Townsend to release the album in September, because mellow, ambient music like this does not necessarily belong in summer. This album is great going into fall as things calm down and the weather starts to cool off a bit. It almost feels a bit soundtrack-y, as the vocals are frequently turned down to about the same level as the instruments, blending into them and not standing out prominently. If I’m being totally honest, I think the album is technically very good, but less interesting that other stuff Dev has done in the past… it runs almost a little closer to Casualties of Cool – which I only kind of enjoy in the right mood – than the metal side of his discography. For those of you expecting another high-energy DTP masterpiece (admittedly, I was one of them), I’m afraid that’s not what’s in store for you. There is no “Bad Devil” or “March of the Poozers” on Transcendence. It is a good album – it’s chill, relaxed, sweet, and it has its own place. Those of you who were disappointed in Sky Blue, thinking it was just released because the label wouldn’t release Dark Matters without another Epicloud might just find that Transcendence is the natural, improved progression from where Sky Blue left things off. However, if you liked Sky Blue, you might find Transcendence to have fewer stand-out songs by comparison. As well, Transcendence will not hit you in the face the same way Epicloud did, but will rather slide into your mind and settle there in the background.
Mark: What can I say about the whole album? I’ve been asking myself this for about a week. I’ve never had this hard of a time making my mind up about his albums. Far more often than not, I like the stuff he puts out. Even on his bad albums, I can find at least one song that I like – “Vampira,” “Universal Flame,” “Addicted,” and “Juular” to name a few. After several listens I started picking up on echoes of albums and songs past. If you’re a diehard you’ll hear them too. If you’re not a diehard fan… what the hell is wrong with you? My initial thought when hearing snippets/riffs from earlier work was, “Oh no. Don’t tell me he’s going to start treading familiar ground.” But then consider the album title… Transcendence. I would wager that he views this album as a culmination of everything he’s done in his career up to this point. Certainly at least the previous six albums, not counting Ziltoid or Casualties. And in that sense, the album really works. I think what he was trying to do with Sky Blue, he did here, but this time it works for me. Is this his best album? In my opinion, definitely not. If you loved Sky Blue, you might love this album. If you didn’t like Sky Blue, you’ll like a couple songs on this album on the first listen, and maybe a couple more songs on further listening. But if you’re one of the idiots that think Devin hasn’t done anything good since the days of SYL… why are you even reading this?
Final score? It’s not Townsend in his prime, but we can’t deny that there is some good work done here. We’ve agreed on an 8/10.
[09.09.2016] Ed: After considerably more time spent listening to this album, we both feel as though it has grown on us a great deal over time. I’ll personally up the score to an 8.5-9/10 at this point.
4. Secret Sciences
8. Offer Your Light
9. From the Heart
10. Transdermal Celebration (Ween cover)
Text: Bear W., Mark Chumienski | Photos: Devin Townsend Project Transcendence promotional photos, 2016