I would be the first to admit that Devin Townsend’s music hasn’t always jived with me. I honestly think that is one of his strengths, though, as he makes outlandish and highly creative music without giving two shits whether or not his fans will like it. He is who he is, and I respect that. His new album, “Empath”, which releases on the 29th of March through Inside Out Music, has unequivocally won my mind over to his creative genius. This album is a masterpiece.
Devin really needs no introduction. He’s been a mainstay in progressive music since the 90s. He himself writes everything, and he plays guitar, keyboards, and synths while also providing lead vocals. He always brings a massive crew with him, too, though. On “Empath”, he is joined by: Morgan Ågren, Anup Sastry, and Samus Paulicelli on drums; Nathan Navarro on bass; Steve Vai and Ryan Dhale on guitars; and Elliot Desgagnés, Chad Kroeger, Anneke Van Giersbergen, Ché Aimee Dorval, and the Elektra Women’s Choir on vocals. Considering that list, what kind of balls does Devin have?
“Empath” is a difficult album to describe. The primary reason for this is because of the pure grandeur and scale of the project. It is an immense work of art, offering a little bit of everything. Yet, it is also cohesive and makes total sense. How did Devin bring that together? I think this is an album that only he could have made, but it gives you the same feelings as when you finish a gigantic score from someone like Hans Zimmer. It is that vast and colorful.
Devin’s music has always been a bit all over the place. From extreme metal to theatre to post metal to progressive rock to world music to carnival stylings to cinematic ventures, Devin’s composition skills are far-reaching and quite impressive. On “Empath”, you will hear all of that, but also this fantastic combination of island music with cinematic, monolithic themes. This album is simultaneously an underwater adventure and a journey to distant galaxies. It is intergalactic and also quite Earthy. This album is an epic of human and universal proportions, pure and simple. On top of that, there is this urgent intensity, especially in the vocals, that is utterly gripping.
Let’s talk about those vocals for a second. Most of the songs feature group vocals or choirs, mixing female tones with Devin’s lead, but also with the slight accent of harsh vox. The vocals come across as blackened, but bright; urgent, but celebratory. At times you may think that the group has gone off course, but it becomes part of the plan to come right back around to some grand melodic juncture. Honestly, group vocals can often be the worst part of an album, but on “Empath” they are one of the highlights.
The lyrics here are both simple and complex. On one hand, Devin has joked about his concept of an intergalactic kitty exploring space and time. On the other hand, the lyrics seem to aim at offering a glimpse at the unity that could be ours as a human race. For all the strange moments and lyrical oddities present here, the album is a beacon of light, love, and human connection. It wants us to ask questions, search for answers, and actually put some effort into this life.
When it comes to the individual songs on this record, there is much to discuss, so I have to pick and choose which ones to cover, though I’ll probably end up talking about almost all of them. The album only has 10 tracks, but spans about 75 minutes. Some of the songs, such as “Castaway” or “Why”, are gentle, cinematic, and wondrous. Other songs, such as “Genesis” or “Hear Me”, are bombastic, heavy, and grinding with loads of crazy time signatures. Despite that contrast, they all feel like they belong together.
There are several highlights. “Genesis” is a huge and playful song that spans the universe with grand melodies, kitten meows, and lots of blast beats. I love it. “Spirits Will Collide” is one of my favorite songs of the year. It is more of a ballad, but still retains the intensity of the rest of the album. The vocals specifically convey that intensity here, and the melodies are supremely memorable. I can’t stop listening to it. “Sprite” is a theatrical ballad that feels partially electronic but also fully organic. The melodies drift by with illustrious quality, but there are moments of blackness to punctuate it, too. I love the electronic interlude in the second half.
“Hear Me” is a brilliant mish mash of probably the heaviest riffs on the album with sincere and melodic vocal moments. “Why” is pure theatre, to be honest. If you don’t like musicals, I feel sorry for you. This song has some of the most profound and sincere vocal melodies on the album. “Requiem” is a beautiful cinematic track that feels like both Interstellar and Lord of the Rings at the same time. I’m a sucker for film scores, and this is right up my alley.
There are two tracks that seem like centerpieces to this album: “Borderlands” and “Singularity”. Clocking in at just over eleven minutes in length, “Borderlands” is casually heavy with some gentle yet meaty riffs, but has two choruses, one playful and one addictive. There is a lengthy ambient interlude in the middle that sounds amazing to my ears. This is almost my favorite on the album.
Now, “Singularity” is a monster. It is 24 minutes in length, and it basically revisits all of the genres and tones on the album. It feels vast and uncharted, yet welcoming and hopeful. I won’t get into describing the entire song, but let me say that the last few minutes are absolutely stunning. The lyrics, melodies, riffing, tone—everything—are absolutely right where they should be. It’s a colossal ending to an album for the ages.
Devin has created a masterpiece with “Empath”. It has everything you want and everything you never knew you wanted. It has epic, interstellar moments, but also kitten noises and heavy riffing. It has island tranquility, but also intensely chaotic portions. This album feels like the beginning of an epoch, and I think it’s time to say “bon voyage” and take this wonderful journey. Everyone needs to hear this.
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