‘Empath’ album review: the way to reach communion with nature and universe as intended by Devin Townsend

Devin Townsend is the name that appears in a conversation among metalheads to change different opinions in a common one, a sort of rabbit from the wizard’s hat that calms the discussion. He is defined by the metal community like the man who looks at the genre at puts everything possible inside it, no matter how discordant or unrelated the ingredients could be. He always finds a way to make it sound coherent.

Seems he made it again. His latest fatigue is called “Empath”, it has been released on March 29 via his own label HevyDevy Records.

Empath had a lot of anticipation stuff and a documentary series in which Devin himself describes the long process that led to the final results. Written and recorded in eighteen months, a lot of names figure out in the participation list: three drummers (Anup Sastry, Samus Paulicelli and Morgan Agren), the usual female singer Anneke VanGiersbergen that appeared in almost all the previous works, Chad Kroeger, Mike Keneally, bassist Nathan Navarro, Steve Vai soloing in the last track, the Elektra Women’s choir, Adam “Nolly” Getgood as additional engineer and producer, and some additional vocalists here and there. Substantially a big rock and metal family for the nerds out there.

Now let’s deal with the album. He describes Empath as the natural prosecution of his career as a musician and as an individual. The different thing happening this time is that while every other album represents a phase of life, this one is a summa, the romantic poet Wordsworth would say a “recollection in tranquility”, the author looking back at the lived experiences and recollecting them in a second moment to get poetry from those. In this case, not only poetry but also music.

A screen of the documentary series

Describing the general music of the album, many would say that is prog as the previous “Deconstruction” (2011, Hevydevy/InsideOut). This statement isn’t totally correct. It’s true that the label ‘progressive metal’ has been applied to DT’s music so often, but it’s also true that more than progressive metal the Hevydevy’s world is more like ‘whatever genre’ shaken through the lens of metal. Coming back to Empath, this concept is perfectly applicable because every song and every section of it recalls one of the various styles played by Devin, so this album is a monumental skyscraper of sound, with every window open to a different genre or style, making the multi-color structure of the ‘building’ so dense that it’s impossible to identify the entire thing with a single label.

I’ll try to describe Empath avoiding to be too much prolix when possible.

Castaway introduces the matter to the listener with a clean guitar echoing on a shore, followed by a short Hawaiian passage before the choir comes with whispering words of light and dark, joy and pain, like necessary elements of life. The growing volume of a straight beat leads to Genesis, a song that we could call ‘prog’ just for the hundred changes of atmosphere. Rock, prog, lo-fi, pixel-game music, country, black-metal blast beat, orchestral scoring, shred, orchestral, disco, ‘Mr. Bungle-like’ electronic noise: they are just some of the tools used in this song to say that you need to surrender to the light of life without abandoning your true self; the divine can be imagined and almost touched but you still have to got to get on your feet again. As told by Mr. DT, Genesis is the most maze-like song because it represents the ticket to the whole thing. The official video clip well testifies which density of quotes is in it.

Screen taken from the video clip of ‘Evermore’. DT must have discovered a fetish for cats

Spirits Will Collide is the motivational song, the one with the classic structure verse-chorus. Epic in the arrangements, gospel-natured by the warmness of the choir constantly adding vocal layers to the main voice, the song incites to remember that the death of the single person isn’t the end, that until you remember, the spirits will collide together to keep the flame of life burning. As the third single from the record, it shows Devin standing in front of a big audience, singing the song for it and with it.

Evermore is still simple in structure but has an interesting long bridge between the first and the last section that builds up the tension until the final chorus. A strong overdrive guitar section triggers an opera-like bridge. The research of our true self passes through a constant struggle, always searching. This struggle is well drawn in the build-up special, playing with the main themes in various ways (‘I will return always’). Just to be taken more seriously, the official video shows the travel of a cartoony astro-cat. Very cool!

Sprite is the first song that plays with its structure in simple but creative ways. After the tale of the brave bird in the intro, a cascade of notes always scales throughout the piece, guitars at first and then synths as the music continues. There is no moment of strong relief, there are no chords showing easy resolutions, only a constant motion as Devin sings that there’s always hope for the broken-hearted since slow progress is still progress. The song moves forward until the final noise-and-percussion finale.

Hear Me is the metal hammer of the album. The song that a band like Strapping Young Lad (the actual band in which DT was into) could have written, that kind of extreme metal that gives space to the madness inside dealing with it like the most normal thing. Crazy blast beats and double kicks, fast tempo changes, extreme speediness all built in over an epic harmony. Hear Me is a desperate calling from the far away space, a reminder of the old Ziltoid The Omniscient (HevyDevy, 2007) and Deconstruction (HevyDevy, InsideOut, 2011).

DT listening to his own song in the video clip of ‘Genesis’. He seems pretty satisfied

Why? rips a smile upon the listener’s face. The Broadway musical-like style of the piece sounds pretty ironic respect to the metal madness of Hear Me and the Disney-ish style of the composition, with singing birds, violins, choirs, xylophones, and bells, makes it the perfect break in the middle of the record because elements like distortion and power-chords aren’t involved, a well-crafted game of voicings the absolute protagonist.

The rooster at the beginning of Borderlands almost made me think about Skibidi by Little Big. But let’s keep serious. Devin talks about a woman like a symbol of light, a lighthouse far in the distance to guide us without shame to be guided. Personal opinion: the woman is the personification of the empathy who links all of us. A sort of happy prog metal song slowly leads to an atmospheric bridge in which we are reminded of the tragic in life…but also the magic.

This magic un unveiled by the choir at the beginning of Requiem. An alien world shows itself to us with majestic harmony, so cinematic and ethereal.

This untouchable reign slowly unveils a chill guitar in the first part of Singularity, the last track. It’s a majestic suite in six parts summarizing what happened until this moment and illustrates many possible ways to continue the path, the path in search of communion between all the creatures: what is a singularity if not something so strong to attract everything in its proximity, like a warm embrace…or a frightening black hole? This long piece of prog describes what has been alluded in Genesis both lyrically and thematically: light, dark, humans, monsters, they all cohabit the same universe, denying just a single element is like destroying the ring in the middle of the chain. Useless to say that Devin heavily uses quotes from other songs or albums, like a fil rouge that reconnects to a deeper meaning, as useless is trying to summarize what happens in this song, it would take too much space. We’re talking about more than twenty-three minutes of music, it could be an EP by itself. Discovery is up to you.

Minimal album cover

I want to point out some little details before putting an end. The album cover is the first one by DV that presents absence of whatever image: just a rainbow ‘Empath’ title on a white background. It’s like Devin has found a synthesis of all his “path to the empathy”: all the previous albums were phases, everyone characterized by specific imagery, this one came to some maturity-fed conclusions and doesn’t need other elements.

Enjoy this extreme sonic path and don’t get lost in it! …or maybe you want this to happen?

Written for you by Music Pills



About Devin Townsend and ‘Empath’:





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