A Feast for the Eyes and Ears (Leave the Cerebral Cortex Alone)
The talents of Devin Townsend, singer/guitarist/composer/songwriter, can never be questioned. Should they be, his latest creation, The Retinial Circus, will put any doubts to rest. Twenty-five songs, 130 minutes of music, spanning ten albums of material, are featured on this live CD/DVD combo. This is more than a concert, though. The Retinal Circus is an experience. The audience at the Roundhouse in London was party to a show of epic proportions, featuring fireworks, dancers, puppets, acrobatics and the one of the biggest, loudest rock spectacles ever to be presented. They all went home satisfied that night. Their senses were throttled with full force. Their minds, however, may not have been quite so engaged, but as the title implies, that was not a requirement.
The show opens with a four-minute introduction by Steve Vai, pre-recorded and shown on huge screens above the stage. He narrates the story of Harold, a young man into whose dreams we are about to travel, a “splendiferous fantastic voyage.” He explains, with help from choppily animated sequences, that Harold is the end result of human evolution and a consequence of being human is the persistent alternation between consciousness and dreams. Finally, a chorus of twenty-somethings comes out and performs the opening numbers from last year’s masterpiece, Epicloud, “Effervescence,” followed by “True North,” featuring Anneke van Giersbergen on vocals, and we are off.
Harold is on a riser above the stage, the main character of the story. Van Giersbergen is on a separate riser next to him, assuming an angelic Mother Nature role. Vai is the omniscient narrator. When Townsend arrives on the center of the main stage, decked in a white tuxedo and top hat, his part in The Retinal Circus is unclear. Therein lies the issue with the show. It’s obvious that Townsend’s vision was grand– Operation Mindcrime-level aspirations. But the execution falls short, as though Townsend lost interest in his own haughty objective. And while he attempts to excuse it with silly self-deprecation and over-explained interstitial segues, you’re left to wonder why he attempted to turn these songs into a story at all.
The chorus, occasionally joined by dancers, along with Van Giersbergen, attempt to sway along with the music. It’s clear they were given no direction. In “Lucky Animals,” women dressed as a variety of felines slither around the stage. This could have been enticing, but it wound up feeling like a cheap strip show. While choreography may seem very un-metal, the lack of it in this case was distracting. In “Planet of the Apes,” the seductresses are replaced by “apes” and the plot starts to take shape. The songs move the story logically from apes to humans with free will (“Truth”), to the end result of free will (“War”), a poignant statement on religion.
From there, Townsend’s extraterrestrial alter ego, Ziltoid, pays a visit, and the plot disintegrates into a silly mess of lowbrow humor and a giant reproduction of an alien’s vagina. As baby Ziltoid emerges from said cavity during “Babysong,” you realize that it’s better to appreciate the music. Despite the flaws of the concept, the Devin Townsend Project performs immaculately and powerfully. These tracks show his range and highlight his very best work.
For Act II, he wisely eschews the plot and connects the songs in the best musical order rather than any narrative order. Two acoustic numbers, “Hyperdrive” and “Ih-Ah,” open the set, followed by the gorgeous “Where We Belong.” We watch Harold fall in love during an Adam & Eve scene and get married. Vai continues to narrate, but Townsend interjects as though realizing that what he originally planned was either incomplete or ineffective. Once Harold is finally happy, a pre-recorded Townsend reminds us that the poor schlimazel is just dreaming and argues with the live Townsend. This ends when Townsend launches into “Love,” a Strapping Young Lad song.
The show ends with “Grace” and everything is left out on the stage: acrobatics, crab-walkers, sparks and confetti all thrown into this final, bigger-than-big moment. The Retinal Circus is over, but there is a curtain call to be had that is truly lovely. The stage, still covered in paper and other debris, transforms into a living room. One by one, the band enters the room, joined by Harold and a plain-clothed Van Giersbergen and eventually Townsend. They gather a small party together and play the singalong-y “Little Pig,” an extra track on the deluxe edition of Epicloud. But as credit to the fans, they knew the song, as they knew all of the songs. And in the end, the collection is grand and everyone went home happy– not enriched, but not disappointed, either.