Townsend transcends further into higher metal
Prog-titan Devin Townsend has a lot to live up to. Just two years ago he released Z2, a double album which included two full-length LPs: Sky Blue, an avant-garde experiment in ambient rock, and Ziltoid: Dark Matters, a sequel to the infamous Ziltoid the Omniscient. The double album was met with well-deserved critical acclaim, with Sky Blue’s experimental beauty captivating listeners into aural bliss, and Ziltoid: Dark Matters once again showing Townsend’s unique ability to blend exceptionally composed heavy music with tongue-in-cheek humor.
Townsend’s lasting appeal in the prog world centers around his ability to constantly improve his ability as a guitarist and composer. His latest release, Transcendence, is aptly titled as it does exactly what its title implies: it continues to transcend and improve on Townsend’s previous body of work. Townsend has always been known for his use of complex instrumentation and catchy guitar riffs, which are then coupled with his wall-of-sound approach to engineering. The result is always a larger-than-life soundscape that knocks the listener backwards, yet still maintains its dynamics and deep emotional appeal.
Transcendence continues the tradition by bringing in exceptional songwriting while also playing up the synth and symphonic elements of the music. The result is an orchestral and operatic musical experience that’s captivating and enchanting, something that only a composer of Townsend’s caliber can properly achieve. Townsend’s music always exists in deep layers, usually with a foundation of heavy guitars, drums, and bass, and then from there layering on synths and vocal choirs. There’s far heavier use of orchestral instruments on Transcendence than in previous records, which gives it a bigger and more captivating sound. It shoots for grandiosity and achieves it without becoming pompous.
Of course, there’s reason that fans affectionately refer to Townsend as “Hevy Devy.” Transcendence is beautiful and majestic, but that doesn’t mean it lacks in heaviness. Townsend still incorporates beefy guitar riffs into the foundation of his music, so there’s never a shortage of headbangable goodness on the record. “Failure” sets a shining example with a sludgy syncopated guitar riff that’s beefy and brutal, yet still fits in well with Townsend’s many progressive musical elements. This chunky riff along with heavy use of the brass and strings lays down a heavy foundation that fits in well with Townsend’s ballad-like vocal melodies. “Secret Sciences” also achieves a solid groovy heaviness, and it does so along with heavy use of synths that give it an intense arena-rock feel. “Higher” is probably one of the best displays of Townsend’s brutal riffage juxtaposed alongside his eclectic musical diversity. It contains all of his best progressive elements, but drives it all with some crushing Strapping-Young-Lad-esque riffs that definitely aren’t for the timid.
Transcendence also works best due to Townsend’s use of lush and vibrant harmony. His sound only gets bigger when he’s taking full advantage of the instrumentation at his disposal, and his incorporation of bigger chords and complex harmonies truly elevates the music to a higher level of art. Songs like “Stars” and “Transcendence” are operatic masterpieces which feel almost cosmic in their theatricality. “Offer Your Light” uses complex harmony to blend dance-like synths with driving metal riffs, which is probably one of the only instances in modern metal where this type of combination has ever worked in a way that that isn’t completely tacky.
The record closes out with a cover of alt-rock band Ween’s “Transdermal Celebration.” Townsend takes the original psychedelic rock ballad and adds his own flair to bring it up to his own higher level of dramatics. It does all the things a good cover should do. Instead of rehashing the old song, it adds in its own style and flavor to create something new and original in its own right.
Townsend probably gets most of his credit as a guitarist and composer, but it should be noted just how excellent of a vocalist he is. His well-crafted vocal melodies alongside his impeccable phrasing are enough to bring wondrous beauty to his work, even without the heavy synths and orchestral instruments. He can move effortlessly between ballad-like lullabies and Wagernerian theatricality, and his guttural screeching on “Higher” would put a lot of metal vocalists to shame.
Transcendence is another musical triumph for Townsend, and should be impressive to music lovers of all genres. Townsend is one of the artists continuing to push the metal genre forward, and the scene owes a lot to his innovation. This is another great addition to his body of work, and may also be one of the best records of 2016.