Sound — 9
Arguably one of the most consistently top-notch quality artists on the prog-metal scene, Devin Townsend has been giving his fans a pretty wild ride as of late. Since his transition into sobriety, his musical output has been incredibly diverse, and consistently incredible, from the low-key "Ki" to the incredibly heavy and technical "Deconstruction." He's ventured into more mainstream song structures with "Addicted," "Dark Matters" and "Epicloud," continued the Ziltoid saga on "Z2," and even thrown some complete genre curveballs with the ambient "Ghost" and rockabilly and country influenced Casualties Of Cool project.
But on this new album, "Transcendence," Devin Townsend returns to a more familiar style. One that will be known to fans that loved such albums of his as "Accelerated Evolution," "Terria," "Infinity," and "Synchestra." And aptly enough, he's elected to open the album with "Truth," a re-recording of the epic opener from the "Infinity" album. Like "Kingdom" from "Epicloud," it's a fairly faithful re-recording, though modernized in its production and approach, and the ending vocal melodies are far more prominent. Opening the album with a remake of one of his "classic" opening tracks comes off as a pretty big statement to make, but in the context of this album being sort of a "return to form" (not that any of his recent albums have been lacking, though), it works brilliantly. The rest of the tracks continue in this same form, harking back to some of his earlier material, complete with chugging open-C tuning riffs, ambient keyboards (courtesy of long-time collaborator Dave Young and Mike St. Jean), Devy's trademark epic vocal harmonies, but still featuring some of his more recent collaborators like Anneke van Giersbergen and Ché Aimee Dorval handling all of the female vocal parts. Some of the trademarks of this album that also hark back to his older, pre-DTP styles include the use of lengthy extended guitar solos (check out the particularly good one in "Failure"), which will immediately bring back memories of his "Terria" record. The sort of "Terria"-ish mid-tempo style is where most of this record resides, and this style is certainly evident on tracks like "Secret Sciences," which instantly evokes the "Terria" track "Deep Peace" with its gentle strumming, before launching into a really cool tritone riff.
Acoustic guitars get the center of attention on a few tracks like "Higher," and one can even hear them creep into other tracks like "Truth" as well. "Offer Your Light" is perhaps the fastest track on the album, sounding huge with its persistent synth loop and highly energetic straight-eighths tempo. It also has the distinction of being the album's shortest track at just shy of four minutes (the average on this album seems to be 6 and 8 minutes). "From the Heart" features a really beautiful ending jam that closes out the album's original material. The album's actual closing track is a cover of Ween's "Transdermal Celebration," and it's actually fairly faithful to the original, and absolutely gorgeous. It's rare that I'd consider a cover song to be one of the strongest songs on an album, but this song is truly beautiful, and Devy still manages to put his stamp on his version, and extends the track to over 8 minutes long with a bunch of additional ambient synth sounds. It's a really cool way to go out with this album. The album also includes the track "Stars," which he wrote in a very short, livestreamed session for Toontrack, the makers of EZdrummer software.
The bonus disc also includes many demo tracks, most of which sound like finished works in and of themselves, and have such excellent titles as "Gump" and "Canucklehead." The tracks all mostly keep with the style of the record, and definitely do sound like extra tracks left off for a reason, but they're still good enough tracks to warrant a listen if you happen to get your hands on the special edition with the bonus disc. I especially enjoyed the kind of '80s-influenced "Time Overload." "Victim" is also a demo of a remake of a song from his "Physicist" album, and it's so much heavier than the original (which was recorded for a Devy solo album that featured Strapping Young Lad's lineup), though its blistering tempo and harsher sound is possibly the reason it was not included on the album proper, as it wouldn't have fit the flow. Regardless, it's an absolutely huge-sounding track! The instrumental "Monkeymind" also opens with some incredible shredding, and is worth checking out, along with the "heavy metal/rock and roll" hybrid "Canucklehead," which is hysterical!
The production is done by Adam "Nolly" Getgood of the band Periphery, and if you're expecting this album to sound just like a Periphery album as a result, you might actually find yourself disappointed, because it sounds much the same as most of Devy's work has in the past. This is definitely not a bad thing, and it can be argued that Nolly's production style probably owes a lot to Devy's, but it would seem that with this album, Devy's put himself back into the "loudness war" a bit. That said, the production's actually not bad at all, there's very little mud, and pretty much everything from Brian Waddell (bass) and Ryan van Poederooyen (drums, both continuing their long-time collaborations, and perhaps best known as being members of the short-lived Devin Townsend Band) sounds great on this record. The vocals sound as huge as ever, and there's a thick layer of reverb throughout this album. Even the bonus disc's demos sound pretty amazing. The guitar tones are as huge as they've ever been, and there are even brief moments where I wonder if Nolly's production and influence has led to a few "djent" moments (while we all have lots of bands that influence still, we all rip off Meshuggah...).
Lyrics — 9
Like a lot of Devin Townsend's work, the lyrics he offers up on this record seem to be very "stream of consciousness," lacking traditional rhyme and stanza schemes, and sometimes phrasing that's a bit disconnected and abstract. There seems to be an intense amount of emotion behind some of his lyrics on this record, and in some of them, he can get a bit dark and depressed, such as in the song "Failure": "I won't fear this/I want to blame to the world!/All these tears, all alone/No hope!," and in "Secret Sciences" as well: "Yesterday I woke afraid/Unable to discern if her fears were even tangible/Yet again I slept so poor/Familiar feelings of powerlessness coming through." It's often hard to take a literal meaning from many of Devy's lyrics, and yet the emotional nature of them does make them easy to relate to at times.
Devin's vocal talents have not diminished one bit over the years, and his performances on this record are every bit as excellent as any record he's done in the past. From his operatic clean vocals to his powerful half-shouted melodic vocals to a few well-placed totally harsh vocals, he covers all of his range as admirably as he's ever done in the past. Throughout this record, he keeps reminding us why he's one of the metal genre's most gifted talents, and if any one aspect of this album is going to appeal to a wide range of music fans, it's going to be the amazing vocal work. In the few moments Anneke van Giersbergen and Ché Aimee Dorval get, they also put on very good performances, both with unique voices in their own right.
Overall Impression — 9
After spending the past several years of his music career reinventing himself through sobriety, and putting out many albums with a predetermined "theme" to them, it's actually quite refreshing to hear Devin settle back into some kind of familiar territory and put out an album in line with the kinds of albums he had been known for releasing in the past. Those expecting Devy to trad some kind of new ground might find themselves a little disappointed here, since this album is actually a bit of a re-treading of old territory for him, but I find this suits him quite well this time around, as he's delivered an album of some incredibly excellent work, and I think this album is some of his best work in a long time. If you were a fan of his two The Devin Townsend Band albums, "Accelerated Evolution" and "Synchestra," you're going to love this album, as it's sort of a "spiritual successor" to those albums, along with his Terria album. This album is not likely to be one of the biggest "classics" in his catalogue, but it's still one of the biggest-sounding albums to come out in 2016 by any artist so far, and is definitely a likely contender for "album of the year" for me. I highly recommend checking this album out if you're even remotely into progressive metal.