Devin Townsend is a mainstay in metal circles, with an almost three-decade long career spanning industrial, speed metal, rock, ambient and even novelty projects. Empath, his 25th album and the 13th under his own name, sees him solidify the presence he has built up in the progressive metal genre over his last few projects.
Epic is often an understatement for an artist who rarely does things in halves, but Empath isn’t shy in its operatic sensibilities. Choirs, grand arrangements, genre-hopping and ten minute long tracks are central to the experience. But, rather than honing his sensibilities, it seems on Empath, Townsend is going for all of them at once.
Double-track openers “Castaway” and “Genesis” see a choir of women juxtaposed against Townsend’s tenor, with a synth-driven beat driving from funk to pop to speed metal across eight minutes, and with the curious addition of cat meows and cow noise interludes. “Spirits Will Collide” and “Evermore” take it down a notch, with an old school power ballad followed by a more catchy pop metal number. However, both are weighed down by their own grand arrangements. “Hear Me” is reminiscent of the previous work on his Physicist record (albeit with the aforementioned choir), but by the time the broadway-metal opera of “Why?” comes on, you’re forced to ask yourself the same question.
“Borderlands” begins with a rooster crowing before a reggae beat kicks in. It then heads to schitzo speed-metal territory before a calypso interlude across eleven minutes. “Requiem” isn’t even an ironic title, presenting exactly that. However, closing track “Singularity”, takes the cake with literally every idea already on the album crammed into the twenty three minute long track.
There’s no doubting Townsend’s unique genius and the lens through which he sees the world; his musical and vocal ability are enviable in any genre. He has stated that this album is a culmination of all his musical styles in one place. Where previously he placed his muses into contained projects culminating in some undeniable classics in the genre, his later work seems to attempt to make sense of every concept the composer has all at once. Empath, then, is a cumbersome listen, with grand arrangements, genre-hopping epics and just some plain odd moments, even for a guy who made three albums about a coffee-drinking puppet alien.
Townsend is a brave and uncompromising artist, making the work he wants against a sea of immediate gratification, all while challenging himself in the process. However, rather than engulfing the listener, Empath seems to engage its audience in observation. We are watching a master at work, tinkering with his ideas and attempting to make sense of them, instead of truly being part of the experience.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Devin Townsend’s Empath is available now.