Devin Townsend – Empath Review
Where to begin with this album? Empath is a prime example of what an album should be: challenging, fun, expressive, and diverse. Devin Townsend advances upon the wonderful instrumental and vocal talents we have heard from him in the past, while letting the eccentric side of his personality shine throughout each track.
Opening with the very soothing/tropical guitar and steel drum/wind chime tones of “Castaway” over the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls chirping (do seagulls chirp?), Devin seems to be leading us into the world he has constructed with Empath. In these opening notes, you can almost envision the sun rising over the horizon of this world. While at first, this is very simple and relaxing, choir vocals lead us deeper into this creation, indicating something larger and more grandiose is coming. And, boy oh boy, does it deliver. “Genesis”, the lead single off Empath, comes next and it is an absolute monolith. This piece is one of Devin’s greatest yet, shattering the concept of typical song structures and taking the debris to construct a behemoth that transforms as we travel through it, with all of its instrumental quirks and some of Devin’s greatest vocal work. “Genesis” demands your full attention, opening with striking guitar and Devin’s imposing vocals, wasting no time getting right into the action. The chorus in particular is an absolute heater on high; one of Devin’s best, and one that will stick with you for months. When Devin screams the track title at the completion of each chorus, try your best not to get chills. While “Genesis” flawlessly executes the typical blast beats and other instrumental elements expected of a metal song, there are also sweeping string and flute sections one might find in a Disney musical, wacky vocal samples, and off-the-wall electronic bits that would fit perfectly in any arcade video game… and it all works somehow as one beautiful cohesive song. For me, this is the best song of 2019 to date and it will be very tough to beat. All of that being said, “Genesis” is a challenging song that will require multiple listens in order to fully appreciate it, as will most of the songs on Empath. This is what makes this track a perfect opener. It fully encapsulates the overall essence of Empath, preparing you for what is to come; songs that defy normal structure and transform constantly.
“Spirits Will Collide” is a weaker track on the album, though still a bop. While this song is simpler and more anthemic in nature, the melodies and vocal work take the forefront and make this track enjoyable. The choir vocals are utilized well here, almost giving the track a gospel-ish feel. The growl of Devin’s vocals is continuous throughout the track, effectively enhancing the quality of the lyrics and melodies to a point that makes it stand out among the lot of anthems similar to it.
“Evermore” follows the same vein of “Genesis”, offering a catchy chorus but changing as it goes along, diving deeper into the heavier metal aspects Devin has to offer. The opening guitar riffs catch you immediately. The choir and orchestra together help emphasize the weight of this track. The bass work in this song is unreal; bouncing over different notes at a rapid rate yet flowing smoothly with the vocal melodies. The “I am I / I will return” vocal pieces are both assertive and uplifting. This track is one best listened to in an industrial freezer because it is a heater.
“Hear Me” is any metal fan’s dream; the blast beats and instrumentals creating a feeling of madness, and taking you for a ride. This is Empath’s heaviest moment. The speed drumming here is unbelievable. Devin’s scream vocals stand at the forefront and, when combined with the backing vocals of Chad Kroeger in the chorus, convey an exhilarating feeling. “Hear Me” leads you through the darkest and heaviest areas of the world Empath exists in, but each one is thoroughly enjoyable. The guitar shreds everything in its path, while the drums offer the constant driving force, propelling you forward. Keep your doctor on standby because this track slaps hard. Oddly enough, this track transitions into Empath’s wackiest moment; “Why?”
“Why?” has all the makings of a broadway musical number; captivating string instrumentals, unconventional percussion, choral backing vocals, some atmospheric bird chirping, and rich lead vocal melodies. While the lyrics leave something to be desired here, the smoothness and range of Devin’s vocals are stunning. The song begins steady and calm, then progresses to a climax of epic grandeur both instrumentally and vocally, as Devin hits and holds some incredible notes. “Why?” is arguably the one song on Empath with the most instant appeal to anyone not familiar with Devin’s work. There are occasional “metal aspects” throughout “Why?”; for example, an unconventional deep growl early in the track, and a perfectly executed scream transitioning into the monumental final chorus. “Why?” is another piece of evidence that Empath will not be defined by one distinct genre. While metal stands at the forefront throughout this album, the fact that a song like “Why?” exists on Empath, conveys the charm in Devin’s oddball side.
“Borderlands” is the most bizzare piece on Empath, with quirky sounds and samples sprinkled here and there over another multi-part song; transitioning from hard driving chorus and verse parts to a soothing atmospheric section and back again.
“Singularity” concludes the album in a six-part, 23-minute assemblage of heavy bits and pieces. The two key parts of “Singularity” that pack the biggest punch are “There Be Monsters” and “Here Comes the Sun!”. “Singularity” serves as a good summary of everything we have observed in the previous tracks. This track, much like all of Empath, will require multiple listens to fully grasp and appreciate everything in it. You are most likely going to remember certain parts in “Singularity”, or in Empath as a whole, rather than entire songs.
Empath is a challenging album that does not stay constant in certain areas for very long before shifting again and again. However, each shift brings something that can be deeply appreciated. Devin Townsend fully masters the art of grabbing and holding his audience’s attention in this album. Empath requires multiple listens, and this is not a bad thing in the slightest. Even though I have gone through this album at least 20 times in full, I am still finding new things here and there that I did not fully enjoy in the previous listens. My opinions on certain entire songs in Empath have changed after multiple listens as well. This is for sure going to be one of my top albums for 2019, and it is one of my favorite things Devin Townsend has ever done.
Best Tracks: Genesis, Evermore, Singularity – There Be Monsters, SIngularity – Here Comes the Sun!
Weakest Tracks: Spirits Will Collide, Singularity – Curious Gods
Overall Score: A-
Buckle up and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times – you’re about to embark on a biased review!
In all seriousness, Empath is a tough album to review if you aren’t already a Devin Townsend fan. I’ve been a Devin Townsend fan for about 10 years now, and I can say this definitely shouldn’t be the first album to start with if you are new to Devin’s work (unless you happen to be really adventurous). In general, I would recommend Ocean Machine to most newcomers, or the Strapping Young Lad classic City for the metalheads in the crowd. And while I could go on and on about how great those albums are, they aren’t the focus of this review.
Empath comes at the heels of the disbandment of the Devin Townsend Project, which ran from 2009 to 2017. As a fan, I felt sad yet optimistic about this news. The first four DTP albums were fantastic, but with subsequent albums, the project’s output started to become stale (with the exception of songs like “Kingdom” and “Higher”, some of Devin’s best work). So I was very hopeful that Empath would be a triumphant return to form for Devin. But is it?
Overall, yes. Rather than focusing on a specific style (as he had done in previous projects), Devin runs through all versions of, well, Devin Townsend through the course of this album. This melding of styles works surprisingly well, and is best shown in the song “Genesis”. Not to be confused with the prog-turned-pop band of the same name, the song goes through a series of changes in tempo, key, time signature, genre… you name it. And while excessive changes become a pitfall for some modern prog metal acts, they work well for this song. Because of these well executed changes, the song does not grow old upon repeated listens. The song features one of Devin’s strongest choruses, rivaling classics such as “Life” and “Love?”. The first iteration of the chorus is flanked by an 8-bit interlude on one end and warp speed blast beats at the other. Besides the chorus, other standout moments in the song include the choral interlude (via the Elektra Women’s Choir) around the 3:55 mark, and the Casualties of Cool nod at 4:34 that pops up in the middle of a section that can only be described as prog metal disco.
The song “Evermore”, another highlight of the album, feels like a cross between Ocean Machine and Infinity, but with modern day production. As with several other tracks on this album, the bass playing here (courtesy of Youtuber Nathan Navarro) is phenomenal. Not to disparage the bass work on other Devin albums, but the instrument is rarely in the forefront of his work (with the exception of the album Synchestra, and a few other select moments). Within its unconventional structure, Devin decided to give the song not one, but two separate refrains to really sink your teeth in to.
After “Evermore”, the next three songs best capture the album’s theme of varying emotions. Unlike “Evermore” and “Genesis”, these songs tend to each stick to one theme musically, but the songs couldn’t be farther apart sonically. “Sprite”, an uplifting song about sadness, is followed by the extreme metal barn burner “Hear Me”, an ode to despair. The song features both insane blast beats (from Youtuber 66Samus) and a triumphant chorus backed by the twang of Chad Kroeger (yes, the Nickelback guy). And how could you follow up this madness? Why with the Disney-esque musical number “Why?” of course! This song serves as a reminder that Devin is an incredible vocalist, and could give anyone on Broadway a run for their money.
Although I have constructed the wall of praise above, this album has two main downfalls. The first is the song “Spirits Will Collide”. Despite the song’s wholesome message, it fails to stand out in an album full of artistic ambition. The song sounds like a leftover from the DTP album Sky Blue, an album which sounds like the leftovers of Epicloud. While the album’s production is very solid overall, this song in particular falls flat. Second is the lack of self-editing in certain cases. For example, the song “Borderlands” features a ton of quirky samples that distract from an otherwise great song. The track ends with an unnecessary two minutes of ambient noise, an issue I had with some songs on Devin’s previous album Transcendence. “Sprite” also exhibits this extended-ambience issue.
Maybe the album title Empath is a little cheesy, but at this point I am grasping at straws for things to complain about. On Empath, Devin shows that he is open to taking artistic risks again, and it pays off. For his final foray into risky business, he closes out the album with the 6-part, 23 minute prog/metal/ambient/jazz/industrial/pop odyssey “Singularity” as if, after 50 minutes of drastic stylistic changes, to say “you haven’t had enough, oh no my friend, we’ve only just begun!” Highlights of this epic include movements like the grandiose “I Am I”, the riff-stacked “There Be Monsters”, and the firework finale “Here Comes the Sun”. This song finishes on an optimistic note, and leaves me optimistic about what Devin has in store for the future – the second half of his career has only just begun!
Best Tracks: Genesis, Evermore, Sprite, Why?, Singularity
Weakest Tracks: Spirits Will Collide
Overall Score: A