Devin Townsend pulls all his wide-ranging musical facets together to make his most personalized album yet. Empath is the alpha and omega of modern progressive music.
Did you know that Devin Townsend is just three smaller artists standing on each other in a human suit? Yeah, I didn’t really believe it either… at first. The diversity of his work has made him hard to nail down or predict, but why confine something that’s happy and free? So, we’re left with the realization that Devin, more happy and free than ever, likes to take tons of different types of music and jam them together as both a one-up to what he feels is a conservative music industry, and because I’m sure he just likes making this type of music. Imagine that – an artist doing something they like. In order to take a deeper look at Empath – his latest, and probably greatest effort in scale – we need to take a visit to the three little Devies.
The first little Devy is Proggy Devy. This little guy is responsible for all of Devin’s over-the-top, epic production and instrumentation. Proggy Devy’s been in overdrive ever since the release of 2015’s Transcendence, a modern masterwork of prog metal. His hands are all over Empath, crafting huge, celestial setpieces for listeners to indulge in. He does have a tendency to make songs a little overlong, but that’s excusable for the most part. Just take a look at the lead single “Genesis”. The massive choral hook, the slabs of stellar atmosphere, the orchestras; it’s all here! His love for theatrics is also abundant, going as far as utilizing Broadway-esque singing and conversational lyrics on “Why?” and a cute short story told at the intro of “Sprite”. Oh, and the cat sounds, can’t forget those. It’s all very cheeky and fun, if a little overindulgent at times.
Hevy Devy is next, perhaps the most beloved Devy of all. He’s the source of Devin’s impeccable vocal fry screams and yells. Devin’s heady guitar tone and all those intense drums that pulverize listeners? His idea (though the latter is performed by Samus Paulicelli). The heaviness of Empath is quite a force to be reckoned with, though it’s not a frequent force. This is fine for someone like me because when it does show up on firebrands like “Hear Me”, it’s tight and very digestible. Elliot Desgagnes of Beneath the Massacre assists with savage guttural vocals when the need arises. Those that miss the Strapping Young Lad era of Devin’s work will see eye to eye with Hevy Devy’s contributions here.
Gentle Devy is last, but definitely not least. It’s apparent Devin puts his heart into all of his work, but it’s the ideas of Gentle Devy that get the softest, smoothest treatment. The gigantic album closer “Singularity” begins with a lovely acoustic section that has Devin singing about love and companionship. It’s touching and not a side we see terribly often. It’s a wonderful way to start the 23-minute track and ease you into it. The midsection of “Borderlands”, another long track, gets the Gentle Devy touch as well, with very ethereal atmosphere and more crooning from Devin supported by similarly spacey female vocals. There’s also the entirety of “Requiem”, which is an inter-prelude to “Singularity”. Though Gentle Devy has the calmest demeanor of them all, he’s an integral part of the equation and inspires healing with his tranquility.
Cooperation is key. All the Devies work together to make Empath quite an endearing album. The concept is right there in the title: empathy. Themes of understanding, compassion, and life run all around the album. It embraces the diversity of human emotion from affection, to confidence, to anger, using a wide variety of sonic approaches to match those emotions and others well. The record definitely pulls you along as well, taking you on an all-encompassing adventure with every new track. If you allow yourself to, you can see Empath as a primordial ooze from which all of existence can pour forth from; animals, humans, oceans, wind, light, conscience, good, evil, you, me, everything we know and perhaps take for granted. With the help of some friends (Anup Sastry, Morgan Ågren, Anneke Van Giersbergen, Elektra Women’s Choir, and even Chad Kroeger), Devin was able to make his most Devin album yet. It’s a lot bigger than him, though, and I’m sure even he’d tell you that himself. Empath is the past, the present, and the future. It is everything and, sure, it could be nothing as well. It’s… a really good album.
In all seriousness, and in summation, Empath doesn’t hit quite as hard as my other favorite, arguably more focused projects of Devin’s. It’s still a sublime, intricate, larger-than-life album that makes you feel good. In his freely available pre-release documentary series for the album, he really opens up about feeling vulnerable, self-actualization, and navigating music making and expression during what he feels is a pivotal moment in his life, so I really hope he got something meaningful out of producing this. In the end, not much has changed; Devin Townsend is still as playful and eccentric as ever, but he’s also a genuine talent with big ideas that only he can see through, even with the help of friends. The kind of artist that only comes around once a generation – if we’re lucky. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.