Hello friends, it’s WrestleMania Weekend which means that as you read this, I’m probably drunk and watching Swoggle fight a giant panda, but that hasn’t stopped me listening to music! So, take a seat in the Listening Booth and dive into what I’ve been plugging into my ears this week.
The word genius is so overused that the phrase ‘the word genius is overused’ is now overused. On top of that, so is saying ‘the word genius is overused, but X is a genius’. However, for all that overuse, Devin Townsend is a genius. Christ, I circled that drain for a while, didn’t I?
It’s true, though. For years now Heavy Devy has shown the ability to do everything from alternative country to extreme metal to epic concept albums about aliens coming to Earth to steal our coffee (which is ever so slightly understating what Ziltoid is). He’s brilliant, and a new album always brings with it the potential for something incredible.
All of which serves as my intro to talking about Empath, the latest Devin solo album which is slightly different from a Devin Townsend Project album although I’m not entirely sure why. What I am sure of is that it might be the most ambitious thing that Townsend has ever put his name to. It is, in his own words, a blend of all the musical styles that interest him and, when it’s Devin Townsend talking, that’s a lot of different styles of music.
It’s a potential problem that Devin doesn’t hide from. After a short introduction, ‘Castaway’, ‘Genesis’ kicks into life and over the next six minutes takes you on one hell of a ride. It dives from metal to marine biology to musicality that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Star Wars soundtrack. It’s big, brash and puts out front and centre everything that this album is going to be. If its gleeful genre-hopping pisses you off, you might as well turn Empath off because it ain’t stopping.
For there are songs on Empath that in another band’s hands could be entire albums. Closer, ‘Singularity’, is over twenty minutes long and swings from genre to genre, style to style to the extent that it should probably be a fucking mess. This whole thing should be a mess. But it isn’t. Because in the centre of it all (and a lot is going on, Devin enlisted a choir and an orchestra) is Townsend, pulling it all together and making it work. That’s the genius. Anyone could say ‘I’m going to write a heavy metal song with orchestral sessions that could be the first act in a musical’. No-one apart from Devin Townsend makes it work.
It’s also an album that you could listen to and talk about forever. I haven’t mentioned the gorgeous ‘Spirits Will Collide’ which wraps your soul in a hug and rises you up, reminding you ‘don’t forget that you are loved’. Or the fact that ‘Sprite’ starts with a fable about a bird and a bear or even that Chad Krueger appears on ‘Hear Me’, the closest thing on this album to Strapping Young Lad. You could build a review around any one of those things, yet in the world of Devin Townsend, they are just a garnish, never the meal.
Empath is an epic journey, and it is one that you’ll need to walk many a time before you can even start to appreciate every twist and turn on its path. However, it is undeniably genius, and Devin Townsend continues to prove himself as one of a kind.
Second albums are hard. It doesn’t matter the circumstances, that’s just a fact. They open up a whole world of questions and how you choose to answer them can define the future of your band (particularly at a time when second chances have gone the way of musicians making money). Do you do more of the same? Or push yourselves into new territory? Can you take the risk that you can follow the old advice of doing what you did the first time, but better? Well, Brutus apparently can.
For on Brutus’s debut album, Burst, it was clear that this trio had something special. I struggled to pinpoint what their atmospheric post-hardcore sounds like, but after my first listen, I knew I liked it, and I wasn’t alone. People bought into this band, and while they didn’t explode out into the world, it was clear that many an eye would be following their future. Well, if those eyes have any sense that explosion will be on the way because Nest has everything that Burst did and more.
And I’m still not entirely sure how to describe the fuckers. You turn them on and the combination of Stefanie Mannaerts transcendent voice and their expansive yet tight as hell (yes, I realise those are contradictions) sound inspires mystery. I can’t pin them down, and that’s part of what I love about them. I hear a Brutus song, and I instantly know it’s Brutus, but beyond that, I’m not quite sure.
All of which serves to make writing about them ever so slightly hard. How do you capture what one can’t describe? Well, if you’re me, you ramble on for a bit and hope it comes out alright. You pray that when you use words like frantic and harsh to describe ‘Cemetery’, it comes close to capturing the energy of that song. That when you say ‘War’ starts mellow and reflective, allowing Mannaerts vocals to draw you in before it explodes out that it at least makes a little bit of sense.
And you can almost hear Brutus developing as songwriters on this album. They are pushing at their formula (as much as it can be called one), expanding out on songs like the aforementioned ‘War’ or the over seven minutes of closer ‘Sugar Dragon’ which hints that album number three could go in all sorts of directions. Nest is the sound of a band that were already pretty damn good, getting even better. And if that’s not exciting, what is?
The desert rock scene gives out a weird old vibe. On the one hand, their bluesy stoner rock can produce some stunning music and has gone on to somehow birth an arena rock band like Queens of the Stone Age not to mention tens of other highly successful groups. However, it can also be self-indulgent as hell and a fucking chore for someone who wasn’t sitting in the band’s bedroom at that exact moment smoking the same pot as them.
That’s why the most successful of those bands have been those who have taken that sound and worked on it. They’ve chipped away at the fat to create a feeling and a shitload of riffs, which brings us nicely to the point where I introduce you to My Diligence who have that feeling and most certainly have those rifts all delightfully wrapped up in three to five-minute rock songs perfectly designed for your listening pleasure.
Yes, Sun Rose is one of those albums that is for the guitar worshipper inside all of us. It delights in groovy blues led rock that has you nodding along with appreciation within seconds of ‘Resentful’ kicking us off. It sounds spacey and drawn out, but (and this is key) it’s not. It’s a tight album that takes a lot from bands like Torche and Mastodon at their most accessible. They know how to write a catchy song and that almost pop sensibility makes them the perfect access point for someone wanting to check this kind of music out.
And I’m sure more than one person has just gagged at my use of the word pop, but I mean it in an entirely complimentary way. Sun Rose isn’t a pop album. The production makes sure of that. At times it’s almost a touch too rough around the edges, leaving longer songs like ‘Backstabber’ to struggle in the muddy sound. However, it’s that which keeps this from becoming a straight-up radio rock album. It still sounds like it was recorded with sand in the amps and that’s key to making it feel alive.
I don’t have much else to say. It’s a damn fine rock and roll album that will have you banging your head and reaching for the spliff. Sit back and enjoy.