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By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Sunday, March 24, 2019 @ 11:06 AM

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Inside Out Music

Devin Townsend has never been one to rest on his laurels. Indeed, the Canadian savant has never been one to really rest at all, ping-ponging from one project to another over a career that now spans some two-dozen albums, making him one of the most prolific artists in modern music. And if following his creative whims meant Townsend felt the need to sacrifice a going concern that was on the brink of a commercial breakthrough, so be it.

Empath is the first album issued under just the Devin Townsend name since 2007's Ziltoid The Omniscient. It comes after the dissolution of the long-running DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT (DTP) after the touring commitments for 2016's Transcendence, and at the height of the band's popularity, echoing a similar split with STRAPPING YOUNG LAD a decade earlier that fans are still smarting over.

In fact, Townsend has spent the past few years seemingly putting much of his past behind him, performing a series of special concerts highlighting various stages of his career and issuing accompanying live albums capped by last year's Ocean Machine – Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv. Yet while that all felt like a long goodbye, Empath does retain many familiar elements from Townsend's rich repertoire – which has spanned everything from the most brutal of metal to ambient serenity, from progressive lunacy to effortless hard rock catchiness – while moving things forward in some interesting, even confounding, new directions.

Indeed, if there was one album that perfectly captures Townsend's creative split personality/ADHD - for better or worse – this is it. That he hired three drummers for the various distinctive moods on Empath - Morgan Ågren (KAIPA, Townsend's CASUALTIES OF COOL side project) for the improvisational and mellower segments, Anup Sastry (MONUMENTS/INTERVALS/SKYHARBOR) for the proggy bits and DECREPIT BIRTH's Samus Paulicelli for the sporadic spasms of blasting extreme metal - should offer a clue about just what is in store here. And yet that only tells part of the story.

At its core, Empath has the feel of a genuine “rock opera,” with an emphasis on the “opera,” thanks to its ample Aaron Copland-like orchestration. Townsend has made no secret of his classical aspirations, and he has festooned Empath with as much symphonic grandiosity and chorale accompaniment as he could muster. The Western hue to some of it hints strongly of Copland's masterwork “Appalachian Spring”, especially on the wispy, show tune-like “Why?” which pushes the envelope about as far as Townsend has ever dared - and that is really saying something. At other times, though it seems more akin to a Yosemite Sam cartoon, as on the quirkier moments of the intro “Castaway” or the epic “Borderlands”.

Yet like any opera there are many ebbs and flows and twists and turns over Empath's sprawling 74-minute run time, and just when Townsend seems to be settling into a groove, as at the album's start with ebullient rock/metal anthemics of “Genesis” and “Spirits Collide”, things dart off in a dramatically different direction. “Evermore” weaves jazz elasticity, metallic fit, church-like choirs and bubbly electronics into its otherwise poppy sensibilities. “Sprite” opens with a narrator telling a kid's story about “a bird who had forgotten how to fly,” then rides an electro/ambient pulse punctuated by sweeping, new agey choruses.

The serenity soon ends, though, with the flame-throwing “Hear Me” and its super-charged death metal, which recalls SYL at its most ferocious while mixing in some of the avant weirdness of DTP's chaotic Deconstruction. It's here that you'll find the much-ballyhooed guest appearance by NICKELBACK's Chad Kroeger – but before people start shitting themselves, it would seem Townsend had him contribute the grizzly bear-like growling here just to fuck with everyone.

And speaking of last laughs, of course the almost easy listening “Why?” comes right after “Hear Me”'s histrionics, as Townsend croons gloriously over a wash of strings, woodwinds and brass. It'll certainly leave more than a few jaws on the floor at first listen. I know it did mine.

The 11-minute “Borderlands” is a mish-mash of crunching metallic choruses, ambient moodiness, folky twang and the Yosemite Sam-like whimsy I mentioned earlier in its chirpy sound effects. Twice as epic is the six-part, 23-plus minute finale “Singularity” that takes all of the album's sonic themes and mood swings and jams them into one monumental opus. It's the height of indulgence, even by Townsend's standards – with a guest solo by Steve Vai to boot.

And Empath really is all about indulgence, when you get right down to it, as Townsend explores as many avenues of musical expression as he can here – though thankfully there is no rapping! While it takes some getting used to – and is certainly overlong and overblown – Empath emerges as a worthwhile, at times triumphant work. Sure, it's a shame Townsend had to put DTP aside for the sake of Empath, but the album is a bold, compelling statement by someone who has made a career out of them.

4.0 Out Of 5.0

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