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Canadian progressive metal singer/guitarist Devin Townsend has been referred to in the rock press as a “multi-everythingist.” In addition to being a celebrated instrumentalist, he is a composer, producer, arranger, and bandleader. While his earliest recorded work was as vocalist with Steve Vai’s band on Sex & Religion, around the same time he worked with Front Line Assembly and Skinny Puppy and led the almost unbearably heavy extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad. His recorded solo work since 1997’s rocking sci-fi opus, Ocean Machine (Biomech), has been hotly debated in extreme music circles for decades. He has recorded more than two-dozen solo studio and live albums with a variety of musicians. His undeniably progressive, shape-shifting conceptual outfit the Devin Townsend Project is perhaps the best known of his outlets; their albums Ki (2009), Ziltoid (Dark Matters) in 2015, and 2016’s Transcendence, reveal Townsend is all but limitless in delivering his ambition in unified, accessible, and provocative projects that have all been readily embraced by the metal and prog rock communities.
Townsend was born May 5, 1972 in Vancouver, British Columbia. After picking up the banjo at age five, he moved to guitar at 12, and within a few years was leading the band Grey Skies, later known as Noisescapes. Sending the group’s demo to the Relativity label, Townsend was not only offered a solo deal but was also tapped to sing on Steve Vai’s 1993 LP Sex & Religion, a collaboration that further extended to the guitar god’s 1996 effort Fire Garden. In between, Townsend worked on a series of projects with Front Line Assembly, and in 1995 issued the solo Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing under the alias Strapping Young Lad. A stint with the satiric punk band Punky Bruster yielded the Cooked on Phonics LP before Townsend began work on the second Strapping Young Lad album, 1997’s City. In a move away from the industrial and death metal of previous recordings, he next formed Ocean Machine — with J.R. Harder and Marty Chapman — for the accessible Biomech, which was issued later that year.
Townsend’s first solo album to be released under his own name was 1998’s Infinity, and it directly followed a difficult period for the artist, in which he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He would later identify his condition as an explanation for the difference in sound and approach between Strapping Young Lad and Ocean Machine. 2000 saw a mentally stronger Townsend release the sharp, focused, and melodic speed metal album Physicist, while 2001’s Terria channeled an ambient pop sound. February 2003 brought an eponymous Strapping Young Lad record which returned to a traditional death metal template. Sessions for this release took place during the same period as those for the acclaimed first album under the Devin Townsend Band moniker, Accelerated Evolution. This record was issued just a month after the SYL release, and Townsend received praise for creating a modern metal album that wasn’t afraid to nod to ’70s and ’80s arena rock in a post-grunge world. While 2006’s Synchestra didn’t quite reach the same high standard, Townsend continued to keep things fresh by following a straight-up ambient record — The Hummer — with Ziltoid the Omniscient, a rock opera about an alien who travels to Earth in search of “the ultimate cup of coffee.”
In the immediate years that followed Ziltoid, Townsend took a break from the music industry to rest, recharge, and rediscover the cathartic aspect of composition. In March 2009, a shaven-headed, teetotaling Townsend announced an intended four-album sequence from the Devin Townsend Project, billed as an opportunity to show that he could create new music without the assistance of drugs. The strongest of these four releases was November 2009’s Addicted, on which he collaborated with former Gathering vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. Giersbergen returned for a central role on an unexpected fifth Devin Townsend Project album in 2012, the pop-infused Epicloud. In 2014, Townsend released the ambitious Z², a double album that featured a Devin Townsend Project album, Sky Blue, and a conceptual album, Dark Matters, the latter of which was a sequel to 2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient. 2015 saw the release of Ziltoid: Live at the Royal Albert Hall, a recording of Townsend’s performance at the prestigious London venue in April of that year. Despite a claim that he was taking a year off, Townsend kept writing and recording. In March of 2016 he announced a new DTP album titled Transcendence. It was released in September, and after a tour, he disbanded the outfit. Over the next several years, Townsend toured selectively with his various shape-shifting bands, issued three separate volumes of his catalog on vinyl, and began writing his most ambitious project. Titled Empath, Townsend prefaced its release with a social media warning to fans: “Some of you won’t like it. Some of you will be very confused by it. Some of you will be alienated by it.” The reason for the statement was that in the past, Townsend always recorded albums to showcase where he was at any given time — even if it meant that he would be showcasing a wide variety of styles on an album. With 2019’s wildly diverse and exotic Empath, he chose to create an offering that would depict, under a single sonic umbrella, every musical space he’d inhabited up to the present time — sometimes within a single track — in order to point his way forward. His guest list for the date included Mike Keneally as his music director, former boss Steve Vai, the Elektra Women’s Choir, Casualties of Cool partner Ché Aimee Dorval, Anneke Van Giersbergen, drummers Morgan Ågren, Anup Sastry, and Samus Paulicelli, and Chad Kroeger — the Nickelback vocalist who convinced Townsend to undertake Empath in the first place. Upon release, the set was greeted by mostly positive reviews, but in true Townsend fashion, he claimed to agree equally with critical and affirmative ones. ~ Jason Ankeny & James Wilkinson, Rovi