For a man with a career and musical backstory spanning almost 20 years, it’s to Devin Townsend’s credit that he has never ceased to surprise us. From the progressive, extreme metal-infused stylings of the dearly missed Strapping Young Lad, through occasional dips into the electronic and ambient worlds on albums such as Devlab and The Hummer, and right the way through to his current expansive and typically diverse musical venture, The Devin Townsend Project, Devin has been in a perpetual state of reinvention and experimentalism, with a tireless work ethic that hardly any of his peers can boast equally. You’d be hard pressed to find a similar amount of hyperbole spewed in another artist’s direction. That 99% of the time it’s wholly justified is what makes Townsend one of the most universally lauded and respected musicians in the game.
Since the demise of Strapping Young Lad in 2006, Devin has undergone a personal shift that has seen him give up drugs and start a family, and a musical journey that has been enthralling in its utter peculiarity. Under the moniker of The Devin Townsend Project, he released a four album series in the space of two years that served three distinct purposes: 1) it proved that Townsend had lost none of his songwriting mojo after abandoning narcotics, 2) it proved that his willingness to experiment had not diminished in the wake of SYL, with the lo-fi under-instrumentation of Ki, the new-age folk of Ghost and the unabashed pop of Addicted! each taking him down routes previously unexplored, and 3) it proved that despite laying one of the best-loved metal bands of the past 20 years to rest, he was far from shaking off the shackles of metal when the third album of the series dropped, going by the name of Deconstruction, an absurd, bizarre but undeniably metallic and guitar driven concept album about…a cheeseburger. You’d be forgiven at this point for thinking that Devin has nowhere left to go, but if you look at the four-album series in a particular way, the chronology of the whole thing seems to be building towards a final act, one that would combine the best qualities of each record into a concise final crescendo. And with that, The Devin Townsend Project presents Epicloud – a pop infused extravaganza of massive choruses, radio hooks, and riffs to ring in the apocalypse.
Ringing in the proceedings in typical theatrical fashion, the gospel choir of ‘Effervescent!’ sends us crashing into the pounding drums and choral waves of ‘True North’, one of the album’s more progressive moments that serves to ease the listener into the simpler side of Devin which takes up the majority of the album, expertly displayed on the stomp and groove of lead single ‘Lucky Animals’, anchored on the first proper hook Townsend has conjured up in his entire career. In spite of the more poppy tendencies of Epicloud, Devy still manages to inject the whole affair with his usual amount of eclecticism, seeing him touch upon glam rock on the supercharged ‘Liberation’ and veering into power ballad territory on ‘Where We Belong’, which features a chorus that will see lighters aloft at future gigs. But it’s the tracks in which Townsend truly steps outside of his deranged and chaotic comfort zone that gives Epicloud it’s real identity and edge, with his dramatic reimagining of Pendulum’s ‘The Island (Part 1)’ on the euphoria-inducing ‘Save Our Now’, and his first bona fide love song on the singer-songwriter-esque ‘Divine’.
If the simple pop structures and sugary melodies have so far been too much for handle for fans of Devin’s more extreme side, the metal-devoted section of his audience are still catered for in their droves on Epicloud, with the proto-Queens Of The Stone Age-cum-Lamb Of God riffage of ‘More!’, one of the album’s highlights, and a long overdue re-recording of ‘Kingdom’ from 2000’s Physicist album, which brings forward the songs obvious strength where the original was plagued by poor production and a weak vocal performance. The apex of the metal portion of Epicloud however is undoubtedly the stunning and grandiose ‘Grace’, a masterpiece that bludgeons in its musicianship and incites hope in its underlying message, bringing everything Devin has attempted to accomplish to date into one, larger-than-life epic, before the emotional delivery of ‘Hold On’ and the finality of ‘Angel’, referencing ‘Effervescent!’ in its outro, bring this fearless work of art to a staggering climax.
Inarguably, Epicloud is a pop record at its core. It maintains the characteristics we’ve all come to associate with Townsend over the years, but this is just testament to the fact that even when he’s straying from the beaten path, there’s still no one else in the world who sounds quite like him. The fact that he can make his most commercial offering to date sound like a one-of-a-kind magnum opus recorded on a spaceship without so much as a hint of selling out. Furthermore, its consistency is unmatched throughout the rest of his catalogue, which is why Epicloud feels not so much like a separate album in the Townsend canon, but rather the closing of a story that began with Ki and weaved and wrangled its way through the subsequent four records. Even in the most cynical eyes, it’s likely that the five albums he has produced under The Devin Townsend Project will be remembered as his finest work, and Epicloud is the most concise and direct selection from this most overblown of artistic statements. Even if you find nothing on this album that takes your fancy, take comfort in the fact that heavy metal’s very own Frank Zappa still has the ability to surprise us. We hope he always will.
Epicloud is released via InsideOut Music on 24th September 2012
2. True North
3. Lucky Animals
5. Where We Belong
6. Save Our Now
12. Hold On