The A-Z Of Devin Townsend

Devin Townsend at Bloodstock
(Image credit: Gary Wolstenholme)

Is there anybody else in the world of heavy metal, nay, the world of music, quite like Devin Townsend? For 23 years the Canadian maestro has carved out a career as unique as it is sonically and thematically diverse, earning the respect and adoration of fans and critics alike. On the eve of forthcoming new album Transcendence, Hammer looks back at his career in a handy A-Z form.

A is for… Anneke Van Giersbergen

Dutch singer/song writer Anneke Van Giersbergen began her career with progressive rockers The Gathering, later going solo. She’s contributed significantly to Devin’s ‘Project’ albums from 2009’s Addicted! onwards. Interestingly, the two have both made appearances on prog metal mastermind Arjen Lucassen’s high concept Ayreon albums, although never on the same record.

B is for… Book

For the hordes of you out there that are as sickeningly adoring of the man as we are, the prospect of his forthcoming biography Only Half There should leave you salivating. Promising to be as ‘full-on and honest as only he can be’, this is his life story in his own words. It’s available for pre-order now, and comes with an accompanying album, entitled Iceland.

C is for… Crowdfunding

Always one for left of field side-projects, Devin was forced to seek alternate sources of revenue for the release of Casualties Of Cool in 2014 when his record label showed no interest, reluctantly turning to crowdfunding. A cosmic blend of blues rock and country, Casualties achieved 100% of its funding target within 24 hours, and over 500% by the end. What do record labels know anyway?

D is for… Dark Crystal

Muppet masterminds Jim Henson’s creature shop terrified kids the world over with 1982 film The Dark Crystal. Telling the tale of Jen, a young Gelfling battling to restore balance to a world under threat from a disturbing evil, it awoke a love of puppetry in a nascent Townsend, which later manifested not only in a song, Skeksis, named after the villains of the piece, but also as a certain coffee-obsessed alien…

E is for… Electronica

Further exploring the esoteric, spiritual aspects of his music, Dev released two albums of ambient electronica, 2004’s nightmarish Devlab, and 2006’s The Hummer, on his HevyDevy label. More akin to meditative processes than music per se, Hammer had a bad experience listening to The Hummer once – it sends you down some pretty intense internal mental pathways if you do that whole ‘headphones in the dark’ thing. You’ve been warned.

F is for… Fear Factory

Fear Factory’s 1992 debut Soul Of A New Machine not only amalgamated metal and industrial in groundbreaking ways, it also, by way of singer Burton C Bell’s glowering choral vocals, introduced melodic singing into metal in way that was ripped off by EVERYONE. Their 1995 masterpiece Demanufacture perfected the formula. Devin admits being heavily influenced, taking their aesthetic to new levels of extremity with Strapping Young Lad. Interestingly, when FF reformed, it was the hiring of SYL’s rhythm section, drummer Gene Hoglan and bassist Byron Stroud, that made their comeback, 2010’s Mechanize, the unstoppable killing machine that it was.

G is for… GWAR

A triumph for alien penis monsters everywhere, GWAR, led by their indomitable frontman Oderus Urungus, aka Dave Brockie, earned a special place in pop culture’s heart, backed up by better tunes than most gave them credit for. A firm friend of the band, Devin produced their 2006 record Beyond Hell, Oderus returning the favour by lending his singularly rotten pipes to the track Far Beyond Metal on Strapping Young Lad’s 2007 album The New Black. Devin mourned Brockie’s untimely passing in 2014, describing him as “One of my favourite people ever and a good friend.”

H is for… Home

Bit of an abstract one this, but certainly a lyrical refrain that crops up often in Devin’s music. At its most pertinent on 2001’s progressive masterpiece Terria, an at times deeply personal love letter to his Canadian homeland, the word ‘home’, depending upon its context, and indeed the listener’s interpretation, seems to at times convey the meaning of the word in a literal sense, and at others as an abstract place of mental stability. Sometimes, it even seems to imply that death is in a sense a return home.

I is for… Infinity

Missing Infinity out of a recent buyer’s guide sparked some ire, so let’s set things straight. Infinity, whilst at times lacking focus, is a very important record in the evolution of Devin’s sound. Its opening track Truth is still a regular fixture in the DTP’s live set, and a re-recorded version opens forthcoming record Transcendence. Infinity’s overblown musicality was in part inspired by Broadway musicals, and along with its choral bombast and off the wall aesthetic, it showcases all the hallmarks of a grandiose musical vision Devin would continually refine over the coming years. Better now?

J is for… Jericho

WWE Superstar Chris Jericho is beloved by metalheads the world over for his hard rockin’ band Fozzy, and his admirable ability to take a steel chair to the head. Appearing on a Devin Townsend record surely earns him extra points. Adopting the role of Captain Spectacular on 2014’s Z2, Jericho brought a pearly white grin and charismatic flair to Earth’s saviour, quite the opposite of his treacherous alien half-brother, Ziltoid.

K is for… Kingdom

A favourite from 2004’s Physicist, an album Devin started writing with ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted under the name IR8, before the project was nixed. Devin finished the record without him, but was never happy with the production, citing it as his weakest effort. Admittedly the production doesn’t hold a candle to his other records, but there’s some killer tracks, none more so than Kingdom, which Devin returned to on 2012’s Epicloud, giving it the kind of studio polish that its magisterial devastation deserves.

L is for… Lamb of God

An accomplished producer and notorious perfectionist when it comes to his own music, Devin has also produced several other bands, including Darkest Hour, GWAR, Soilwork, Misery Signals, Stuck Mojo, and Lamb Of God. Taking over the desk for their breakthrough record As The Palaces Burn and playing guitar on the track A Devil In God’s Country, the band remember Devin as business-like, a master craftsman focussed on get the job done right. These days Dev sticks to producing his own material, using his time with other bands as a learning experience to hone his production skills.

M is for… Mental Illness

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1997, Townsend “started to see human beings as little lonesome, water based, pink meat- life forms.” To be fair, he wasn’t far wrong, and the diagnosis helped him gain perspective upon the two extremes of his musical output, the harmony of his solo material versus the chaos of Strapping Young Lad. Fuelled by drink and drugs, Devin struggled with his demons, stopping his medication for the recording of 2005 SYL album Alien, which explains the utter mania of the record. These days he lives the clean (he’s jokingly described it as ‘boring’) life.

N is for… New Age

He’s a bit of a hippy old Dev, and despite not prescribing to any organised religion, his music is infused with a deep sense of spirituality. This may in part explain his love of new age folk elf Enya, particularly her 1989 album Watermark. Blown away by its other worldly environs, Dev gained massive inspiration from her multi-tracked vocals, which effectively created an angelic choir of Enyas, a heavenly harmonic resonance which is to date an integral part of the Devin Townsend sound.

O is for… Ocean Machine: Biomech

Devin’s second solo album focusses on the more forthright riff-rock aspects of his sound. It was initially released with Ocean Machine as the name of the band. Ever a fan of cryptic self-reference, Ocean Machine represents a good example of such, riffs and samples from it popping up all over the place in later records, alongside references to elements of other albums. Listen closely and you might well spot them the next time you listen to later albums like Sky Blue or Addicted!.

P is for… Punky Brüster

Of all the zany things the man has done in his life, Punky Brüster might take the biscuit. An early example of his penchant for musical theatre, Punky Brüster’s one and only record, Cooked On Phonics, tells the cautionary tale of underground death metal band Cryptic Coroner, who sell out and become the pop-punk sensation Punky Brüster for the money and the girls. Things don’t work out too well.

Q is for… Questioning reality

“Modular forms and elliptic curves! Infinite fire revolving around infinite parallels, fractals of infinite reality, each cascading, gliding in an infinite wheel. Tell me the true nature of my reality!” said Ziltoid that one time, in the midst of an existential crisis. Devin’s always had a knack for phrasing metaphysical enormities from a relatable perspective of bewildered curiosity; acknowledging that life can be overwhelming, but always providing a reassuring affirmation of love and positivity.

R is for… Range

Really, is there a singer in metal with a more dynamic vocal range? Snarling like a feral feline one minute and wailing like a powered up Pavarotti the next, the man has vocal dexterity to spare, all the while playing the guitar with inimitable style and technical proficiency; not to mention the sheer diversity of music his career has to offer, from extreme metal to bluegrass, all masterfully executed. To top it all off would you believe that he doesn’t even like singing that much?

S is for… Strapping Young Lad

We were really tempted to go with ‘skullet’ for S, the infamous bald on-top, dreadlocked round the back ‘do’ Devin once described as an “egg in a hula skirt”. Symbolising a period of instability and rage in Townsend’s life that he has worked hard to surpass, SYL pushed technical extremity to new levels, producing a genre defining record with 1997’s City, and with 2005’s Alien, perfectly encapsulating the torture of mental illness in musical form. At times arduous, but always with a sumptuous hook, fans continue to mourn the loss of this band.

T is for… Transcendence

The Devin Townsend Project’s seventh album arrives on September 9. With Addicted! Dev hit on a winning formula; heavenly choirs, mountainous guitars, breakdowns, pop hooks and Anneke Van Giersbergen; but after Epicloud and Sky Blue’s successful repetitions of the formula, change was needed. Transcendence is that change. Written by the whole band rather than him alone, it’s still very much a DTP record, but it’s a more emotionally conflicted, nuanced listen.

U is for… Union Chapel

A small, 19th century chapel located in the London borough of Islington, the intimate setting of the Union Chapel tends to leave a lasting impression upon those who perform there and those lucky enough to witness it. Devin’s played there twice, once for a heart-rending performance of 2010’s haunting Ghost, an emotive evening in candle-lit twilight, and again in 2012 for a complete rendition of the equally earth-shattering Casualties Of Cool.

V is for… Vai

Pre-Strapping Young Lad, a teenaged Devin was promoting a demo tape for a project entitled Noisescapes (some songs of which ended up on Ocean Machine) around various labels. A copy fell into legendary axe-noodler Steve Vai’s hands, who, blown away by his vocals, recruited him to sing on 1993 album Sex And Religion. He toured the world with Vai, before tensions saw them part ways, Devin determined to carve his own musical path.

W is for… Wildhearts

While touring with Vai, Devin became friends with Ginger, frontman of raucous, Geordie rockers the Wildhearts, who were notorious in the nineties as much for their drink and drug addled debauchery as they were their music. Devin joined the band for a while in 1994 as touring guitarist, and guested on 1997 single Urge. Their friendship bore yet more fruit on Infinity, several songs of which were co-written with Ginger; he’s even in the video for single Christeen.

X is for… Kings X

Kings X are an American prog rock band. Initially labelled as a Christian band, the band rejected the label, much of their music focussed on issues of religion, spiritualism and identity; issues which would all be explored later by Devin in his music. Their 1989 concept album Gretchen Goes To Nebraska had a profound effect upon a 15 year old Townsend, who in interviews has described being profoundly affected by the last track The Burning Down.

Y is for… Dave Young

Whether playing keys for Strapping Young Lad or second guitar in the DTP, multi-instrumentalist Dave Young has long been an invaluable part of Devin’s creative process. He also teaches the brutally efficient fighting style Krav Maga, and has a massive beard. All in all, he’s pretty cool. As are bassist Bryan ‘Beav’ Waddell, a childhood friend of Devin’s, Mike St Jean on keys, and drummer Ryan Van Poederooyen, whose dynamic range is matched only by the percussive power he brings to the most stable line up Devin has ever had.

Z is for… Ziltoid

Well, who else? When, in 2007, Devin single-handedly recorded and released a musical about a coffee (and poop) obsessed, ego-maniacal alien, most people thought he was nuts. Ziltoid the omniscient, born of his love for puppetry, and a need to express the alienation he was experiencing post-Strapping Young Lad, has since become one of his most popular accomplishments, spawning second album Z2, and a triumphant, sold out performance at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall. All in all, not bad for a wild, colonial boy.

Devin Townsend’s new album Transcendence is out September 9, via HevyDevy Records.

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