Even in the world of prog, where the whole bloody point is to take music forward into interesting and preferably uncharted territory, there are precious few artists who can be said to consistently defy expectations. Devin Townsend, on the other hand, seems incapable of doing anything else.
With a vast catalogue of music stretching back to the early 90s that includes everything from brutal extreme metal and ultra-complex prog concept works through to shiny futuristic pop and wistful New Age ambience, this reluctant figurehead for awkward square pegs everywhere has seldom paused to consider what might be apposite for the transient present day. But even by his own wonderfully peculiar standards, Casualties Of Cool is something of a bolt from the sonic blue.
Ostensibly a collection of what Townsend has described as “ghost country” songs, performed alongside latest female vocal foil Ché Aimee Dorval, this fan-funded project takes the Canadian into an entirely fresh musical world that marries the boom-chicka-boom rumble of prime Sun Studio country music to the cosmic whoosh of refined ethereal atmospherics.
The results, it barely needs pointing out, are both gloriously distinctive and utterly mesmerising. This is still progressive music on every meaningful level, of course, but don’t bother asking Townsend to lay out his methodology like some kind of calculating terpsichorean magpie.
“Casualties… was just inevitable,” he shrugs. “I really, really do love music and I’m starting to find that the things I’m gravitating towards are the elements of it that are not my bread and butter, be it bass guitar or something quiet, or composing for movies, or making a musical, and that’s because it’s separate from me in a way. Casualties… is the first record I’ve done since Ocean Machine that I just hadn’t thought about and no one was telling me what to do.
“I made Epicloud [2012’s fifth and final part of the Devin Townsend Project saga] because there was all this ‘Be heavy! Be angry!’ shit going on. I mean, of course I’m angry. I’m a 42-year-old man with kids – come on! But what that anger leads to for me, it doesn’t solve anything.
“So with Epicloud I was making something that was purposefully happy and optimistic. Pop music goes verse, chorus, then it modulates up in the mid-section and then ends with a big chorus, so I just did that 10 times! I thought it was kind of a piss-take at the time. It was fun and we put choirs on it and everything, then as soon as it came out, the label said, ‘Well, we want more of that!’ But it wasn’t meant to be my identity. So at night I started playing my guitar, independent of any of the things I’d been asked to do, and Casualties… music just started coming out and I became really interested in it.”
Renowned for a constant stream of songs and musical ideas that ooze from his every pore, Townsend may be a very idiosyncratic talent but he has never been a selfish one. In fact, his recent work has been typified by a great enthusiasm for collaboration, whether with hordes of left-field metal contemporaries on 2011’s Deconstruction or, more frequently, his ongoing partnership with the sublime Anneke van Giersbergen.
On Casualties Of Cool, it’s the combination of Townsend’s voice with the hypnotic, soulful tones of Ché Aimee Dorval that makes the whole enterprise shimmer and twinkle with a sense of woozy, flawed romance and emotional edginess. Dorval worked with Townsend previously on Ki, the first DTP album, but here she’s far more prominent and her contributions are as essential to the songs’ impact as anything that the master of ceremonies is doing. As he explains, having a female sidekick is just something that works.
“People are often saying, ‘You’re always getting these women singing for you…’ but then I never wanted to be a singer!” he grins. “It’s the part of my job that I dislike the most. If it’s got to be male vocals, I can do that. I don’t want to get another dude to sing. It doesn’t make sense and I can handle that! But if I’m gonna get somebody else, I’d much rather work with a female. I like women. I think they’re great. I think they’re interesting. So working with them is great for me. There’s no flirting, there’s no relationship shit. I like women’s voices and I like working with talented women, so I do!
“Ché was somebody I’d worked with before and I remember thinking to myself that if I could harness that thing about her that I think is really, really cool, it would be something I could really get behind. I contacted her absent-mindedly and said, ‘I’m working on music, so if I send it to you, see if you like it…’ and she did. After a four‑year gestation period, it ended up being something that I really, really like. I love this record.”
Compared to a lot of Townsend’s recent albums, Casualties Of Cool is a remarkably straightforward and simplistic piece of work, the gentle gait of that boom-chicka beat propelling the songs along as elegant melodies emerge, mutate and then dissolve into hazy clouds of ambient cotton wool.
Many diehard fans may prefer the moments when Townsend dazzles with his technical dexterity and his predisposition for penning wildly complicated and obtuse epics, but while Casualties… plainly stands apart from much of his oeuvre to date, it still sounds… well, uniquely Devin. More to the point, he has seldom sounded more at home within a sonic landscape as he does here.
“Yeah, I really like the simplicity,” he agrees. “But when you talk about the prog side of things, I think I’ve got a pretty solid musical mind for complicated stuff. I just have a hard time doing it seriously because it seems like such wank to me! I enjoy making it, but it’s more like putting together puzzles or playing Tetris. Where my heart lies is not in complicated stuff. That’s a by-product of the fact that I’m a weirdo, that I can make complicated music easily. But I really like simple stuff. I love the boom-chicka stuff. I love just playing bass.
“But it doesn’t have to be necessarily dumbed down. When people talk about what kind of bass guitar I like, for instance, I’m certainly not into wanky stuff. I like Massive Attack when they’ll have this one bass line that’s huge and it just plays while all this other stuff evolves over it. That’s the kind of simplicity I enjoy and that’s what I was hoping to achieve with Casualties…. You take a framework that’s really rudimentary and then surround it with all this oddness, and make an environment that people can slip into for a while.”
In some ways, Casualties… feels like a partial successor to Ghost, the fourth DTP album that enabled Townsend to indulge his adolescent passion for New Age music and the lilting sound of heavily reverbed flutes. If nothing else, Casualties… certainly shares that record’s ambient backdrop.
“Yeah, everything’s got 400 seconds of reverb on it!” he chuckles. “Ghost was an airy-fairy type of record. Especially when I was in my teens, I really liked that New Age stuff and that quasi-meditational or peaceful thing. I can see how aesthetically it’s similar to Casualties… because it’s quiet. But really, Casualties… is pretty fucked up. I don’t think it’s very peaceful at all.
“I’m at a point in my life where it’s like, ‘Of course I’m pissed off! Of course I’m confused! Of course I’m fucked up!’ I don’t know shit. With every year that goes by, I know less! But I’m not in a position where I have much interest in saying that loudly. I don’t have a lot of interest in being loud whatsoever!”
With Casualties Of Cool now released into the wild, Townsend is already shoulder-deep in his next project, the follow-up to 2007’s purposefully ludicrous and fart-obsessed Ziltoid The Omniscient. Long-time fans will be more than familiar with the titular coffee-swilling alien puppet loonbag, of course, but as is so often the case in DT World, the leap from Casualties… to this next flight of demented fancy will be nothing less than tangential, bewildering and gloriously jarring. From inventing prog-country to conquering the galaxy in one slightly clumsy bound, Devin Townsend remains a beacon for progressive thinking in an increasingly superficial world.
“Everything I’ve ever done pales in comparison to how stupid the new Ziltoid record is,” he states with a mischievous smile. “But if I step back and look at it as a statement and as a project, it’s really fucking well done! I have a demographic that has supported me and has allowed me to make records like Casualties…, and I don’t want to turn my back on that. I don’t want to be like, ‘I’m the metal guy! I’m the prog guy!’ and then ‘…and now I’m Johnny Cash and I’m gonna wear a cowboy hat everywhere!’
“I’m so stoked the audience lets me do that stuff, so when it comes to making Ziltoid, I’m not gonna phone it in. Life’s crazy and I want to be able to provide people with something they like. I’m willing to bust my ass for that. Sure, I get to whack off and do Casualties… or whatever, but yeah, I’m gonna keep making metal and pop songs. I’m gonna do it all!”
Casualties Of Cool is out now. For more information, see www.hevydevy.com.