Nearly two thousand years ago, Plovdiv Roman Amphitheatre rang out with clapping and cheering, as performances, gladiatorial combat and hunting games took place under the rule of high priest Titus Flavius Cotis. Tonight, amid its fractured columns and ancient marble, those sounds of excitement can be heard for progressive metal god Devin Townsend.
Following in the footsteps of Opeth, Paradise Lost and Katatonia, he’s brought the Devin Townsend Project to Bulgaria’s second city for a show with their orchestra, after which the band will play Ocean Machine in full to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Such is the sense of occasion in the air that proceedings start backwards – Devin gets a standing ovation before he’s even sung a note, and spends a good five minutes thanking everyone who’s made the event possible, as well as addressing the crowd in a typically self-effacing manner.
“This is a dream come true, guys, I can’t even tell you,” he says. “Everyone’s here because we’re all a little socially awkward. Tonight we’re going to see what happens when you get a bunch of nerds in one place!”
What happens is that the nerds go into raptures, and rightly so. As the dramatic opening of Truth swells across the amphitheatre, it’s difficult to know where to look. On the stage, the orchestra of Plovdiv State Opera play with the dedication and passion afforded to high culture, while on a stone platform high above, a choir are lined up like living statues. Bearing down on the whole spectacle are the ruins of former glories, their stately grandeur conjuring an atmosphere of timelessness. The intensity peaks during second song Stormbending, its climactic ending inducing the first hands-in-the-air spiritual moment.
This set is by request, and some songs suit the live orchestral treatment more than others. The likes of Stormbending and Failure are already so symphonic on record that it’s difficult to discern the difference other than a background feeling of warmth, and it’s hard to hear the classical musicians in the mix. Meanwhile, Bad Devil is a natural candidate, its big-band feel coming to the fore as Devin yells, “It’s a slam dance party!” and starts swinging to the beat. By Your Command gets everyone swaying and waving their arms in a moment of Ziltoid worship; a song about alien invasion should be incongruously out of step with these surroundings, but it sounds as thunderous as a chariot, Ryan Van Poederooyen’s rapid-fire drumming continuing long after everyone else has stopped playing.
Elsewhere, Gaia is given a rare outing, Devin toting his custom black Flying V guitar that features red laser pointers and a smoke machine. During a goosebump-inducing Deadhead, dedicated to his wife, people can’t help rising from their seats – a perilous move, given the steep incline of the theatre.
This isn’t the first time Devin’s done a special show. From Ziltoid at London’s Royal Albert Hall, to The Retinal Circus at the city’s Roundhouse, to the quadruple threat of Ki/Addicted/Deconstruction/Ghost across multiple venues, he’s always strived to bring showmanship to his music. But tonight is something else. Stripped of video screens, giant burgers and intergalactic beasts, the music stands alone as a monument. Yet you can always count on Devin to marry the sublime with the ridiculous, and he can’t resist making a fart joke while introducing A Simple Lullaby, before surprise columns of flame and fireworks bring an explosive close to Act One, along with Deep Peace.
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Judging by the chatter in the interval, a large proportion of fans in attendance are from the UK, some of whom will have seen Ocean Machine at London’s Hammersmith Apollo last March – the first time it was performed in full. Devin admitted to nerves back then, but appears more confident now as he strolls back out, full of gratitude for the show so far. In a nice touch, he welcomes to the stage bassist John ‘Squid’ Harder, who played on the original recording.
As the familiar Seventh Wave washes in, the theatre looks oddly bare without the orchestra and choir, the five musicians appearing dwarfed by such a ceremonious space. Still, slowly but surely, the music becomes mesmerising, filling its surroundings. Life is as affirming as ever – “It’s cold tonight in Plovdiv, guys, but it’s warm in our hearts!” – while Night is dedicated to Marty Chapman, Ocean Machine’s late drummer. Sister is accompanied by a sea of illuminated phones. The ethereal Voices In The Fan sees Devin sitting on the drum platform with his head bowed, as its choral outro surges across the amphitheatre like something from a bygone age. Regulator prompts a sea of fist-pumping. Funeral and Bastard are wrought with emotion.
When the band played Ocean Machine at Hammersmith, casual gig-goers talked through the quiet bits, but the 4,000 people who’ve made the journey to Plovdiv’s Roman Theatre are utterly rapt. There’s a feeling of transcending eras – it’s music that addresses human experience, whatever the historical period.
The highlight is The Death Of Music, which Devin earlier explained he nearly cut from the record, until John Harder called him “an idiot”. Outside the ruins, the city lights twinkle in the distance and cars pass on the main road. Inside, the elemental beat pulses continuously while Devin’s serious whispers build into something unearthly, as he clutches at the mic stand. All that’s left is Thing Beyond Things, and that final, lung-wrenching scream.
And then there’s another standing ovation, and chants of Devin’s name. For all his experiments, this is the most memorable yet.
Devin Townsend Setlist
By Your Command
A Simple Lullaby
Ocean Machine Set
Voices in the Fan
The Death Of Music
Thing Beyond Things