Devin Townsend’s Lightwork album: arena rock eccentricity with a prog metal heart

Album review: Devin Townsend dials back the musical mania of Empath without losing what makes him so unique on new album Lightwork

Devin Townsend: Lightwork album cover
(Image: © InsideOut Music)

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Much like Enya, Devin Townsend yearns to sail away. The Canadian multi-instrumentalist has been poised with his floaties since 2016, when he prematurely bade farewell to his main hustle, The Devin Townsend Project. This was communicated via liner notes for the DTP’s Transcendence album, in which he posed with a coconut cocktail, next to a dolphin. An extremely clear, normal way to tell people you’re done with a band. Three years later, he paddled into uncharted territory with Empath – his most accomplished, overblown record to date, replete with beach-themed merch and seagull noises. Lightwork offers more nautical nuggets, albeit less frantically.

Empath was do-a-backflip-while-breathing-fire-and-winning-the-lottery-and-wanking music. This is not. It’s Devin’s first time properly working with a producer, resulting in his shortest studio effort for a decade. It’s still 56 minutes long, mind, but each second is stuffed to the girdle with prog rock merriment, as Devin’s wall-of-sound is moulded by Garth Richardson – a man who’s produced arena regulars like Biffy Clyro and Nickelback.

If ears could chew, Lightwork would dribble down the sides of your head to the point of indecency. It sounds delicious. Sort-of title-track Lightworker is the closest Devin’s come to actualising the dream he’s chased since 2012’s Epicloud: hippies playing major-key metal, but kinda doing Rodgers & Hammerstein with a bit of gospel. That seems like an awful idea, but when Dev’s operatic ‘Tell me there’s another!’ booms over the chorus, strings flying and choirs cooing, you can’t help but be moved. The earnestness, the commitment, is what sells the moment. Equinox pulls a similar trick, his shrill scream of ‘The world is gonna turn without you, baby!’ drawing tears rather than blood.

Familiarity lends Lightwork a welcome confidence and comfort, often playing like a more direct, hooky version of DTP’s Sky Blue from 2014. It’s a heavy metal hug. The presence of previous collaborators like Ché Aimee Dorval and Anneke van Giersbergen makes it feel worn-in, as do the sweep-picked bouts of silliness, orchestral bursts, and space-age guitars that are now short-hand for ‘that Devin Townsend thing’. They’re such disparate elements, but it all seems so simple when assembled by his weird puppeteer’s glove.

On Empath, Devin pissed out the kidney stone of his old industrial/death/Monty Python band, Strapping Young Lad. Hear Me was that record’s callback; this time around, we have Dimensions. It’s SYL by composition rather than attitude, the final half-minute grinding like that band’s Aftermath. But he’s not doing it to prove anything, juxtaposing brutality with a section that’s basically Crash Bandicoot being given a guitar. It’s overbearing but never unpleasant, slotting perfectly alongside Vacation’s chilled-out acoustics, or the carnivalesque, cartoonish stomp on Heavy Burden and Moonpeople.

Lightwork literally starts and ends with a foghorn, revealing a man lost at sea who’s found liberation: emotionally, sonically. It’s also a record that was nearly delayed – for a second time – because Devin couldn’t secure the rights for a Barbie Girl sample. If that sounds like a bit of you, then turn it up, up, adieu.

Alec Chillingworth

Alec is a longtime contributor with first-class BA Honours in English with Creative Writing, and has worked for Metal Hammer since 2014. Over the years, he's written for Noisey, Stereoboard, uDiscoverMusic, and the good ship Hammer, interviewing major bands like Slipknot, Rammstein, and Tenacious D (plus some black metal bands your cool uncle might know). He's read Ulysses thrice, and it got worse each time.