One could argue that, until now, Devin Townsend's most ambitious run of studio recordings was the four-album suite released from 2009 through 2011 under the DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT banner. That set of albums began with the low-key art-rock of "Ki", ended with the simultaneous releases of the circus-metal bombast of "Deconstruction" and the ambient-rock of "Ghost", and was buffered by the prog-pop of "Addicted". The suite of records was a beautiful expression of the different musical wheels turning through the always-busy brain of one of heavy metal's most unique voices. Townsend's newest effort, "Empath", is an eclectic magnum opus that jumbles all four of those corners of the Canadian musician's brain into an over-the-top amalgam, plus so much more.
While not explicitly a concept record, Townsend crafted his lyrics for "Empath" to center around the mood swings and emotions of human existence. Much like the emotions that drive our daily existence, the music and orchestration is wild, unpredictable, and, quite frankly, all over the place. But the fact that all of it still somehow works as a cohesive musical narrative is a testament to Townsend's songwriting ability and the years he has put in mastering everything from bludgeoning industrial-metal (STRAPPING YOUNG LAD), alt-country (CASUALTIES OF COOL), and rock operas about an alien trying to find a great cup of coffee (ZILTOID THE OMNISCIENT).
The catchy choruses that Townsend has crafted on previous records are omnipresent throughout "Empath", but all of it is couched in a twisted shell that evokes a Broadway spectacle on acid. Even the most straightforward track on the record, the life-affirming mid-tempo prog-rocker "Spirits Will Collide", is augmented by an absolutely beautiful vocal performance from the Vancouver-based Elektra Women's Choir. This group of vocalists is one of Townsend's secret weapons throughout "Empath", as their choruses lend an ethereal aura to the already otherworldly compositions presented by the mastermind.
After the deceptively benign opening track "Castaway" begins the record with quiet guitar strings played under the sounds of a relaxing day at sea and the aforementioned choir delivering serene Sunday morning sermon-worthy choruses, the six minutes of follow-up track "Genesis" makes it very evident that "Empath" will be a glorious trip through musical schizophrenia. The first part of the song features Townsend shouting over a dance-pop rhythm and short sharp guitar riffs. This shortly transitions into a bridge of wind chimes and 8-bit video game music before a barrage of blast beats from drummer Anup Sastry (MONUMENTS/MARTY FRIEDMAN) come storming in for a climax that comes off as a weird-but-alluring middle ground between STRAPPING YOUNG LAD and OCEAN MACHINE. All of this happens in a mere six minutes, and the twists and turns come quick. In lesser hands, this would be a mess. But with a master craftsman such as Townsend at the helm, the musical ride is comparable to the best roller coasters in the world.
The roller coaster continues to excite throughout the remainder of "Empath". "Evermore" opens with a slight BEATLES-esque pop influence, before becoming a twisted Broadway musical number, and then closing with another bombastic barrage led by Sastry's drumming performance. In an alternate universe, "Why" is a twisted musical number that would have been a rousing interlude in a classic animated Disney film, at least until Townsend's soaring croon is interrupted by a series of death metal belches. "Borderlands" is a weird symphonic journey accentuated by moments of new age ambiance and saxophones from Jørgen Munkeby (SHINING). The album is capped by "Singularity", a 23-minute sprawling wrap-up that begins with a haunting guitar solo from Steve Vai and eventually serves as a CliffsNotes-version of the album leading up to that moment.
Guest musicians and vocalists poke their heads in and out throughout the proceedings. In addition to Sastry's drum performances, Munkeby, Vai, and the aforementioned Eureka Women's Choir, longtime Townsend collaborator Anneke van Giersbergen makes a few brief appearances. Her vocals are as beautiful as ever and aging gracefully. And yes, Chad Kroeger (NICKELBACK) is credited with additional vocals on "Hear Me". But for those of you that expressed concern when that guest appearance was announced, you can rest easy. He appears as a background vocalist disappears into the background so much that his voice is barely discernible.
Devin Townsend has explored multiple musical paths throughout his career. "Empath" sees him wrapping up all of his experiences with STRAPPING YOUNG LAD, DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT and all points in between with a nice shiny bow. Lyrically, vocally and musically, "Empath" is an album that throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. In this case, it's everything that sticks, as Townsend has topped the ambition and execution of everything that led to this moment.