Devin Townsend’s Retinal Circus
@ The Roundhouse
27th October 2012
Review by Rhiannon Marley
Photography by Michelle Murphy
Tonight was the night for 2012: sold out DEVIN TOWNSEND’s Retinal Circus show!
Tonight is a one-off, career-spanning cabaret, and his most spectacular show to date, with the event being filmed for a DVD, aswell as being streamed live online…and I’m joining the ranks to see what hullabaloo awaits Chalk Farm tonight!
I last saw Devin play at his modest unplugged sets at the Borderline in June 2012, which was an acoustic set and with Devin’s wails alone were enough to capture 250 pairs of starry eyes, but this evening gig looks set to be a shade more aggressive!
Delayed by chains of Sainsbury’s lorries snaking through Camden High Street, I arrive in time to shove my coat into the cloakroom and fighting through the limbs I managed to nestle a place; this is the second time in a week, that I’ve witnessed the Roundhouse completely sold out.
On stage there were three massive screens hanging over, spilling colourful shapes onto the faces of the crowd before the lights dim and Steve Vai’s disembodied face terrifies the life out of me!
Filling the screens like the Wizard of Oz. he introduces the ‘splendiferous, fantastic voyage’, and provides narration for the night. The jamboree will be largely based around a protagonist, Harold, and his dream-musings of aliens, love and life, told through the songs of Devy himself.
At this point, it’s confirmed that I haven’t signed up for any old gig; I’m getting a philosophical, and moderately unhinged, musical. Despite Vai’s video running out of sync in visuals and sound, the atmosphere and surrounding mumbles affirm the understanding that tonight comprises unprecedented crafting, organisation and glorious camp ridiculousness to burn.
As the cheers and squeals erupt, a divided choir; one half dressed in black, the other white, kick-start Epicloud’s ‘Effervescent’. Crystal-throated Anneke van Giersbergen trills the opening of ‘True North’, and Devin explodes onto the stage as Wonderland’s White Rabbit, in ivory suit and top-hat. From now on, we’re stupefied.
There are dwarf clowns, ceiling-high smoke jets, celestial and terrestrial on-screen images, and enough rampaging sound-waves to induce another Tsunami. I feel like I’ve stuffed a tonne of nitroglycerin in my ear canals. Circus, said he; let’s see just how deep his rabbit hole goes…
The night is split into two sections; the first sees a story unfold in the mind of Harold, through themes of human nature, animalism, addiction and spirituality.
The London based Girl Dancer Group ‘Nympherno’ dress up as four-legged furries and get their angle-grinding and fire-dancing on for ‘Lucky Animals’ and ‘Truth’, while ‘apes’ costumed as everything from bankers and firemen, to policemen and sportsmen, assemble a cage and lock the female animals inside for ‘Planet of the Apes’.
A huge Ziltoid shortly emerges onstage after his on-screen chat with his missus about her delicate condition – followed by an enormous green alien vagina being wheeled out by nurses, which gives birth to Ziltoid Junior. Balloons and sparks fly; giant coloured scarves hang from the ceiling with acrobats ascending; jugglers, pole-dancers and scantily-clad women abound.
There’s so much going on that at times, it’s hard to focus! It’s a schizophrenic assault on the senses that leaves you unsure where to look, and suffering from unavoidable A.D.D. This is, of course, all underpinned by Devin’s sensational tunes. Changing to a black suit and top-hat for ‘Vampira’, Devy and co are as tight musically as the party is visually. Townsend’s nuclear charisma permeates the room, his animated face tilting to slack-jawed onlookers as showmanship matches technicality.
The second half is different still; An acoustic ambience of ‘Hyperdrive’ eases us back in gently, followed by Anneke and Devin’s stunning harmonising on ‘Ih-Ah!’ and ‘Where We Belong’. Grins encircle the band; easily-reachable front and sides of the stage at the Roundhouse give everyone their own vantage point.
The maestro proves versatility in all from eye-boggling decadence, to bare bones of stripped melody and his unique vocals. Mitts clutch Ziltoid puppets and wave lighters; mouths chant anthemic choruses. It’s all lovely and civilised, until the band dust off some geriatric skeletons and launch into Strapping Young Lad’s ‘Detox’ and ‘Love?’ for the first time in seven years!
The mood shifts tectonic plates, as Vesuvius erupts under one roof. Bass and drums pummel my chest, and some bloke starts spinning on his heels in front of me until his cardboard Devin mask flies off his head, narrowly missing mine.
Horns are thrown; bodies slide atop hands; middle-aged dads induce DIY whiplash. The heaviness extends to DTP’s ‘Juular’ and ‘Bend It Like Bender’ – made even more monumental in 2012 with original SYL guitarist, Jed Simon. Density is relieved by belly-dancing, floating light-balls and a giant tree dragged out for ‘Life’, with Devin’s self-confessed ‘worst guitar solo ever’ cheesing things up beneath his vocal vibrato. Make-up artist Alice Bizarre retouches his cosmetics onstage, as two columns of confetti rain paper snow.
After the ball is over, Devin metaphorically takes out his glass eye: disrobing into a khaki jumper and slacks for encore ‘Little Pig’, seemingly more comfortable as realist than ringmaster.
Roaring, slipping over squashed plastic and spilled booze, we watch the spellbinding carnival conclude.
On first hearing about tonight in 2011, I was right to expect something special. Let’s face it: Devin’s an iconic institution in the alternative sphere. His blend of sonic surrealism and existentialist “We are all puppets” human critique, testifies his creation of some of the most ground-breaking cornerstones of the music world. And while I confess that I’d have loved to hear further snippets from the archives, namely the mighty ‘Earth Day’ and ‘Deadhead’, it’s been mesmerising to witness such a cross-temporal bag of gems, from a truly original sensation.
An amazing night, and when the DVD is released, I can’t wait to relive it again!