Released: 2006, Inside Out
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
There are two things that Devin Townsend’s musical output will never be accused of: stagnancy or lacking in originality. Whether it is his more well-known work with Strapping Young Lad or underground independent projects like Ocean Machine, no two albums are ever the same. Townsend is an auteur in the truest sense of the word. He writes, records, performs, produces and occasionally distributes his music without bowing to trends or expectations. The most commercially-viable wing of the Townsend psyche is found in The Devin Townsend Band, with its melodic and soothing sonic tapestries draped in a cloak of progressive elements. The sophomore release from that particular entity is SYNCHESTRA, a brilliantly eclectic, 65-minute dance through lush soundscapes created by Townsend’s “wall of sound” production, top-notch musicianship and uniquely off-beat lyrical presentation. SYNCHESTRA embodies the best components of the wraithlike TERRIA, the quirkiness of INFINITY, the melodies of ACCELERATED EVOLUTION and the massive production of OCEAN MACHINE to unleash what may very well be the epitome of the man’s artistic vision and arguably his greatest vocal perfomance. Like most of Townsend’s works, SYNCHESTRA requires several sessions to fully digest its broad palette and while not a concept album, the thirteen tracks (and one “hidden” track) certainly do complement each other and require a front-to-back digestion to fully realize their potential. While some may dismiss Townsend as a pretentious oddball, fans of his work will revel in the genius of SYNCHESTRA and rejoice in witnessing the man trump almost ten years of carefully orchestrated solo material in one album.
The acoustic opener, “Let It Roll,” exudes all the charm of a Celtic folk song and Townsend’s crooning clean vocal will surprise even a time-tested fan. Likewise, the sampled nature effects of “Hypergeek” and its picked acoustic guitar are quickly abolished for a crashing wave of double bass and a piercing scream that would not be out of place on PHYSICIST. One of the most interesting tracks is “Triumph,” not just for the guest solo from a surprisingly muted Steve Vai, but through its ability to balance the two sides of Townsend: controlled and melodic versus unrestrained and chaotic. The banjo-tinged, hoe-down stomp that begins midway through the song is book-ended by some of the most expansive production and impressive musicianship ever found on a Townsend release. Vai’s ninety seconds of noodling at the end of the song are simply the icing on the cake. If Townsend’s famously receding hairline does not show his age, the lyrics to “The Baby Song,” a companion piece to “Possessions” from the latest Strapping Young Lad offering, ALIEN, will. At age 33, Townsend is feeling the inevitable pressure to produce offspring but his reluctance to essentially “grow up” is examined here in a profound and curious manner. The lilting first line—“Why don’t you have a baby?”—and further passages that appear to be from his unborn child’s point of view point out a dichotomy that all adults must face but hearing this from the man who penned “Oh My Fucking God” is rather jarring. Once the listener gathers his senses, the amusing “Vampolka,” complete with surf guitar, oompah-tuba, bizarro organ and animal sounds, throws another curveball. The instrumental lead-in to first single, “Vampira,” is quirky at just the right moment to bring the listener out of the melancholic head-scratching of “The Baby Song” and into one of the catchiest and most lyrically tongue-in-cheek tracks ever penned by Townsend. “Gaia,” the standout track on SYNCHESTRA, rolls along at a surprisingly brisk pace given its six-plus-minute length and the space-y aura produced by the song is akin to the feeling of the TERRIA album. Ryan Van Poederooyen’s drumming really shines on this track, as well, going from punchy rock with a driving beat to a more muted prog roll with emphasis on cymbals and snare. Taking another left turn is the Eastern chanting and mystical female vocals on “Pixillate,” a sonically expansive trip through uncharted territory for Townsend. “Notes From Africa,” featuring a falsetto vocal from Townsend and a blink-and-you-miss-it nod to “Love?” from ALIEN, is a track similar in style to “Storm” or “Life,” with an expansive soundscape and poignant lyrics that are unabashedly personal. A hidden track entitled “Sunshine & Happiness” is a sugary-sweet pop/rock song that could be a leftover from arena rock gods Cheap Trick but it is the perfect ending to an awe-inspiring trip.
Unfortunately, the abundance of instrumental tracks and ambient segways tend to thwart some of the momentum that builds. Beginning SYNCHESTRA with two light, breezy tracks sets the wrong tone for the middle portion of the CD which becomes darker and moodier is a perfect example of this. Also, the over-lengthy and oxymoronic “A Simple Lullaby” is hardly soothing with the mostly-instrumental track concluding with Townsend inexplicably shrieking “FIRE!!” and “RUNNING!!” amid a faux cheering crowd. Many of Townsend’s compositions have left me scratching my head over the years and this is no exception. Finally, at over an hour, SYNCHESTRA suffers from the same fate that TERRIA does—length. Some selective editing by an objective third party would have eliminated this but true to Townsend’s DIY attitude, such will never happen.
Die-hard fans of Devin Townsend will marvel at the genius of SYNCHESTRA and engage themselves in lengthy discourse over the merit of his artistic freedoms but the fact of the matter is that this album could arguably be a fitting coda to Townsend’s unpredictable career. His wink-wink-nudge-nudge references to past works are all here and the creative license has never been more liberal while maintaining the obsessive ear for perfection at every corner. Not as melodic as ACCELERATED EVOLUTION, not as “out there” as INFINITY and a bit more restrained than TERRIA, SYNCHESTRA perfectly embodies the best elements of those albums and rolls them into one. The sight of SYNCHESTRA marching its way to the upper reaches of year-end Top Ten lists is inevitable and deservedly so. While not entirely perfect, this is as near as Townsend has got to that career pinnacle all artists seek to achieve within a singular piece of work.
KILLER KUTS: “Triumph,” “The Baby Song,” “Vampira,” “Gaia,” “Notes From Africa”