Casualties of Cool
Union Chapel, Islington
4th September 2014
Review by Chris Brown
Photography by Michelle Murphy
For the ever swelling legions fans and fanatics of Devin Townsend alike, it is undoubted that London is the place to be for those who get to be a part of his most unique performances. Building from the four back-to-back shows from the By a Thread tour in 2011 and the magnificent spectacle that was the Retinal Circus show in 2012, the Casualties of Cool album is one that was born from the dedication of his fan base, and there was no more fitting place to showcase this latest offering than what he must feel as a spiritual home.
The album itself is a result of a highly successful campaign hosted by pledgemusic.com, from which 200 percent of the pledge total was amassed in a staggering 12 hours, and was one he’s described as the first album he’s produced which is truer to his own tastes since his 1997 release of Ocean Machine: Biomech.
However, to imply this latest offering was a piece of mere self indulgence would be to ignore at least half of the magic that surrounds it. Not that there is anything wrong with that. After all, so much brilliance has emanated from the band formerly know as ‘The Devin Townsend Band’, ‘Devin Townsend Project’ and ‘Devin Towsend and his Merry Band of Orchestral Milkmen’. In his latest incarnation, christened unmodestly ‘Casualties of Cool’ (taking note of the implied plural) would suggest he perhaps might be talking a small sidestep and let someone else have a go at being brilliant for a bit. Devin has often collaborated in the past with Dutch starlet Anneke van Giersbergen, but here we see the return of the soulful wonder that is Ché Aimee Dorval, who also featured on the Ki album.
Her performance on the night was outstanding and was by no means second fiddle to the man who, undoubtedly, was the one most people were there that night to see. More than that though, observing the stage presence between the two of them showed how much the album was an equal collaboration. While her voice is good on the record; live, its beyond incredible.
Coupled with a really captivating performance from the band (including Devin’s long term right hand man, Dave Young), they produce a faithful replication of the music from the album with some added embellishment that had a real ethereal quality to it. The acoustics provided by the exquisite surroundings produced a near perfect sound that would have shown up any mistake of which, stylistically, there were none.
With his usual relaxed swagger, Devin made light of a slight delay in the start of the show and the crowd were swept up by it instantly. There must have been a few thousand people in there yet it had the feel of kids sat round the fire at Christmas, waiting to be told a story.
In shows I’ve seen him in previous to this, the captivating likability of the man always offers something unique to the night. However, not wanting to be outdone on her big night, Che would joke that from that point on he could only say the words “thank you” and only three times. Compared to his acoustic performance at Download festival some years previous – one that was held together almost entirely by his charisma and audience interaction, tonight there was no room for ‘the man on-stage’.
This was a night that the music was to speak for itself. Witnessing this unfold from up in the balcony, I noticed that this is probably one of the few gigs I’ve been to where the all but a few of the crowd were taking it in solely through their eyes and ears, and not through their phones and cameras. Instead, they observed on in a polite awe and appreciation. And this was definitely in no way due to the licensing regulations of the venue not permitting alcohol into the performing arena…
It still seems incredible to me how intimate the gig felt from so far away. For me, you really have to applaud the imagination of the unnamed faces who put the show together behind the scenes. So much of the atmosphere that was achieved was due to how it was more about the sound being left to fill these incredible surroundings, over the spectacle we’re so accustomed to seeing from a live performance.
Clever use of spotlights to the rear of the stage might have blinded most of the upper tier, but the simplicity and effectiveness of the way in which they cast silhouettes over the performers and coloured the stage like cosmic wisp of emotion really helped to remove all distractions. With added touches like the candlelight, you couldn’t help but be totally immersed in an atmosphere that really took me by surprise and totally blew me away.
While I understood Casualties of Cool to be a concept album, it surprised me to hear them play the songs on the night in a different running order. For a while it crossed my mind that they were burning through the better material early on and I was a bit fearful that the magic they’d effortlessly created would lose it’s momentum.
In this setting though, there was so much added feeling to what was already an emotional record and, despite the debilitating numbness that I received from the traditional wooden pews they had you sitting on, you couldn’t have torn me away for a second of it. Having revisited the album after the show, I found myself doing so with a renewed appreciation for the record as a whole, albeit one I had to shine a torch in my face and lie on a wooden floor to re-create the experience.
To think that were still tickets left for the show that morning seems strange to me considering how highly anticipated I understood the night was to be. This was the second of only two performances in the UK and I really feel for those who missed out because to capture the feel of this night again I fear would be nigh on impossible to replicate.
These two were made to perform together and I can only hope that we don’t have to wait too long to see what they can produce next time around.