Artistry is never about conformity and straight lines. It’s about taking risks, and then pushing boundaries to a point where the impossible suddenly seems a little more flexible. Such has been the career of Devin Townsend, one of the most uniquely insightful musicians of the 21st Century. And it’s certainly the case with the Retinal Circus.
Staged at The Roundhouse in London on October 27, 2012, this was the chance for Townsend to present a performance that summarised his career so far. And he did it with aplomb, style, humour, a sense of blackness and a touch of the bizarre.
“My manager and I were looking for a way to sum up 20 years of my music, without making it seem that I was some kind of multi-headed hydra. And over a period of time we came up with the idea of the Retinal Circus.”
The concept was to piece together a presentation that was musical, visual and startling. One that reflected Townsend’s own remarkable ability to take up almost any idea, twist it within his own show, thereby adding to the overall impact.
“To me it’s like somebody putting a cauldron in the middle of a room, with only a nail in it. Eventually someone comes along and says, ‘That cauldron could do with some potatoes’. And then someone else says, ‘Let’s add some tomatoes’, and before you know it you have a cauldron filled to the brim with all sorts of interesting items. That’s how we approached this concept.”
Over a period of eight to 10 months, during which time he was also working on other projects, Townsend assembled all the factors and talents that would eventually help to spit this Circus into something so fascinating that it took The Roundhouse by storm, and is still being spoken about as one of the great triumphs of the live environment over the past decade. While the centrepiece was clearly the music that has helped to propel Townsend to such eminence, it’s very diversity allowed for the introduction of characters who were wild and wacky enough to be the music made flesh and blood – not to mention fire breathing skills, in some cases!
“We always knew that it was going to be a one-off performance. It’s not as if we planned to repeat the process. So what you see and hear is captured from the one night when the Retinal Circus will ever be brought to life.”
Given the complexity and wide-ranging nature of this production, it’s astonishing to think that there were just one-and-a-half days of rehearsal time prior to the show itself. But it would all prove to be quite extraordinary, as the night in question brought out a kind of collective feral belief from everyone.
“To me, it’s like going on a long bicycle ride. You can always give up at any point, but what do get out of that? It’s far more satisfying to keep going, whatever the problems you face, and to know that you’ve made it on your own merit and in your own time.”
Since the show itself happened, Townsend has been busy getting together the live release, and ensuring that every aspect reflects the night itself in the best possible sense.
“I wanted the sound and musical quality to be of the highest order. I wanted the commentary, the visuals...everything about it to be appealing and comprehensive. And I feel that’s what I’ve now got. This will never happen again, so what I release to the fans has to be of a quality that reflects the original ideals. It was so much fun to do, and had so much passion. I believe you can feel that when you watch and listen.”
The Retinal Circus was so extreme, full of depth and intelligence that it should have taken much longer to produce with considerably more financial and manpower back-up. But then the beauty of Townsend is that he made it work on his own terms and in his own times.
“It was an absurd project to start. But it was an even more absurd project to finish. But I am proud of what I did. I will always have a special place for the Retinal Circus.”
London, August 2013