Devin Townsend
Terria
27/08/2001
Devin Townsend isn’t the kind of person to make things easy for himself. In fact, it sometimes seems like this maverick Canadian musician’s entire career has consisted of a series of obstacles and challenges he’s thrown in his own way, daring himself to rise over them or trip up over his own shoelaces. Whether it was his four-albums-in-four-nights By A Thread extravaganza or his fabled Retinal Circus audio-sensory blow-out, he’s always taken a perverse delight in walking a high wire where glorious triumph and epic failure sit a hair’s breadth away from each other.

“I guess my objectives for my work, my life, my career, is to figure things out,” says Devin his pathological risk-taking . “As you progress, all these things you’ve figured out no longer hold any challenge. And without challenge, it gets boring for me. The risk of falling on my face - and sometimes not falling on my face - is where any true progress has occurred in my work.

On a strange night in December 2019, he bought his high wire act to The Roundhouse, a converted railway shed in Camden, North London. It was the penultimate show of the tour in support of his latest album, the breath-takingly intricate and ambitious Empath, which itself found the man who made it consciously throwing off the artistic shackles he’d spent the past two decades wrapping around himself.

That night at the Roundhouse was strange partly because it was the day of the British general election, and it wasn’t going the way a lot of people in the crowd and backstage wanted.

But for the man onstage - the self-professed perfectionist around which the beautiful chaos of this evening would revolve – it was strange for another reason. This was Devin Townsend without a safety net, as captured on the brand new Blu-Ray/DVD ‘Order of Magnitude – Empath Live Volume 1’.

“Because of the music I make, the direction of the live shows in the last couple of years has been that so much of it is on tape,” he say. “You can replicate an album well if you’ve got that. Imperfections aren’t eradicated but they’re reduced. I wanted to greet those imperfections, embrace them in a way I wouldn’t normally.”
Devin’s plan for the Empath touring cycle was to divide it up into three ‘Volumes’, and this was Volume 1. The idea behind the shows was a simple one: none of the backing tapes or click tracks that had long been necessary to bring the kaleidoscopic cacophony in his head and on his records to life in the flesh. This would just be Devin Townsend and a band of genius-level musicians getting up there and trying to keep it from spinning off into outer space. Or maybe just letting it spin-off into outer space for the sheer hell of it.

“The whole objective was that I wanted to make that statement: This is by the seat our pants,” he says. “Because it's important to me to represent this hyper anal-retentive music that I've made over the years, but in a human way. Rather than it just being, ‘Well, here it is, perfectly done.’”

In fairness, he had help. Just as every great general flanks himself with crack soldiers, so Devin surrounded himself with a group of musicians who could help him realise his potentially insane vision. The incredible line-up included guitarists Mike Kenneally (ex-Frank Zappa) and Markus Reuter (Stick Men, The Crimson Projekct), drummer Morgen Agren (Kaipa, Mats and Morgan, Frank Zappa), bassist Nathan Navarro, Haken keyboard player Diego Tejeida, and guitarist/vocalist Ché Aimee Dorval, as well as vocalists Samantha & Anne Preis & Arabella Packford. Some had worked with him before, others hadn’t. But here, that didn’t matter. Everyone was walking this particular high-wire together.

“I was overwhelmed by the fact that all these brilliant people that I have so much respect for were willing to come together and play this weird shit with me,” says Devin. “I had these unique players and this interesting instrumentation that allowed us to interpret the music in different ways. It was clear to me that I could just have fun and be me and know that they would be effortlessly be able to follow that.”

That sense of fun and freedom was evident to anyone who was there on the night. Visually, it was an assault on the senses in the best possible way. A digital screen projected vivid images throughout the show. A giant gleaming mirrorball hung from the ceiling. There were multiple costume changes and a tiki bar onstage (a tiki bar!). Any election night blues didn’t stand a chance.
Yet this was anything but a mindless rock’n’roll show. Empath itself was consciously structured as a journey, and while the setlist mixed songs from that album with deeper Townsend cuts from previous incarnations (“I thought, ‘If I’m paying for this, I want to play what I want to play,’” he says wryly), it was designed to follow a narrative of its own - one cycled through light and darkness, joy and despair, to reach an end-point of its own design.
“in order to get to any conclusion that is rooted in something real and something human, you've got to go through the darkness - you can't just ignore it. So it goes from being on the beach with the tiki bar, and then that's stripped away and we're at night and it's a dark vibe, and by the end of the show –between the costumes and the stage props and the musical dynamics – it ends in the place that's really euphoric.”

Euphoric or manic? Maybe the Empath show was a little bit of both. At times it certainly looked close to descending into the kind of heroic pandemonium that you only get when 10 people – the musicians plus a trio of backing singers that acted as a choir-come-Greek chorus – come together to recreate such complex music. At one point during Morgen Agren’s drum solo, Devin knelt beside the kit and handed the sticksman random objects to play, including a metal jug and a desk fan. There was a sense, more than once, that is was dangerously close to flying off the rails.

“I think it did fly off the rails, didn't it?” says Devin. “That was the whole point. I love the idea of looking at something and going, ‘What the fuck is going on up there?’ I really like it when things are anarchistic, and this was anarchy. Super high-level anarchy.”
It’s that sense of abandon and chaos-waiting-to-happen that makes Live At The Roundhouse so exhilarating. Few other artists, for instance, would dare to end the main set with a drastically rearranged version of one of their most beloved songs - in this case an acoustic version of Empath closer Spirits Will Collide delivered by Devin and the trio of backing singers – then follow it with an ecstatic version of The Trammps’ 1976 hit Disco Inferno that was both the perfect party anthem and a showcase for co-vocalist Ché Aimee Dorval.

“By that point, there’s 10 people on the stage just making chaos,” says Devin. “I really want it to be beautiful, but I also really want it to be clear that I just don’t care about what is expected or me or adhering to a certain genre. I simply want to follow it all where it leads. I can’t really break it down any more than that”

And that is precisely why ‘Order of Magnitude’ is his crowning glory. After a lifetime of caring - sometimes too much – this is Devin Townsend free and unchained, rising to yet another challenge that he had set himself on that strange night strange night in December 2019.

“With this particular Vol. 1 band,” says Devin, “it was about working through situations that seem implausible and either pulling them off or falling flat on our faces.”

With ‘Order of Magnitude – Empath Live Volume 1’., Devin Townsend has triumphed once again.