Devin Townsend Project
posted on 9/2012 By:
Here are two fairly basic statements about Epicloud, the fifth album from the Devin Townsend Project: First, it is not going to change anyone’s mind – about Devin Townsend, about the relative merits of his solo career versus Strapping Young Lad, about this aspect of his solo career versus that aspect, or about Canadians in general. Second, it is a love song. Sure, it’s also a fifty-minute album made up of discrete songs and moods, but in essence, Epicloud as an album is a single love song. Precisely to what or to whom that love is directed is left in your capable hands and ears, listener, but Epicloud’s cloud-bursting exuberance is undeniable, as is the fact that Epicloud is an absolutely brilliant album that may at the same time sound like complete garbage to people who have missed what I judge to be the album’s greatest strength: It murders irony.
Epicloud is not an album that allows for hipness or smugness or bon mots laden with sneering superiority. Epicloud is a boxer whose fists are pop songs and honey-wine and who won’t fight you anyway because it’s too busy hugging rainbows and helping old ladies cross the street to win the lottery. You see, I have a bit of a theory about Devin Townsend. I think his public image has been magnified and caricatured (whether intentionally or not I can’t quite say, as I’ve never met the man; I might surmise it to be a little bit of both) so as to more easily allow for the purer self-expression of humble, questing, embarrassing, and ultimately rather innocent ideas.
As anyone with even a passing interest in the heavier of heavy musics in the past few decades may know, the man has somehow developed a reputation for being a bit of a clown. A massively multi-talented one, to be sure, but between the over-the-top aggression of Strapping Young Lad and the wild, willful diversity (sometimes bordering on hyperactivity) of his solo career, plus his public blending of outgoing humor and careful, inward thoughtfulness, the image carried by many is of a rather madcap Canadian screaming in a microphone and running around with puppets.
It’s all a feint, though, as I see it, and that’s become increasingly clear with the progression of Townsend’s music with the Devin Townsend Project. Starting off with the rather ambitious goal of recording four albums in four different styles with four different line-ups, the Project seemed designed right from the off to parse out and amplify all the myriad stylistic and lyrical tendencies of Townsend’s career, as if the easier to facilitate self-examination. From this perspective, everyone throwing around adjectives like “zany,” “wacky,” “hilarious,” and so forth in reference to two of Townsend’s most notably ‘out there’ statements of recent years - 2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient and 2011’s Deconstruction - has badly misread the intent of those albums. While not discounting the presence of purposefully strident humor in both albums, I think the storyline and intentionally absurd, over-the-top nature of each served as a mask for Townsend’s true animating concerns.
Basically, if you think that Devin is singing to or about an actual hand puppet when he screams “I am a puppet! / I am a puppet! / We are all puppets! / We are all puppets!” on “Color Your World,” or that he’s actually interested in singing about a cheeseburger on Deconstruction’s title track, then I’m arguing that you may have bought into a convenient (and partially self-promoted) narrative about Devin Townsend The Man And The Artist that I think is flawed and false. But whatever your opinion about those preceding albums or any of Townsend’s other solo work, it seems clear to me that Epicloud is where any of those distancing tricks, any masking, any last vestige of ironic or humorous detachment finally and completely falls off. As saturated and gleaming and sumptuously produced as the album is, Epicloud is finally, unavoidably, irreducibly naked.
So now in more detail to the album at hand. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the album is the fact that, despite the many superficial similarities – streamlined and highly accessible song structures, massively hooky choruses, and the presence of Anneke van Giersbergen’s heavenly vocals – Epicloud never quite seems just like Addicted, Part Two. Of the albums in the DTP quadrilogy, Epicloud is certainly closest in spirit and execution to Addicted, but there are traces of Townsend’s other solo work all over the place, from the slightly “Bad Devil”-ish vibe of the swinging, rollicking “Lucky Animals” to the fleeting reference to the bliss-drenched guitar heroics of the midsection of Devin’s all-time great “Deep Peace” that crops up on Epicloud’s closer, “Angel.”
Infinitely more important than the details of these specific songs is the fact that this particular reviewer has found it physically impossible to be unhappy while listening to Epicloud. I’ve only had access to the album for about a week, but I’ve easily played it a dozen times, and every single time, without fail, I get a massive grin on my face and feel like I’m being warmed from within and hugged by a million puppies all at once.
One of the crucial reasons for that is the presence of a full gospel choir. You shouldn’t have to tax your grey matter too much to recall that throughout the history of popular music, one nearly infallible way to signal that shit is about to get really real is with a full choir. The Stones did it with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Sisters of Mercy did it with “This Corrosion.” Madonna with “Like a Prayer.” Coolio with “Gangsta’s Paradise.” And on and on, an eternity of shit getting real. The choir accompanies Townsend throughout the album, from the a cappella introduction “Effervescent!” to the glorious synth-pop metal of “Save Our Now” to the miraculous “Angel.” Nowhere on Epicloud does the choir shine brighter, however, than on the inspirational break in the glowing “Liberation”: “Rock! Let’s rock! The time has come to forget all the bullshit and rock!”
If a gospel choir exhorting you to “Rock!” is the sort of thing that’s likely to have you running for the exits with arms unwaveringly folded across your chest, then this was probably never intended for you. Still, keep in mind what I said earlier: Devin Townsend, and on this album perhaps more than ever, is a destroyer of irony. The entirety of Epicloud oozes and swells with huge, hooky, sugary, diamond-plated pop, but Townsend absolutely never seems like he’s winking or mugging for the camera or rolling his eyes as if to say, conspiratorially, “Hey, isn’t it hilarious that we’re pretending to express such uncool sentiments?” If the joy and yearning that is Epicloud’s primary currency ever felt like a put-on, the album would be a post-ironic hipster-baiting atrocity. Instead, it’s a fucking love song, so cool it with your bad vibes already.
Two major assets still need to be spotlighted. First is the decision to remake one of Physicist’s highlights, “Kingdom.” It’s a fantastic song and a proven crowd-pleaser, but if you had asked me a few months ago whether or not it needed to be remade, I would’ve said probably not. After hearing this updated version, though, please slap my ass and call me the world’s silliest baboon because it is so MASSIVE there’s simply no way to say so without getting all caps-lock-shouty. The production is thicker and more resonant, and Devin’s vocals are simply untouchable, raw and pure and sleek. In fact, placing this remake in the dead-center of the album was a pretty ballsy move. It’s such a brilliant song, and the remake is so impossibly huge, that it runs the risk of overshadowing anything else on the album. Luckily, thanks to another particularly gigantic song, “Kingdom” comes across as the perfect midpoint, a towering crescendo that puts a capstone on the album’s first half and clears the way for the life of the world to come.
There but for “Grace,” as it were. After the soothing interlude of “Divine,” with its echoes of “Ih-Ah!,” Epicloud delivers “Grace.” Opening with one of Anneke’s most generous solo spots, the song soon explodes in the most forceful distillation of the maximalist, Technicolor approach that defines Epicloud. Compositionally, the song is exceedingly simple, with the choir mostly backing up single words at a time with the tactile force of many human diaphragms working in tandem. But in its stunningly widescreen execution, and backed by Ryan van Poederooyen’s most SYL-ish drum punishment, “Grace” sounds like jumping into an endless mosh pit with all the angels of all the heavens. What’s more, the song serves as Epicloud’s emotional linchpin, ensuring that what may have felt at first like a compendium of warm fuzzy songs is instead easily recognizable as prelude to and comedown from that single, most fundamental, most pitilessly irony-demolishing thought: “I know the way! / And you know the way! / We all fall down if we fear love! / Never fear love! / Never fear love!” Snicker at the emotional nakedness of that if you want, at the simplicity bordering on the obvious or the coy or the naïve, but the music does not tell you that you should feel that way. The music tells you that it believes what it is saying, and what it is saying is sweet, and the world is a place that can sometimes be sweet if you just cut your bullshit and let it.
The very end of the album’s closer reprises the choral opening of “Effervescent!,” and thus caps the remarkable one-two touch of sweetness and light that is “Hold On” and “Angel” in a nice circular fashion. The pacing and sequencing of the album is so remarkably good - I have already served notice that I would like to nominate the transition between “Save Our Now” and “Kingdom” as The Finest Thing Ever - that the jumped-up shuffle and cock-rock-faking solo in “More!” yields effortlessly to that beautiful concluding suite. Anneke’s voice dances all over the place on the chorus to “Hold On” and the intro to “Angel,” such that thinking back on the album, you know her voice must have been dancing all over everywhere, off the page and out of the speakers and into your life, forever. Still, when all the jubilant noise settles, what resonates most deeply, like a slow-motion tapping of the pristine water’s surface at the beginning of all things, is that first and also final stake through the heart of the foul beast, irony: Anneke’s simple introductory refrain to “True North”: “I love you, I love you / I need you / I’ll always be around.”
Bring it home, Madge - let the choir sing: Music makes the people come together.
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