Have you ever intensely looked forward to something, and then when that thing arrives, it’s even better than you hoped it would be?
I know, this is not the way it usually goes. I’ve written a lot in this space about expectation, and how it changes our perception of art. I can’t count the number of times I have waited breathlessly for an album or movie or book, then had to deal with the reality of that work falling short of what I wanted it to be. It’s a process, in my mind, to separate the art itself from the expectation of it – to say that no, this isn’t what I wanted, but in going a different direction, the artist has created something special.
Prolonged expectation really skews that process. The most prominent example I can think of is Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. It’s no exaggeration to say that I waited 16 years for that movie, and as reports of its filming and post-production leaked out over the years leading up to its release, my excitement grew and grew. I waited in line for something like 18 hours to buy tickets to the midnight premiere, and I don’t regret a minute of that. It was so much fun. But the movie was something else, and it took many repeat viewings for me to separate the actual Episode One from my thoughts and ideas of what it should have been. (I have ended up liking it, despite its many and obvious flaws.)
But sometimes – very rarely, but sometimes – a movie or a book or (in this case) an album not only meets those expectations, it surpasses them. And when that happens, I spend days upon days just reveling in it, absorbing it, learning its contours. Of course, you’ve all figured out that I’m not speaking hypothetically. I do have an album to talk about this week that blew past all of my hopes for it, and that album is Devin Townsend’s Empath.
I’m sure many of you are Googling Devin Townsend right now. He’s a Canadian musician with more than 25 albums to his name, and he’s been plying his trade since the mid-‘90s. Still, I’m not surprised when people haven’t heard of him. Devin’s work is intense, in all the best ways, and he’s been evolving as an artist, rarely putting out the same type of album twice. He began as the sole member of extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad, eventually adding musicians and producing five vicious, impossible-to-play albums under that name. His solo material began as a wall-of-sound version of metal, with so much under the surface that it almost seemed like very loud ambient music, but has grown into something much bigger and harder to describe.
Lately he’s been working with a core group of conspirators on the Devin Townsend Project, sorting his various influences into boxes and spotlighting them. This has brought us from the insane Zappa-metal extremes of Deconstruction to the glorious atmospheres of Ghost to the pop powerhouses that make up Epicloud. It’s been a great run, but in 2017 Devin disbanded the Project, looking to bring all of his styles together in one massive solo album called Empath.
That album is now here, and it’s astonishing.
Nothing I say in the next few paragraphs will be any kind of substitute for hearing this thing. Empath is a sonic sculpture, a triumph of production. There’s so much going on here that I could spend the next three pages just describing the first song. (I won’t do that, but I could.) As a record maker, he’s outdone himself here, and if you’re familiar with Devin’s work, you know what a statement that is. It almost feels like he spent the last 20 years learning how to make Empath, from a production standpoint.
This album feels like an arrival point for Devin as a songwriter, too. The DTP certainly showed off his range, and gave him the opportunity to grow in a dozen different styles. As promised, Empath brings all of those styles together, and it fully knocks down the walls between them. These songs jump styles and genres like they’re hopscotch squares. This thing opens with ambient music, glides into steel-drum island sounds, then blossoms into a full choral arrangement before the loudloudLOUD guitars even come in. Then that first song, “Genesis,” takes us from groove-rock to blast-beat extravagance to video game music to 1920s balladry, complete with strings and choir.
Honestly, it’s almost too much to take in, and there’s 74 minutes of it. “Spirits Will Collide” is a pop song designed to give your ear something to hang on to, but it’s early, and the album never gets that accessible again. When I heard the oh-my-god-how-did-humans-play-this explosion of “Hear Me” slip effortlessly into the Disney-esque orchestrations of “Why,” my jaw dropped. Devin can really sing all this material, too, from full-throated screams to sweetly melodic passages, but he brings in a small army of collaborators to vocalize as well. (Evidently fellow Canuck Chad Kroger of Nickelback is somewhere in the chaos of “Hear Me,” but I haven’t been able to find him.)
After 50 minutes of mind-melting music, which wraps up with the beautiful “Requiem,” Empath closes with a monster. The 24-minute “Singularity” is Devin’s most accomplished extended composition, rising slowly over its first movements and earning its massive catharsis. Only its abrupt ending keeps me from swooning entirely, but I can forgive that for the genre-destroying mastery that precedes it. In many ways that ending feels like a “to be continued” card, pointing forward to whatever Devin can possibly do to follow this.
There’s another aspect of Empath that I love, and it only comes from following Devin’s career and listening to him change and grow as a person, not just as a musician. His early work is ugly on purpose, exorcising his anger issues and his addictions, and some of it is difficult to listen to. Over time he has devoted more and more of his music to joyous celebrations of togetherness, and Empathis the culmination of all of that. This is a relentlessly positive album, even in its more aggressive moments, and it’s all about spirituality and community and, well, empathy. And it’s a great pleasure to hear him arrive here, both musically and personally.
I don’t know if I’ve said enough to sell you on this experience. I hope I have. Empath is amazing. It’s the kind of album artists spend their whole lives pursuing. Devin Townsend is a one-of-a-kind musician, and Empathis the most Devin Townsend album he has ever made. It’s an exhausting thing to listen to, an excessive outpouring of complexity and sheer sound, and I mean that in the best possible way. Very few people on the planet could have made an album like this, and no one else would have. It’s pure, uncut Devin, and it makes me giddy. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever given us.
* * * * *
Speaking of insane complexity, I just got the 40th anniversary edition of Zappa in New York.
My admiration for Frank Zappa as a composer and a player is well known, I expect. There will never be another like him, and any attempt to squeeze his work into a box and market it is doomed to failure. But while he was alive, record companies were tasked with doing just that. The most famous story of Frank’s inability to play by record company rules concerns a four-disc set called Lather, and Warner Bros.’ insistence that it be cut down into several smaller bites for public consumption.
One of those bites was 1978’s Zappa in New York, which documented a 1976 run of shows at the Palladium in New York City. Most of the material on the album was new, debuted and recorded live, and it includes such Zappa classics as “The Black Page #2” and “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” It also originally contained an 11-minute stunner called “Punky’s Whips,” detailing a strange relationship between drummer Terry Bozzio and a publicity photo of Punky Meadows, guitarist for the band Angel. Warner Bros. really didn’t like “Punky’s Whips” and forcibly removed it from the original issue of the album. (It was restored for a 1991 reissue that included four bonus tracks as well.)
Zappa gets the last laugh here, though, with this extravagant and extraordinary new edition. Let me just describe the packaging first. The whole thing comes in a New York-style pizza box with the familiar Zappa in New York marquee logo printed on it. When you open the box, you see the second box – a metal canister shaped like a New York City hubcap. It is, frankly, beautiful, and when you open that canister, you get an expansive booklet, a replica of a ticket to one of the Palladium shows, and five (FIVE) CDs of material.
I know this isn’t exhaustive – only a complete recording of the 1976 concerts would be – but it’s plenty for me. In addition to the original Zappa in New York, appearing here in its 1978 vinyl mix for the first time, you get almost three and a half hours of additional performances from the Palladium shows. These are unedited and unsweetened live recordings of one of Zappa’s best bands, with special guest Don Pardo having the time of his life, and hearing them wind their way through so much complicated material is a treat. The fifth disc contains some additional gems from the vault, and a brand new recording of a piano arrangement of “The Black Page #2” performed by the incredible Ruth Underwood.
Suffice it to say that I have been making my way through this mammoth set since it arrived, and I’ve been marveling at the performances Frank always managed to get from his players. I wish I could have seen him live – I was two when these concerts were recorded, alas. It’s not the same, but listening to the stunning work captured on the new Zappa in New York set will have to do.
Next week, Sara Bareilles and Weyes Blood, I think. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.