Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #132. Subscribe to our print edition here!
The bald man with the big jams (a.k.a. Devin Townsend) is back, and with Empath, he looks to find a musical translation to the absolute chaos that is Earth in 2019. Words by Matt Doria.
The eccentricity of Devin Townsend’s art makes him a favourite of those who like to… Erm, open their third eye with some ingestible assistance, so to speak, before they sit down to spin his tunes. But heed our warning: Empath is so anfractuous and unhinged that it’s almost guaranteed to send any good trip southward.
“To call the LP insane would be an understatement – lashings of guitars, synths, orchestration, drums and vocals clash and collide with a forceful and ferocious extremity. It can be a taxing listen at first, but somewhere along the line it all starts to click, and all the threads that Townsend sprawls across the record start to stitch up. You could say it’s avant garde, but at its core, Empath is an all-out assault on the senses.
And that’s exactly what makes it beautiful. Because by way of his creative capriciousness, Townsend has crafted a deftly ravishing portrait of the innate tumultuous nature of reality. It’s a living, breathing masterstroke of anxiety – the cataclysmic thoughts of a man struggling to comprehend his own existence, translated into sound as authentically as possible.
“What I started recognising with Empath is the nature of the statement I was trying to make,” Townsend says, describing the moment it occurred to him how the album would come to be, “Which is that life is crazy, and life is constantly taking you in unexpected directions. And in a lot of ways, my discontent with what I had been doing with DTP over the past few years was rooted – at least in part – in the sense that I had been ignoring certain parts of my nature that are very fundamental.
“Because again, life isn’t always peaches and cream – there’s a lot of depression, a lot of anger and a lot of hostility in the world that, as a sensitive person and as an artist, are impossible to ignore. And with Empath, it was important for me to recognise those things, as much as it was important to recognise the beautiful things in life. The jarring juxtaposition between those emotional peaks and valleys ended up becoming the theme of the record.”
Empath came about in an interesting way for Townsend – which is a shock to say, given how whimsical and provocative all of his 25-plus albums sound. At the start of 2018, after a whirlwind decade of nonstop touring and impossibly lofty album releases, Townsend announced that he was putting Devin Townsend Project – his five-piece metal project, and main focus since ‘09 – to rest, in favour of winding down his output and prioritising quality over quantity.
Thus meant the Canadian maverick had the freedom to really take his time with Empath, and allow the album to flourish in an organic way, rather than force him to chug inhuman volumes of coffee and spend all-nighters in the studio trying to hash it. The end result is an album that truly pushes the limits of how many layers can fit in one mix – a surefire headache for any professional producer. So, naturally, Townsend decided to handle the entire process himself.
“I think my decision to mix this record myself was one of necessity,” he says. “In my mind, all this work is orchestrated in some sense – the guitars are just one piece of the puzzle, in the same way that the bass, or the vocals, or the samples, or the drums… Everything has a place and a purpose. Hopefully, you’re looking at some sort of fractal; anything that becomes a feature in that – unless it’s done sparingly and fleetingly – compromises that sense of oppressiveness that I think comes from everything being at a similar level. And so I ended up mixing it myself because when I hand my work over to other people, it often comes back with loud drums, loud guitars and loud vocals. And that’s a really cool sound – it actually worked really well on Transcendence – but that’s not what the vision was with Empath, I’m afraid.”
Despite reigning with a wall of intense and idiosyncratic tones, Townsend wasn’t looking to overload his arsenal of guitars when it came to the studio sessions for Empath.
“It’s all just my Framus stuff,” he says. “All the guitar parts [on Empath] are just the Stormbender; I think in one part, I used the other Plank guitar that I worked on with Framus. Because I mean, I designed guitars with Framus so that I wouldn’t have to use any other guitars. I went back to some of the old Framuses I had lying around – for shits and giggles, I even plugged in a Les Paul and a Strat – but 99 percent of this record is my signature Framus stuff.
“And for the amplifiers, I just used the Axe-Fx 3. I miked up every amplifier in the world that I could find – I had a Triple Rectifier and a Triple Crown, an EVH 5153, a Soldano and an Orange, and all sorts of other stuff – but I ended up going back to the Fractal every time because it just sounds right to me. And what I also think is really cool about digital solutions, in terms of guitar processing, is that I can almost take a photocopy of a big sound and make it smaller.
“When I miked up the amps, it was too big of a sound – it took up all this sonic space, and then when I high-passed it and low-passed it to try and make it work with the orchestras and choirs and synths and all this other stuff, all that was left over was the midrange. And the that made those amps sound so cool is the fact that they all had this massive frequency range. When I tried to tame that to fit it into this framework, it just didn’t work. And so I went back to the Axe-Fx, and I found a lot of success with that.”
Of course, fans shouldn’t get used to the version of Townsend we get to know on Empath: the multi‑hyphenate has been known to flip the script on his signature sound at a second’s notice, and though Empath took a few years to materialise in all its resplendent, rollercoaster-esque glory, he already has several entirely different projects in the works.
In October of 2017, when Townsend first announced Empath, he also announced three other records (one branded The Moth, and the other two untitled), some new jams from his Casualties Of Cool project (with Ché Aimee Dorval and Morgan Ågren), and an ominous promise of some ‘heavy songs’. But when asked about the potential timeline of those releases, Townsend was hesitant to confirm whether any of those records would even make it to the finish line.
“I’ve always got three other albums in the pipeline,” he explains. “But I think the nature of those records is nebulous until I strike upon a defining moment. When I first realised what Empath was going to be, it was in the presence of some sort of emotional moment that made me aware of what my trajectory should include. Up until that point, I had a vague awareness of what the music would be and where I was going, but it wasn’t until that moment where I was like, ‘Right, that’s how it’s supposed to feel’ that I understood what the record was going to materialise into.
“And these other three records that I’ve kind of got floating around in my mind right now… To a lesser or a greater degree, I’ve got the vibes starting to establish themselves. But until such time that I have that sort of ‘eureka’ moment, they’re just ghosts. I’ve got a shitload of demos of things that could be one project or another, but I haven’t had that ‘eureka’ moment with them yet.”