For anyone even faintly acquainted with Devin Townsend’s work (and I am far from an expert), the announcement of a new album immediately sets the mind racing at the possibilities. At times wilfully obscure, heartbreakingly emotional, downright savage or laugh-out-loud hilarious, the Canadian multi-instrumentalist’s oeuvre can lay a solid claim to being among the most diverse and thrillingly challenging out there. From the extreme industrial blasts of his Strapping Young Lad material through to his gleefully demented solo concept album Ziltoid the Omniscient, you get the feeling that ultimately Townsend himself is his only intended audience, and his myriad admirers are merely welcome to tag along for the ride.
Epicloud, Townsend’s FIFTH album in little more than three years, finds the artist at his most accessible and uplifting, but without losing anything in the way of the dizzying arrangements and colossal soundscapes that he has made his own. ‘True North’, the first track proper on the record, is a fairly good indication of where the album is headed, opening with shimmering synths and a strangely beautiful, childlike refrain, which gives way to a wave of guitars and melodies that picks you up and sweeps you along in its wake. Just as you’re getting comfortable the song breaks down in an eddy of discordant sounds – too much happening at once to process on any practical level – before a last-minute life-ring of gospel choirs and chimes brings you in to shore exhausted, safe and sound. From here on in, the only real option is to stop trying to make sense of it all and let your feelings take over, because at its heart this collection of songs is about pure emotion, the kind that runs off its own internal logic and needs nothing else to explain it.
The hyperactive stomp of ‘Lucky Animals’ comes in like Marilyn Manson on happy pills, and begs the pertinent question, ‘How do you know if you’re out of control?’, backed by the most funky brass sounds this side of New Orleans. ‘Liberation’ has the kind of positive energy that could heal the deepest of emotional scars, filled with fuzzy guitars, massive hooks and a falsetto line to give Def Leppard a run for their money. Elsewhere we get J-Pop dancing with corkscrewing metal riffery (‘More!’), a textbook example of pop music at its best (‘Save Our Now’) and a re-recorded version of ‘Kingdom’ from Townsend’s 2000 solo album Physicist that boasts a truly astonishing vocal performance.
The production is simply breathtaking at times, as seen in the subtle touches that give the sublime ‘Hold On’ its tear-inducing balance of fragility and awe. Oddly for such a big-hearted, genuine record, however, the few flaws come from its most tender, reflective moments. While the sentiment behind ‘Divine’ is undeniable, the tune is oddly insipid, and only a more remarkable chorus saves ‘Where We Belong’ from the realms of the pedestrian. These gripes are, however, minor, and it is indeed the wistful pockets of quiet that keep Epicloud from drifting out of our realm altogether. What is most exciting is that, despite Devin Townsend’s long and astonishingly prolific career, the album leaves the impression of an artist who is still developing and growing, and who will go on to even bigger, bolder and stranger things.