Album Review: Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence

Music is one of those things, apart from maybe religious belief and hard drugs, that can elevate you, take you to that “higher place.” Although metal as a genre isn’t usually associated with that more Josh Groban-y type of feeling, I’d be willing to make a strong case for Transcendence, the latest from Devin Townsend Project.

As a whole, Transcendence evokes the consistent feeling that you’re listening to music with a higher purpose. It doesn’t feel same-y the way an album with too-similar songs from a creatively tapped-out band would — instead, it feels “on-theme.” Devin and Co. have been doing this music thing for years, they knew the sound and mood they wanted and they went for it. And damn every god ever, I’m happy to be along for the ride.

Transcendence by Devin Townsend Project.

“Truth” kicks off the album with an uplifting, waltzing synths-guitar melody, immediately slotting Transcendence into the discography that is Devin Townsend’s trademark mix of prog metal and ambient. Townsend’s grasp of melody has always been nothing short of divine, both vocally and on guitar, but he knows how to bring the hurt too (they don’t call him “Hevy Devy” for nothin’). “Failure” has a driving 6/4 rhythm that melds down-tuned chugging with melancholic choirs, while the impossibly huge sound of “Stormbending” strikes you with a veritable stormwall of keyboards and lead guitar notes while still retaining an ethereal air.

Even softer, more accessible songs like “Secret Sciences” have an honest-to-God Badass Metal Part ™ that mixes up the kinda corny pop mentality present in the verse and chorus. Diversity in songwriting and structure has always been one of Devin’s strong suits, but unlike albums like Epicloud no track seems out of place here; it’s all a necessary part of the spiritual journey. I’ll admit, I’m a little bummed with the closer being a cover song (Ween’s “Transdermal Celebration”), but that’s only because I want to bask in the album’s final moments with the same band I’d traveled with for the last forty minutes. Like, we spent all that time transcending and stormbending the shit out of everything, and then emerge into our new spiritual afterlife as fuckin’ Ween? What’s the symbolism here? The whole situation makes me feel weird and selfish, but mostly just weird.

Then again, the diversity of the other songs is so good, I can forgive ending on a spur note. And as if I needed one more reason to love Transcendence, I should also mention this album sounds fucking great. At times it hits with hurricane force, awashing you with waves of synths and guitars; other times it pulls back and we hear subtle bass grooves and ghost-note snares. For an album that feels like an 8-step process in a personal journey to find one’s self, the dynamics don’t only feel natural but intentional.

I can already tell you this is a contender for my album of the year, so if you’re sick of hearing me gush about it, just be on your way. Nothing has come even close this year to the kind of transcendent musical experience of Transcendence, so elevate your listening habits and give this a spin.

Support The Devin Townsend Project and buy Transcendence here.

Impressions: More Albums from 2016

I’m torn.

I always want to discover new bands, or check out ones I’ve heard of and somehow haven’t gotten around to. You never know where you’re going to find another contender for the top 5, y’know? But I also don’t want to ignore the popular stuff — the stuff everyone else is listening to. Sure, it’s good to seek out your own interests, but I want to be a well-rounded listener.

This recent batch is made up of friend recommendations and a couple discoveries. Broadening the ‘ol musical horizons, and all that. I’ll try to be brief.

Master, An Epiphany of Hate – I listened to the entire first track, which is probably more than this album deserves. I don’t especially like ragging on bands — not in public, anyway — but I honestly don’t think I could stand more than four minutes of this album. I just can’t take the vocals seriously — even for death metal! It just sounds like the laziest effort, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the instrumentation made up for it. But I can’t remember a single note. If an album can’t grab me from the first track — or in An Epiphany of Hate‘s case, the first 30 seconds — there’s a good chance it’s not for me.

Score: n/a

After the Burial, Dig Deep – My friend and fellow Mysidia member Chris recommended this one to me. The clip he played through his PlayStation microphone late one night didn’t really do the band’s metalcore heaviness justice; a couple listens later and I’m kind of on board. Maybe it’s just the way the genre has been going lately, but I felt a distinct lack of clean singing on tracks like “Deluge” where it felt like there should have been. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely didn’t mind their absence. After the Burial seems comfortable doing it their way, and as it turns out, I’m more or less into it.

Score: 3

Delain, Lunar Prelude (EP) — Is there really room for another female-fronted symphonic metal band in my life? Maybe, if Delain would put out a full-length album. The good news is they’re doing just that later this year, so why put out Lunar Prelude so close to its release? The two brand new songs they put out aren’t bad, and neither is the new version of a song from their last album, but they aren’t enough to really get my horns in the air. I’ve always been a fan of the less-operatic vocals that this genre has been moving toward in recent years, so a proper release from Delain might be enough to win me over to their side.

Hypno5e, Shores of the Abstract Line – Awful name aside, Hypno5e could be one of the year’s more promising new discoveries for me. Not top 5 material, but prominent enough to get my ears perking up whenever I hear them mentioned. The opening track has great atmosphere and builds up to a welcome dose of heaviness. I’ll admit, I was expecting a more unique sound than the derivative djent-inspired riffage, especially for a band labelled as “avante-garde,” but their offenses weren’t egregious. Shores probably won’t win any awards from me, but Hypno5e has my attention.

Omnium Gatherum, Grey Heavens – Disclaimer: This is a Garrett J. Peters band. Or was that Insomnium? I’ve never been able to tell the two bands apart until now. Ominium Gatherum emphasizes the “melodic” in their brand of melodic death metal, but Grey Heavens doesn’t especially wield this in a way that hits home for me. Some tracks like “Rejuvenate” have standout moments, but overall I think I’d rather listen to something with a little more variety. “The Pit” and “Frontiers” are excellent though, so I can’t completely condemn this one.

Score: 2.5

DevilDriver, Trust No One – I said I didn’t like bashing bands. I really don’t. But it’s hard for me to express my dislike for DevilDriver without getting a little rowdy. I bought their first album back in high school, and like then, there’s competent musicianship on Trust No One, but it’s hampered by the same bland songwriting. Not predictable necessarily, just filled with an overwhelming sense of apathy. Like, that shouldn’t seem possible with a genre as bombastic as metal, right? If you want me to get the claws out, here goes: I think Dez Fafara might be the worst vocalist in metal. His diction is terrible, his voice just totally devoid of charisma. He’s like the first death metal vocalist you ever met, who only got the job because he’s the only one whose voice didn’t hurt after growling for half an hour. But, like DevilDriver the band in the time I’ve listened to them, he never got better.

Score: 1.5

Witherscape, The Northern Sanctuary –  This album does things I like, but I’d still find it really hard to recommend. Like, unless you’re looking for something very specific (“albums with Dan Swano”), I’m not really sure what my angle would be. Songs with memorable parts that don’t build up to anything that impressive? A mix of clean and death vocals that ultimately don’t work together in interesting ways? Half-baked progressive elements that don’t challenge listeners? It seems like I’m coming down hard on The Northern Sanctuary, and I really, really don’t mean to. This is a “metal album.” It has metal music, played by metal musicians. It’s an  instance where actually having nothing to compare it to is a bad thing.

Score: 2.5

Whispered, Metsutan – Songs of the Void This is a Garrett recommendation, which means there was a good chance it was going to be melodic death metal. Whispered is the latest offering in a line of bands he’s brought to my attention that sound Bodom-inspired, which isn’t the most grievous act if they’ve got the chops. Metsutan shows theirs well enough with talented showcase of catchy riffs (the opening of “Strike!” will probably be stuck in my head for the rest of my life). However, it’s all marred by the very thing Whispered uses to set themselves apart. The Eastern instrumentation used to lend exotic flavor to their songs is done in such a poor, tasteless manner to the point of distraction. I mean, not even Chthonic gets it right all the time, but at least that sort of thing feels like it belongs there. Maybe I’d have liked Metsutan more if it had been more derivative after all.

Score: 2

That’s it for now, but man, the weeks keep flying by. Expect another one of these sooner than later.

Top 5 Metal Albums of 2016 Forecast: The Story So Far

I was just thinking the other day how I was going to have to have a tough time with my top 5 metal albums of 2016. Not for the wealth of awesome titles, but for a lack of really standout ones. (I ended up being super wrong, but more on that in a bit.)

I had a few I knew would probably be on there (Gojira, Borknagar), but I couldn’t think of many more albums that had come out that “felt” like they deserved to be there. Not like last year.

For reference, I spent much of last year spinning the same albums, over and over again. Leprous’s The Congregation was equal parts prog and tech-infused black metal, while Tribulation’s Children of the Night met my needs for a grim yet rockin’ good time (and with raw, natural production to boot). Gorgoroth’s Instinctus Bestialis was short and so, so sinfully sweet; I couldn’t tell you how many times I listened to it during the final half hour of a Friday afternoon to make the weekend come sooner. Pyramaze’s Disciples of the Sun was a gift from a band I’d all but written off (seriously, how do you follow up an album with Matt Barlow on it?), but still it grabbed me with its fresh take on power metal. Finally, Ghost’s Meliora, my 2015 metal album of the year — well, it felt like album of the year. It’s such a well-crafted album, with so much care put into the songwriting and production that I knew it was in the running from the first time I heard it.

So when I reflected on all that and thought about the albums I’d been returning to this year, nothing really stood out. Then I had a rare moment of clarity; I thought to myself, “That can’t be right, can it? Surely there are albums out there to give Magma and Winter Thrice a good run.”

I keep a Google Docs page filled with albums I’ve listened to throughout the year. It has the month and day they were released, as well as a tentative “score” numbered 1 through 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. The score indicates how I felt about them at the time, and it could increase or decrease on subsequent listens. Top contenders are bolded, and are (usually) 4s and higher.

Turned out I had a lot of bold 4s in the 2016 doc.

I really, really, wish I had a more satisfying conclusion to this bit of drama. But the reality of it was that I just plain forgot several albums I’d enjoyed. So I spun them again, and whaddya know? They’re great, and it looks like 2016 is going to be even more heated than 2015 was.

Here’s what’s coming:

My Contenders for 2016 Albums of the Year

Borknagar, Winter Thrice – I like albums that “sound” cold. It helps that “winter” is in the name of Winter Thrice, as this is a very cold-sounding album. I picture a lot of black mountains covered in frost, and the boughs of trees weighed down by snow when I listen to this. You know, Necrolord album art kind of shit. It also helps that I think the songs here are really good, which is why I’ve returned to it so many times. I just can’t get enough of the style of harsh vocals they have (I could take or leave the clean?) and their sense of melody is particularly strong. For an album to have come out so early in the year and still have me coming back to it — that says a lot.

Prediction: 2

Amoral, In Sequence – Artwork tends to play a large part in getting me to check out bands I’ve never heard of. This one looks like a card from Magic: The Gathering, so points there! I’m also digging Amoral’s prog-metal groove, particularly the two opening songs. I’ll admit, I’m not crazy about the drum production or the vocals, and I get kind of murky toward the songs on thr end of the album. I’ll definitely give it some more listens to give In Sequence a proper shot at the top 5, but honestly, I don’t know. It had a solid chance at its January release, but the competition is fierce.

Prediction: Honorable Mentions

Raubtier, Bärsärkagång – Since discovering them a couple years ago, I’ve always turned to Raubtier when I’ve been listening to Rammstein but want a little more oomph. I was delighted to find they had a new album this year, and that delight turned into sheer headbanging enthusiasm once I heard Bärsärkagång. It’s ferocious and fun, and every bit deserving of a spot on my top 5. But we’ll have to see.

Prediction3-4

Ihsahn, Arktis – So I told you I liked Leprous, right? I told you that, right? Arktis reminds me a lot of last year’s The Congregation, and not just because some members of Leprous were in Ihsahn’s live band a few years back. This album continues the unique combination of progressive, melodic black metal that I thought was just a one-time thing. Granted, I don’t think it’s as strong as Congregation, but that’s not an album it’s up against this year, is it?

Prediction4

Kvelertak, Nattesfard – This one came out of nowhere for me. It was from a Game Informer editor I follow on Twitter, one who I hadn’t up until now associated as being down with the devil horns. But maybe he is? I don’t know. What I do know is that he provided me with one hell of a recommendation. Nattesfard is a pretty eclectic mix of rock ‘n’ roll and black metal, but without being straight up black ‘n’ roll. Like, there’s too much pop-oriented melody going on in Nattesfard for it to be shelved next to Aura Noir and Darkthrone. But I like “different;” hell, last year was a top 5 composed mostly of “different.” There’s a good chance Kvelertak could place pretty high.

Prediction2

Katatonia, The Fall of Hearts – I feel like I just got done talking about “different,” and then along comes The Fall of Hearts. But I’m a fan of bands that do things with confidence, and Katatonia pulls of a kind of gorgeous progressive metal that sucked me right in from the start. This is metal I wouldn’t be afraid to play around my child, but it’s just so damn artsy that I can still feel like I wasn’t holding back. Anyway, there are some heavy hitters this year (emphasis on the “heavy”) and I don’t know if this has a place as AOTY. But the top 5? Easily.

Prediction: 3

Gojira, Magma – Ohhhhhh boy. There are just some albums you just know are going to be contenders, and Magma fits the bill. The riffage is just as memorable as its melodies, with a range of song dynamics that make me say, “why, yes, I will listen to this again.” I don’t want to say too much about it, lest I run out of things to say when it gets album of the year.

Oh, I meant “if.” If it gets album of the year. Ha ha.

Prediction: 1

Black Crown Initiate, Selves We Cannot Forgive – I talked about bands that pull off a certain style with confidence, and Black Crown Initiate definitely does that. The most remarkable thing about Selves We Cannot Forgive is how damn messy it sounds. But it’s an appealing messiness, or else it wouldn’t be here. I’ve only listened to it once as of this writing, but that should speak to how much it impressed me. I don’t know if it’ll make the cut, but a few more lessons should make its final position more apparent.

Prediction: Honorable Mentions

Revocation, Great Is Our Sin So this only came out last week, and I can pretty much guarantee I’ll be seeing it on my top 5. Great Is Our Sin just has so much going for it in terms of dynamic songwriting and sheer metal-ness. It has parts that really haul, but then pulls it back in a way that doesn’t feel forced. It’s just an unnaturally good metal album; Gojira may have a hell of a fight for this one.

Prediction: 1

And that’s all I’ve got for now. More albums await in the months to come, not to mention all the ones I’ve overlooked. There’s new Dark Tranquillity on the way, as well as Devin Townsend Project, Evergrey, Insomnium, and even some blasts from the past like Sonata Arctica and (don’t laugh) Korn. My musical tastes have broadened over the years, so who the hell knows? I probably won’t have another post like this until next year, but expect some proper album reviews? Maybe?

Like the final top 5, we’ll just have to wait and see.