Speaking to Devin Townsend via telephone about his gig tonight at Warehouse Live, I got to know a few things about the guy. And, for years, after following him through his work with Steve Vai, Strapping Young Lad and now the Devin Townsend Project, I had a few preconceived notions about the guitar virtuoso and he proved all of them right. Townsend is not an ordinary musician by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, one of those notions I quietly carried with me into the conversation was that for a long time, I felt he’s probably a genius, or at least somewhere damn close.
Many people have likely thought the same. It’s hard not to if you’ve done your homework on the man. With the Devin Townsend Project, I’ve been waiting to see his unrestrained approach to music — as with all prodigies, there’s something thrilling about peeling away the layers of restrictive rules and watching them develop their art independently.
Yet, at least for Transcendence, Townsend’s latest album, that’s not exactly what he’s done. “You know, I’ve spent so long being in control of every little detail. With this album, I had to pull myself back and let people do what they do.” Referring to his bandmates, Townsend relinquished the tight command he’s commandeered over every song and instead trusted others to perform at their best.
“It became clear to me in this process that not only is this a good band, but [it's] full of good people and a healthy environment for me to exist in.” And that environment was key. Townsend says he struggled to find inspiration until he was asked to help write a book last year, “By writing that book, I was able to see patterns in my past, things that maybe led to mistakes in my past or weren’t good for me. One of those things was very obviously control.”
“From that I learned a level of self-control and trusting the process.” Townsend continues, when asked what he ultimately learned from relinquishing control, “I think it stems from a fear of death, right? [laughs] I mean, it’s like you try to control everything in your world because the reality is, you control nothing.”
“We’re such dumb creatures, I think we try to adhere meaning to everything just so it doesn’t feel like [life] is this abstract thing beyond our reckoning.” And Townsend is about growth. When asked about his favorite track on the album, he admits it's probably one not most people would have guessed. “’From the Heart.’ [laughs] I don’t know if that’d be the coolest thing to choose. It means a fair amount to me because the original song was something I heard in a yoga class.”
Beauty is typically not something associated with the hard edge of metal, but Townsend isn’t your stereotypical metal guy either. While he undoubtedly shreds any song he gets close to, he also has a maestro’s touch when it comes to musical finesse. Nor does Townsend worry about definitions, especially when it comes to labels. He’s long had a history of pushing against expectations — even when it means rebelling against record labels that employ him.
Perhaps it's that spirit that keeps Townsend and his music so compelling. Knowing that he’s not out to write the next radio hit, nor does he give a shit about what’s popular, makes him a sort of musician’s musician. He work is interesting because it defies genre while also defining new territory within it — it’s the ultimate sonic paradox. Trancendence does many things at once just as you’d expect, without the typical heavy metal posturing of dark imagery and anger. It’s a mature answer to a genius question — simple but elegant — how far can we take this record? Well, pretty far, actually, and of course, one (or even two or three) listen does not deliver the full measure of its depth.
“The way the record was put together was very collaborative.” Townsend explains. “I explained what I wanted for this [record] and let [the band] interpret that, and it arguably became one of our best records.” Townsend sums up his experience: “As a solo artist, I think it’s very easy to forget how to self-edit and add objective ears and objective eyes.”
Catch the Devin Townsend Project tonight at Warehouse Live with Between the Buried and Me and Fallujah. Tickets $27 doors at 7 p.m. show begins at 7:30 p.m.
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Kristy Loye is a writer living in Houston and has been writing for the Houston Press since July 2015. A recent Rice University graduate, when not teaching writing craft or reciting poetry, she's upsetting alt-rights on Reddit.