Stuck in my head this morning, after a long spell of waking up with a head cluttered with thoughts of moving or cleaning or unpacking or working: “Vampira” from Synchestra by The Devin Townsend Band. I had a little Devin Townsend festival last week while I was finishing up the onerous process of packing up and cleaning my old apartment, from which I was moving after 13 years of continuous occupation. It was a lot of work, but now all 5,500+ CDs and 3,000+ books have been relocated to my new place, where I will spend the next 30 years gradually unpacking them all.
Listening to random Belgian musique concrete will only get you so far when there’s serious scrubbing to be done; sometimes I need to bust out something with little jabs of adrenaline to it, and in those situations, Townsend is my man. His twitchy, neurotic attention to detail and unparalleled command of the vocabulary of extreme metal and 80s cheese balladry are a dynamite combination when there is work to be done. His songs are cascading floods of melody and hooks and sparkly bits of cleverness that catch the ear and engage the brain: cf. ref “Vampira” popping up unbidden, over a week after I last heard it (and with much music in between).
Townsend is one of the most unregulated forces in music, a twitchy, prolific, undaunted, Canadian heavy metal version of Kevin Shields (who, it must be said, has now dragged My Bloody Valentine out of the wilderness; I have tickets to this fall’s show in San Francisco, and am feeling an uneasy mixture of nostalgia, fascination and dread about the whole thing); he seems to constantly be bouncing between furious gouts of precise, perfectionist activity and exhausted burnout. After the first two Strapping Young Lad albums (which are among the best heavy metal albums ever made) and his astounding, magnificent, endlessly creative first few solo albums (in particular Infinity, which I consider a genuine work of sui generis heavy metal genius) he had an actual nervous breakdown, in the wake of which he briefly institutionalized himself. That impulse to ride the ragged edge of ability and endurance clearly manifests itself in his work: I’m listening Physicist right now, and it is an album that lives on the redline, occupying some impossible hyperspace between Ministry, Def Leppard (there’s more than a little Mutt Lange in Townsend’s production style) and the Neverending Story soundtrack. It is cartoonishly, freakishly oversized in its ambition, and I absolutely love it, as I (very obviously) love all of Townsend’s work.
Townsend’s recently calmed down a lot: he and his wife Tracy have a kid, and a lot of the mania that drove him has abated over the years (or has been brought under control through meds and therapy – his intensity was pretty obviously eating him alive). He shut down Strapping Young Lad, feeling that he’d pretty much done everything he could with that style of aggressively obnoxious songwriting, and he’s cut loose the rest of the Devin Townsend band for now. That said, his first proper solo album from a year or two ago, Ziltoid the Omniscient, is a completely deranged pulp sf puppet-show prog rock opera about the importance of good coffee, and it is both totally bonkers and deeply engaged in a discourse with his previous work, with melodies and lyrical snippets liberally quoted from his old work.
I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be possible to scale back Devin’s ambitions without killing him, but I’m also pretty sure that I like his ambitions just fine the way they are. He fits in the line of irrepressible geniuses in rock, like Frank Zappa and his old mentor Steve Vai, who just need to be left alone to do their own thing. I hope he keeps doing his thing for a long time.