Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Devin Townsend Band - Synchestra. 75/100.

The one thing one can expect from Devin Townsend is the unexpected. His works are classed as progressive, first and foremost, and considering the term “progressive” is defined as; “favouring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are”, it would be naïve to assume that Devin is going to, being the non-conformist that he is, stick to conventional methods and similar roots to the beginnings of this band, named after himself. ‘Accelerated Evolution’ was one of the first metal records to consume my life and, though it took a brief vacation from my play lists, has confirmed its brilliance due to its longevity in the memory. Though I may have neglected this record in recent years, it has never been far from my mind because of its individual nature and willingness to breach barriers. Though I don’t consider The Devin Townsend Band to be the pivotal Devin expression - that accolade belongs to the incredible Ocean Machine, who’s music is a fine depiction of life - this project does hold a position on the leader board for being one of the better progressive bands, despite the niggling pretension behind some of the bands antics.

‘Accelerated Evolution’ is a massive record, so to aim for a sophomore that simply continued its breath taking themes would have been naïve on the part of Devin, who is a smart musician. His talents lie beyond simple instrumentation as he is a visionary leader. He creates almost farcical records, given the experimentation and ability of the record to actually give the listener a real sense of the meaning of life, in its many forms. Ocean Machine’s ‘Biomech’, for example, is probably the best concept record I have ever heard. It draws the most universal elements of life - birth, love, death, rebirth and so on - and projects them to an even bigger state than they already are within our lives. Everything, despite being so complex, becomes so clear and concise that we’re elevated to a euphoric state of consciousness due to his excellent song writing abilities and showmanship at the front of the band. Ocean Machine’s ‘Biomech’ and ‘Accelerated Evolution’ are the epitome of the Devin projects, as far as I have heard, so achieving these levels of excellence was always going to be a feat that Devin couldn’t always live up to. Expectations, given his previous bouts, are raised ever so high and, unfortunately, ‘Synchestra’ doesn’t maintain the incredible pace set down by ‘Accelerated Evolution’, in terms of this project alone and no other.

Three years is a long time in regards to your average everyday band, but in terms of a Devin project, it is even longer. His projects are bound to undergo a complete transformation in that space of time and this project has, unsurprisingly. ‘Synchestra’ isn’t, in my eyes, despite the hyperbolic reviews, as accessible as ‘Accelerated Evolution’. Though experimentation did exist on that piece, it is carried on here to a much higher phase of experimentation, during influence, once again, from the industrial genre and highly atmospheric forms that make the essence of this band unlike any other - even each record greatly differs in most aspects. There are, as expected, a few similarities, like the elongated screamed vocals on songs like ‘Pixillate’, but other than these minor elements, the record is completely different and suffers from the stop-start implication adding so many interludes and minor songs like ‘Let It Roll’, ‘Hypergeek’ and ‘Vampolka’. These songs give the structure a much looser feel than ‘Accelerated Evolution’, which didn’t contain any short interlude songs, giving it a much tighter feel, pulling everything together in synchronicity. It isn’t only in this particular area that I find ‘Synchestra’ wanting. In terms of the lyrics and how they’d structured into a conceptual base, I find this record trying too hard to be a follow up to ‘Biomech’, by Ocean Machine. Lyrical concepts suggests this band is a depiction of life, in general, and this mirrors Ocean Machine’s ‘Biomech’ which, simply put, managed to say more about life in a much smarter and more coherent way. The lyrics here, at times, just seem odd:

“Why don't you have a baby?
Why don't you have a child?
Babies are good,
And part of humanity's charm.”

Comparisons aren’t limited, though the records do differ in places, but to compete with such a monumental piece, which epically showcased the sublime talents of this man, is pretty foolish. I suppose, to some degree, I am showing bias towards Ocean Machine since I discovered them first and find their debut to be one of the best records in the music business, let alone for Devin, or in metal. However, this bias doesn’t stop me from enjoying the best moments of this record, like the incredible ‘Gaia’, or the stirring ‘Judgement’, which echoes within my mind over and over with its lush guitars and brilliant Devin screams and clean vocals. His clean vocals are amongst the best I’ve heard in the progressive field. I love his voice. It resonates in me and reverberates around my entire body, making me feel his every emotion as it drains out of his body and seeps into mine. Despite this, the records lack of cohesion and direction still hampers it in the back of my mind. Unfortunately, we’re never far from a lacklustre moment, but perhaps this is only in comparison to his others, better works, not a judgement made on the basis of the material here alone. I don’t dispute my bias. I admit it and stand by the fact that there are a number of pleasing elements on this record, but it doesn’t, despite some glorious moments of vocals and with the lush atmospherics, which are uplifted and euphoric (usually due to the high level of bass in the foreground), raise the bar in terms of the emotional value that the sullen ‘Accelerated Evolution’ mustered with such ease and class.

There were deviations from the sorrowful context on the aforementioned record, but the direction was towards a sombre place in the heart, where melancholy had been resting for a long time, waiting to unleash its grief upon the stricken heart strings. ‘Synchestra’, with its complex emotional patterns and diverse nature doesn’t intend to sit still and be soaked up like water to a sponge. The pace, despite slowing down and even hitting mid pace on occasions, is quickened in terms of a comparison to the long winded ‘Accelerated Evolution’ and by this I don’t necessarily mean tempos, but the level of experimentation within a song is heightened to frightening levels as bass weaves in and out of the foreground, percussion imposes itself and the guitars, as expected, lead the Calvary charge to a bitter demise. As well as this, additional musicians are brought in to offer pieces of piano, mandolin and even tuba. The content is obvious dynamic, but lacks a sense of self that made ‘Accelerated Evolution’ a long lasting hit. This is perhaps a record where the pretension spilled over and negatively affected the state of opinion whereas, in the past, it might have intrigued more than anything else.

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