Just a little over seventy-two hours ago, I only had a vague awareness of Devin Townsend’s existence. I still pay some attention to goings-on in the world of heavy music, even though, truth be told, I don’t find a lot of it appealing anymore. What can I say? I’m not a young man filled with excess testosterone, and my emotional palette contains more than aggression and depression, so a lot of today’s metal music just strikes me as too limited and boring. Somehow, over the years, I had gotten the impression that Townsend was an avant-garde, abrasive, noise-metal musician. You know, buzzsaw guitars, Cookie Monster vocals, etc. Well, I was very wrong, and I curse whoever misled me. He does have a lot of heavy songs, with galloping-herds-of-Brontosaurus kick-drums, 32nd-note riffs, and detuned guitars (he apparently tunes down to C and even B, which is also what Type O Negative used to get their massive, moaning-glaciers, tectonic-plates-shifting, footsteps-of-God sound), and he’s perfectly capable of shrieking and growling when he wants. But he also has some ethereal acoustic music, and he names Enya’s Watermark album as one of his Top 5 all-time biggest influences. This dude is seriously diverse.
The Lady of the House has had classical training as a singer, and so we’ve been enjoying the YouTube channel of a Scottish vocal coach, Beth Roars, and that’s where I first heard him, performing his song “Kingdom.” The way his spectacular voice climbs and soars from about 6:45 to 6:50 in that video gives me full-body chills every time. From there, well, he’s been recording since the early ’90s, and he’s quite prolific, so there’s a huge back catalog for me to dive into. I’m still only about half-done. Some of his songs, like “Namaste” or “Addicted,” sound like a slightly more melodic Ministry or Godflesh, with an aggro, industrial feel to them. Other songs, like the acoustic “Little Pig,” are more reminiscent of Pink Floyd. (And that song comes from a gorgeous collection of B-sides! Most bands should be so lucky to put out a proper album as good as that, and these are just the songs he had left over!) Some albums are more of a mix of heavy and gentle. His latest release, Empath, which came out this spring, is one where he says he tried, for the first time, to put all of himself into it, rather than compartmentalizing his different tastes into different projects (he’s recorded under Devin Townsend, The Devin Townsend Project, The Devin Townsend Band, and Strapping Young Lad, and probably others I haven’t uncovered yet). The closest comparison I can make is to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, who is similarly capable of writing blistering metal riffs as well as feather-light, wispy melodies, similarly prolific, and who also physically resembles a giant thumb. But Corgan’s voice is much more limited (and definitely an acquired taste), and I personally have found much of his post-Smashing Pumpkins output to be forgettable and uninspired. No, Townsend appears to me to be sui generis. I wouldn’t have believed it possible to discover someone like him.
As any middle-aged or older person knows, it’s increasingly difficult to be surprised. History’s weight bears down hard on us; memory stifles imagination. Newer music tends to sound like things we’ve already heard done before (and done better). Older artists tend to be inconsistent quality-wise over a long career. So you can imagine what a total joy it is for me to stumble across a treasure like this. Dozens and dozens of songs to listen to! Genuinely fresh sounds, unlike any other artist I can think of! It’s disorienting, but in a good way. For a couple weeks or so, the whole world will feel almost new again. Every morning, I’ll eagerly look forward to listening again. There will be that delicious unfamiliarity with the songs for a while, where I remember enough of the melody to crave it without being able to remember exactly what’s coming next in the song. I’ll run some songs into the ground, listening on repeat day after day, until several days later, when I move to the next one in the playlist and joyfully realize that I’d already forgotten I bought this one, and I’ll get to fall in love with it again! I’ve been listening to music all day long throughout this weekend, and when I’m not, my head is heavy with melodies, some of which, being only half-remembered, morph into something unique, making me want to grab my own guitar and try to capture them before they drift away. Ah, but it’s so blissful to just stay put and let them ebb and flow over me…
And as it happens, this coincides with the new fitness routines I’m building. We joined a gym at the beginning of summer, where we started working with a personal trainer and a nutritionist. Like always when you change old habits, there’s a novelty to the new way of doing things that focuses your attention and makes a lot of details of everyday life stand out. Plus, we’re at that point in August where it’s still hot out, of course, but there’s a hint of fall coming soon. I’ve come to appreciate August, funny enough. I feel almost magnanimous toward it, as you can afford to feel toward a defeated opponent. “Well, summer, you did your best to kill me, but you’re getting weaker, and you’ll be gone soon. Thanks for putting up a challenging fight. See you next year.”
So, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced many times, there’s this fortuitous constellation of events and feelings that make certain time periods preserve especially well in the memory. I’m old enough now that I can somewhat recognize them as they’re forming, and it’s wonderful to think ahead to next year, when all of these particular details will look as if they’ve been caught in amber. Especially the songs. There’s not much sweeter than a song that calls to mind a specific time and place. Some melodies will go with you anywhere, like carry-on luggage, and will adapt to new circumstances. Some stay rooted to the place where they were born for you. Music that evokes the borderland between summer and fall might be my favorite of all.
A small part of me wonders anxiously how many more serendipitous discoveries like this there are for me to make, or how infrequent they’re likely to be. The wiser part of me just laughs at how quickly we become greedy for more! more! before we’ve even finished what’s in front of us. Who could be so ungrateful to demand to know if and when it will be repeated? It’s wonderful enough that it happened at all. This is exactly where I was always trying to get to. Let time continue on without me for just a little while.