Devin Townsend is probably one of the most imaginative songwriters of our time. He’s also one of the most ludicrous. His ambition seems to know no bounds, although occasionally you do wish his brain would actually kick in and start vetoing things – judging from projects like the crushingly dark ambient drone of 2004′s Devlab (with its stolen System Of A Down front-cover and its 15 untitled tracks) or 2007′s extra-terrestrial rock opera Ziltoid The Omniscient (complete with that Mars Attacks-like comic-book character) he’s finding it harder than most.
So, when Ghost honed into view promising “ambient new wave” it’s fair to say that there would be some amongst us who would question its place on a heavy music site such as this. These folks would no doubt give it short shrift but I, despite my initial skepticism, like to think I am just a tad more open-minded.
Having now heard this, the sister album and polar opposite of the raging force that is Deconstruction, I needn’t have worried. This is still Devin Townsend, drug-free, drink-free, utterly sound of mind and body. He is, in his own words, in “complete control” and this is startling proof that he’s starting to master the art of sober songwriting. This crazy fool has rapidly established himself as a rarity; a jack of all trades; a musical Swiss army knife.
One thing you must consider; before hitting play on Ghost, you have to completely detach yourself from anything and everything you thought you knew about Devin Townsend. If you don’t do that, you’ll find yourself endlessly searching for the bass drum to kickstart this baby into action, some kind of drug-addled lunacy hidden within its folds, or contorted, screaming feedback bleeding its way into the background. No, this is Devin, freed from making complicated statements, kicking back, totally relaxed, jamming the kind of music that he listens to the most – “folk, new age-y stuff”. Ki hinted at the possibilities, but Ghost still has more dreamy ambience than you could ever begin to imagine could come from either the monster behind Strapping Young Lad, or the avant-garde experimentalist that he has become.
Right from the off and his haunting lullaby, “Fly”, it really feels like we are hearing the real Devin Townsend, perhaps completely, for the very first time. Close your eyes and you’re floating over mountaintops, guided on what feels like a very personal, intimate journey. Without blinking you’ll be through the gentle pulsing of the Enya-esque “Heart Baby” and into the proggish ambience of “Feather”. Devin’s vocal, acoustic guitar and bass may be the sturdy canvas of the music, but it’s the accompaniment that surrounds it that completes the picture – not so much a collection of musical instruments as they are a palette of pastel colors daubed in bold streaks. Kat Epple’s striking flute, Dave Young’s tidal keyboard and twangy mandolin, and Mike St. John’s understated, shuffling drums. You could actually make a case for the star of this album being Epple’s flute. I defy you to listen to her fluctuating, exploding flourishes that mark out “Monsoon” or her breathy, accented dawn chorus at the centre of “Heart Baby” and not be blown away by her skill.
You’ll also pick up a few of Devin’s field recordings – the river running through, the croaking frogs, the crying gulls and the crashing waves – and the occasional, elegant accompanying female vocal (provided by Katrina). These are the things that, during the initial spin, will have you thinking “Isn’t this the music they were just playing at the massage parlour?” Or maybe, you were fooled into wondering if Devin had spent too long listening to the undeniably eerie sound of whales mating and released a tape for all you desperate insomniacs out there. However, repeated intensive listens should uncover just how dense this album is. You’ll begin to hear, not the three minutes of crisply plucked strings that form “Kawaii” but the wobbling wall-of-sound behind them, not the vocal or mandolin on the frazzled country of “Blackberry” but the sliding brushes on the snare – the multi-hued textures are mesmeric. There is material here that is reminiscent of The Mamas And The Papas, late-Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, The Magic Numbers, Hammock, Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero and, getting a little closer to a more appropriate reference point, the Foo Fighters and In Your Honor‘s experimental, acoustic flourishes.
Devin does allow his metal chops to briefly gnash for “Texada”; a driven beast that gathers momentum until he seems to realise, hits the brakes and leaves it spinning out across the desert, oscillating gently until it finally comes to rest at the feet of a man whispering a prayer. With the sublime, surf-riding of “Seams” and the tribal chanting of “Infinite Ocean” (every time I put a conch shell to my ear now, this is what I expect to hear) seeing this album out, we are granted dead air to allow us to surface.
It’s by no means a perfect collection of songs; there are those clunky moments that shake you from the reverie you’ve been lulled into. The title-track, for instance, is heinously repetitious and so cloyingly predictable that it brings to mind white swinging flares and Europop mullets. There are moments when both “Blackberry” and “Texada” get carried away with themselves and I just can’t work out why “Dark Matters” has been given its own space when it doesn’t have an identity – it merely acts as a two-minute link track. But then Devin being Devin, he goes and throws something awe-inspiring at you; a sensory explosion like “As You Were” that sends shivers up your spine and dissolves your knees.
I must admit I struggle to even begin to get my head around the concept of the tetralogy, of which Ghost is the concluding part, but it all suggests some kind of schizophrenic, workaholic mind in overdrive. All I can say for definite, despite the order in which they were recorded, is that without the purging of evil that Devin went through to create Deconstruction, he would never have been able to create the angelic beauty that inhabits Ghost. Such is the power of music and I’d swear if you cut this man, music would flood out. The less polluted that lifeblood gets, the more transparent his skin becomes. A couple of times here, I swear I could even see the man’s soul.
Also online @ The New Review = http://thenewreview.net/reviews/devin-townsend-project-ghost