Photos by Bryan Lasky
Smushed between a grizzled veteran doom band with a frontman nicknamed “Wino” and a sludge power-groove group with a take-no-prisoners live set, The Devin Townsend Project didn’t quite fit. Both The Obsessed and Clutch are beloved by Harley riders and pool-hall hustlers–by men with beards that obfuscate any sense of vulnerability or weakness.
The Devin Townsend Project, fronted by Devin Townsend, is a prog-metal band by most accounts that drips with vulnerability, self-doubt, awkward truths and ambiguity. One of the band’s popular tour shirts labels the band “lower mid tier prog metal.”
Townsend took the stage at Upstate Concert Hall at around 9 PM on Wednesday. The quintet featuring Townsend on guitars and vocals, Ryan Van Poederooyen on drums, Brian Waddell on bass, Dave Young on guitar and Mike St-Jean on synths brought down the cascading “Truth” all full of operatic overtones and lush instrumentals, female voices chanting “La, la, la, la” over arpeggios belted out of reverb-soaked guitars. Some diehards in the crowd pumped their fists but many stared ahead motionless, confused.
Townsend led the group through the first three tracks of their latest release Transcendence, an album that struggles to find a space between accessible, emotive rock music and complex, progressive compositions.
Townsend teased the crowd about their ambivalence, comparing their reaction to him telling his mother he really liked something she cooked for him over the holidays.
Later as the crowd got a little more into his metal theatrics, Townsend celebrated, “Wherever we are is the greatest!”
“March of the Poozers”—an operatic metal take on the “Imperial March” from Star Wars—found Townsend utilizing the breaks in the layers of guitar riffs, stacked choral lines and strings to make absurdist declarations. “What I get for Christmas? A bunch of gift certificates from my wife so that I can get blowjobs, just anonymously. No, actually I got a jacket but whatever, fuck you!”
At the end of the song he declared, “I didn’t fuck the ending of that song up. Everyone else in the band did, I was totally right!”
Townsend is known for allowing his state of mind to dictate his performances. He admitted early on he was in a weird mood. That mood led to a bizarre yet strikingly entertaining performance. One fan waved a camera and pointed to Townsend as though he expected the singer to perform. “That’s a nice cell phone,” Townsend quipped, smiling wide.
The more responsive the crowd got to the songs, the more playful and self-deprecating Townsend became.
Townsend made his bones as the mastermind behind industrial tech metal anarchists Strapping Young Lad in the early mid-nineties but abandoned the band and its hedonistic tour schedule and lifestyle once he became a father–focusing more on producing records and solo studio projects. His musical output is prodigious, having released 18 solo albums from 1996 to 2016. That isn’t counting his output with Strapping Young Lad, albums he produced or other recorded appearances he’s made.
His relationship with music is in many ways tied to his mental health and his struggle to stay true to himself as an artist while also being true to his family.
As a result, his latest releases have sought a balance between his style of operatic industrial metal and a more accessible, confessional songwriting. His shows have also gone from being a one-note celebration of all things metal to being highly dependent on his mood. One night can be a kumbaya love fest, the next Townsend can be petulant and detached.
With only eight songs to come to an understanding with an audience unfamiliar with his oeuvre, things felt tenuous–Townsend doesn’t tend to mine his strongest material, he instead focuses on his latest creations. Thankfully he decided to close the show with “Kingdom”– a song recorded early in his solo career that he revisited on 2012’s Epicloud.
The song is a thunderous and lush celebration of love and the fear of losing it. Townsend seems to plead with a lover:
I, I wonder why, I wonder/Why I’ve come undone, I’ve come undone
If you want to stay with me, Lord, play with me/
Okay, I know I missed it/The point I mean, I missed it so (so could I know)/And if I could (could change it) good God I would/Stay with me, Lord (play with me)
Townsend, despite his big scary metal pedigree, his imposing voice and prodigious guitar playing, is most at home while exposing his flaws, his weakness, his humanity.
His rather distasteful joke about the Christmas present he got from his wife? He married his wife Tracy when he was 19. His songwriting has documented the trials of maintaining that relationship while being a touring metal musician.
As the haze of “Kingdom” began to give way, guitar feedback and synths humming in harmony, Townsend told the crowd to be safe and have a good new year. His bandmates handed out picks and drumsticks. As for Townsend, he announced succinctly, “I’m going to bed.”