Devin Townsend An Alien Among Us
Published Nov 04, 2014Through a combination of extraordinary talent, sheer force of will, and completely disarming weirdness, Canadian composer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and creative force of nature Devin Townsend has become a member of heavy metal royalty. Equally known for his incredibly dense, layered arrangements and the bizarre sense of humour that spawned a sprawling and ongoing rock opera about Ziltoid, the fictional alien despot whose megalomania, lust for coffee, and emotional vulnerability consistently puts him on a collision course with earth. Townsend's vast and diverse career has spanned over 20 albums across multiple genres, from the vicious and uncontrolled industrial-tinged metal of Strapping Young Lad to the delicate ambience of some solo releases. Many creative people have a vision; Townsend has an abundance of them, paired with the strangeness and wherewithal to put together resources, and sheer stubbornness to make whatever he wanted a reality. As Townsend's career has progressed, the manifestations of his vision have become increasing more theatrical and complex, with vast, circus-like stage shows, orchestral arrangements and choirs composed of thousands of voices. Now, as his empire expands to include a web series, even more ambitious stage shows and puppets, it's worth tracing the long, strange path Townsend has taken from teenage metal prodigy to mad musical scientist to supervillain-level creative mastermind.
1972 to 1990
Devin Townsend is born in New Westminster, BC. By age five, he starts playing the banjo, and at 12 picks up the guitar. Throughout high school, Townsend plays in a series of metal bands, including Grey Skies. Townsend also joins local metal band Caustic Thought, replacing guitarist Jed Simon and meeting bassist Bryan Stroud, both of whom he would work with extensively.
1991 to 1993
Townsend renames and retools Grey Skies, which becomes known as Noisescapes. Heavily metallic and chaotic, heralding much of Townsend's later work, the project records a demo. Townsend wraps each copy of the demo he submits to a label wrapped in a pair of his old underwear, as an attempt to attract the attention of those in acquisitions. It worked in the case of Relativity Records, who pass on the underoos-swathed demo to Steve Vai, who was also signed to the label. He selects Townsend to perform vocals on his 1993 record Sex & Religion, released under the name Vai. In addition, Townsend co-writes "Pig" and "Just Cartilage," and accompanies Vai on tour. The album cover, which supposedly depicts St. Sabastien, also bears some resemblance to Townsend. Several of the members who recorded the album leave when the record was formally released and do not participate in the tour, due to conflicts with Vai over his micro-managing of the project. Vai later states on www.vai.com that "I was not ready for a band. You see, usually the idea of a band is to get together with people who could contribute their ideas and talents in a healthy exchange. With players like Terry Bozzio, T.M. Stevens and Devin Townsend, in order to have a band, there needs to be an unconditional acceptance of everybody else's contribution. I was not ready for that kind of commitment on my part. Although it may have seemed unfair to the others, there were definite ideas on which way I wanted to go with the music. Those guys are really wonderful musicians, but they have their own personality. When I try to have a band together, I'm too much of a control freak. I want things to be done too much of a certain way. I gave them some freedom, but the freedom musicians of this calibre need, I wasn't able to give. Therefore, blame it on me, this project will not come together again."
With Townsend now collaborating with Vai, Relativity Records drops Noisecapes, which the label feels has little commercial appeal. Townsend is asked to join Vai tour openers the Wildhearts for a six month Europeean tour, beginning a long collaborative relationship with band founder Ginger (David Walls). Townsend also appears as a guest musician on the Wildhearts single "Urge." While on tour, Townsend forms a thrash metal project, IR8, with Jason Newsted, Metallica's bassist at the time. The project includes Townsend on guitar, Newsted on vocals and bass, and Tom Hunting of Exodus on drums. Songs are recorded and a demo tape is assembled, but ends up shelved at least temporarily. Townsend adds guitars to several tracks on electro-industrial act Front Line Assembly's record Millennium. While on tour with the Wildhearts, Roadrunner briefly courts Townsend and seems interested in signing Noisescapes, Townsend states in an April 1997 interview on 3RRR FM Melbourne (102.7 FM) that the decision was ultimately overridden by label founder Cees Wessels, who dismisses the project as "just noise." Townsend becomes disillusioned with commercial music, feeling like his own creative projects are being sacrificed for other, established artists.
Townsend contributes guitar to Front Line Assembly's Hard Wired. He begins to write and record his own music, and signs a deal with Century Media. He calls it Strapping Young Lad, originally conceived of as a solo project, to distance himself from high-profile work with Vai and the Wildhearts. (He obliquely refers to himself in the credits as "Nived.") The first Strapping Young Lad record, Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing, is released in April; it channels the frustration and anger Townsend feels toward the music industry. He will tell Jane Rocca in a 1997 Loudmouth interview that he felt like a "musical whore" who spent "the first five years of [his] career working at the behest of other people." Townsend performs vocals, guitars and keyboards, and programs many of the drums, on Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing, and was also assisted by several session musicians, including Jed Simon and Adrian White. Townsend says of the record, "I decided to take a similar approach while focusing on dissonance and just being as over-the-top as I could. Songs didn't really matter; it was just the intensity and the vibe, plus lots of humour. Screaming and laughing are pretty close, I think, and I have just never been 'hard,' so we do what comes naturally, right?" The record sells 143 copies in its first six months. In December, Townsend records tracks that will eventually become Biomech, initially released as Ocean Machine.
In March, as Punky Brüster, Townsend releases parody record Cooked on Phonics, which tells the story of fictional metal band, Cryptic Coroner, who sell out and change their death metal sound to pop punk in order to cash in. Townsend collaborates with J. R. Harder and again with drummer Adrian White; each member performed under two alter egos, one death metal and one pop punk. Townsend plays Lord Stenchlor, "brutal sword of Baphomet's greasy spoon," and punk vocalist Dr. Skinny. A number of prominent figures in Vancouver's metal scene, including Jed Simon, also perform. Townsend starts HevyDevy Records to release Cooked on Phonics.
Strapping Young Lad take the leap from solo project to full band, with Townsend assembling a permanent lineup that includes frequent collaborators Jeb Simon on guitars and Bryon Stroud (who Townsend worked with in Caustic Thought and Punky Brüster, and who served as a drum tech for Front Line Assembly), with wildly prolific drummer Gene Hoglan serving as skinsman. The next Strapping Young Lad record, City, is released on February 11 to great critical acclaim; it's now considered the best SYL album. Revolver will name it one of the 69 Best Metal Records of All Time in 2002, and Metal Hammer will declare it one of the Top 20 records of 1997. Terrorizer place it on their "100 Most Important Albums of the Nineties" list, and Townsend will tell Exclaim! in 2006 that City was "ultimate one out of all of" Strapping Young Lad's records.
Townsend re-records all of the material on the solo record Biomech in his home studio, with additional instrumentation from guests including JR Harder and Chris Valagao of Zimmers Hole. A more intimate and interior record, which Townsend will describe as "music that was very close to me" in Throat Culture in 2003, the mix of hard rock and ambient textures is largely overlooked next to Strapping Young Lad's industrial-tinged, wall of sound chaos. Upon its original release in Japan (where it sells 12,000 copies in the first week), Biomech is listed as the album title with the artist name being Ocean Machine, but upon its worldwide release, the album title becomes Ocean Machine: Biomech, under Townsend's own name. The name change will confuse for distributors for years. Later in 1997, Strapping Young Lad embark on a world tour that takes them to Australia, Europe and the U.S. Near the end of the year, Townsend begins to experience symptoms of a nervous breakdown. He checks himself into a mental health clinic, he will tell Metal Hammer in 1998, for some "breathing space," feeling intensely alien and isolated. He is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is illuminating for Townsend, who recognizes the manic and depressive cycles of the disorder as something he's "been doing since I was a child without realizing that this was a legitimate medical condition. I've been ostracizing my wife, my family, my band and friends." He also recognizes that the emotional extremes of the disorder manifested in the two records he released in 1997, stating "his bipolar thing gave birth to the two extremes that are Strapping's City record and Ocean Machine's Biomech. Both records were written and recorded together, with material simply being divided between the two, depending on the mood of the music. Where Strapping is really humorous, Ocean Machine is really serious; where City was so extreme and full-on, Biomech has some complex mood changes."
After being discharged from the hospital, Townsend is creatively and psychologically renewed; as he will later tell Metal Hammer, "everything just clicked." He writes and records Infinity, his third solo record and first intended for his own name, performing the vocals and playing most of the instruments, assisted by Gene Hoglan on drums. Townsend sees Infinity as a synthesis of his bipolar nature, and will tell Thorsten Dietrich in a 2014 video interview that experimentations with LSD and other psycho-reactive drugs also inspired the record's progressive sound. Due to time constraints, several tracks intended for Infinity later become the Christeen + Four Demos EP, with other material trickling in to live performance of Ziltoid the Omniscient and even Deconstruction. Despite initial disinterest from Century Media (as Townsend will tell Buzz magazine in October 1998), the label relent when they hear the record and Strapping Young Lad release No Sleep 'Till Bedtime in June, a live album recorded while on tour in Melbourne the previous year. From May 30 until the end of the year, Strapping Young Lad tour Europe, Japan and Australia again. Despite the immense success of Strapping Young Lad, Townsend steps away from the project at the end of the year. He will tell Exclaim! in 2003 that the hiatus was a result of a combination of exhaustion, continued battles with his mental health, and an increasingly hostile relationship with Century Media. "I signed a shitty deal, but luckily it was non-exclusive. I got tired of doing Strapping so I said, 'I can't do it anymore.' Then I freaked out and went into a hospital. My lawyer said that I was under mental duress when I signed the contract so the contract is void. At that point it was like, 'I just won't do another Strapping record.' Yeah, I went down saying 'CM was the shittiest label ever.' And they went down saying that I was 'a complete, arrogant psychopath.'"
1999 to 2001
With SYL on hiatus, Townsend remains creatively active. He begins producing records for other artists, including Soilwork and Zimmer's Hole. He begins to once again collaborate with Jason Newsted on a project the two call Fizzicist, but when Newsted's Metallica bandmates catch wind of the side project after their earlier IR8 demo is leaked, James Hetfield puts an end to the collaboration. Townsend decides to proceed with the project alone, releasing Physicist in 2000 as a solo record. Recorded with his Strapping Young Lad bandmates, the thrash-influenced album it is generally considered a low point in Townsend's career. As he will later tell Martin Popoff in a Lollipop Magazine interview in 2003, Townsend wants to make amends to his fans and again write a record that is intimate and authentic; the result is the eco-critical, introspective record Terria, released in November 2001. The record is inspired heavily by the Canadian landscape and Townsend's experiences on tour. Strapping Young Lad begin to play occasionally, appearing on Fear Factory's 2001 Foot In Mouth Tour. Townsend is inspired to write more SYL material, which is intensified by the September 11 attacks; he declares to Metal-Rules.com that "If the world's about to blow up, let's write the soundtrack for it." Townsend re-negotiates a deal with Century Media to revisit Strapping Young Lad.
Strapping Young Lad is released February 11; while many critics compare it unfavourably to City, it is the first Townsend record to chart on Billboard. The records veers away from industrial and more towards death metal, and the sense of humour is considerably downplayed. He forms a new group, the Devin Townsend Band, to tour and play his solo material live, including guitarist Brian Waddell, bassist Mike Young, drummer Ryan Van Poederooyen and keyboardist Dave Young. The first Devin Townsend Band record, Accelerated Evolution, is released only a month after Strapping Young Lad. Both groups tour heavily in 2003 and into the next year, visiting Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia.
A new live album, For Those Aboot to Rock: Live at the Commodore recorded at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom, is released January 16. In March, Strapping Young Lad begin work on their fourth album, and Townsend, somewhat displeased with their self-titled reunion record, stops taking medication for his bipolar disorder. He would tell Los Angeles Loud in 2006 that the experience of cutting out his medication "taught me that I needed it. The whole process of this record was going through this big… like is this really something that is necessary? Then I went off of the medication and it was just too much, all the time, and that's what this record is about, about finding all those limits."
Technically dense and conceptually heavy, Alien is released March 22, appearing on both Billboard's "Top Heatseekers" and "Independent Albums" charts, selling 3,697 copies in its first week. Chaotic and profoundly aggressive, the record represents a return to form. Work begins on a Devin Townsend Band album conceived as a counterpoint to Alien, originally entitled Human. In RevelationZ Magazine in 2006, Townsend characterizes it as a chronicle of his "coming back down to earth" after his experiences with Alien. The track "Love?" becomes a commercial success and spawns a music video, directed by Joe Lynch, inspired by the horror movie The Evil Dead. Strapping Young Lad embark on a punishing tour schedule, crossing North America in April and May before departing for Europe. They would later join the Sounds of the Underground tour with Lamb of God, Clutch and Opeth, among others, then hop on Fear Factory's Transgression Tour of the U.S.
In January, Strapping Young Lad work on what will be their last record, The New Black. Meanwhile, DTB album Human's title is changed to Synchestra and released January 30. Drawing on a wide range of genres, from progressive metal and industrial to Middle Eastern folk, it is at once a gentler record than Alien, but in other ways equally complex. Steve Vai records a solo on "Triumph." Work on The New Black wraps up in May, and the record is released July 11. (Century Media enforces a strict deadline, wanting the album out before the band's Ozzfest appearance) Melodic, dark, and once again blackly humorous, the record is a critical and commercial success, breaking into the Billboard 200 chart. Townsend begins to talk about taking an extended break from music, citing creative and physical exhaustion. Strapping Young Lad play a few festivals, including Download and Ozzfest. On October 4, Townsend's wife Tracy Turner gives birth to their first son, Reyner Liam Johnstan Townsend. Devin Townsend withdraws from touring and drastically cuts his musical output, and, as he tells Terrorizer in August 2006, "I just need to go spend some time with my family." Despite this, Townsend releases an ambient solo record, The Hummer, exclusively via his website in November. A soothing, sonorous record with wind instruments and ocean sounds, it comes across as an extended lullaby.
2007 to 2008
Townsend shaves off his trademark skullet and gives up drinking, smoking, and recreational drugs, but proves he is pretty bad at taking an extended break, releasing the interstellar rock opera Ziltoid the Omniscient in May 2007, about an alien tyrant who attempts to conquer earth for our coffee. A true solo record, Townsend writes and performs every aspect of the record, including the drums, which he programs using Drumkit from Hell, software created by Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah. It is released on Townsend's HevyDevy Records. The record allows Townsend to express aspects of his personality that he otherwise struggles with, stating that "even beyond the Jekyll and Hyde at this point, Ziltoid allows me a forum to express myself in ways that are not appropriate for an adult to do." After making major lifestyle changes, "I just confronted my emotions after emotions and death and love and hate and regret and, you know, birth, all this heavy shit," and the creation of the Ziltoid character ends up being part of that. The record gains a cult following, but shortly after its release, Townsend posts in the forums of the HevyDevy site that he's "burned out" on touring and performing, and much prefers writing solo material and taking on production work. Townsend lends his voice to the character Bink Bonk Blammymatazz on the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse. On June 7, 2007 the tenth anniversary edition of City is released, along with bonus tracks an extended liner notes penned by Townsend. In March of 2008, the best-of collection, 1994–2006 Chaos Years, a Strapping Young Lad retrospective, is released, and the collection, which includes live performances on DVD and music videos, has an air of finality to it.
Townsend announces his intent to return to music to Blabbermouth in March, confessing that "I had to re-learn how to create without drugs and through that personal transformation, I learned a great deal of things." He forms the Devin Townsend Project, with the intent to release four records, each with a different mood. The first, Ki (pronounced "key"), is released in May 2009. The record breaks what Townsend referred to as his "musical constipation," and has a much more controlled, restrained energy, with lots of ambient textures and short, controlled bursts of intensity. Townsend addresses the tentativeness of his newfound sobriety and even his addiction to internet porn; it earns critical praise for being difficult and unusual. Ki is followed up with Addicted, a more upbeat and pop-influenced record, released November 17. The production is deliberately modelled after mainstream pop records, with Townsend drawing from his most popular work for inspiration. Anneke van Giersbergen, formerly of the Gathering, provides additional vocals on several of the tracks, including the duet "Ih-Ah!" Townsend also begins to contemplate a sequel to Ziltoid The Omnicient.
With some trepidation, Townsend returns to touring in January, taking an opening slot on a tour of North America with Between the Buried and Me, Scale the Summit, and Cynic. The experience reignites his passion for performing, and he soon embarks on a headlining tour of Australia as well as several festival appearances, including co-headlining the Czech Republic's Brutal Assault festival. At the Tuska Open Air Festival in Helsinki on July 2, Townsend performs the entirely of Ziltoid the Omniscient as a trial run for an expanded stage show.
Townsend decides to release the third and fourth records in the planned Devin Townsend Project cycle, Ghost and Deconstruction, simultaneously on June 21. Where Ghost is quiet and ephemeral, full of shivering and spacey textures, Deconstruction is hellish and bombastic, with towering walls of flaming sound and Townsend's over-the-top sense of humour (it's a concept record about a man who journeys to hell in search of the meaning of life, which apparently lies within a cheeseburger). Featuring a wide range of guest vocalists and with full orchestral arrangements composed by Townsend in ProTools, Deconstruction is particular marks a moment where Townsend turns his eye to large-scale collaboration and more ambitious arrangements. Townsend performs each of the four Devin Townsend Project albums in their entirely in London over four nights, which become the live box set By a Thread: Live In London 2011.
Townsend find writing the sequel to Ziltoid the Omniscient more difficult than he anticipated. Though the Devin Townsend Project was conceived as a closed, four-album cycle, Townsend decides to continue, releasing Epicloud in September. He mounts a monstrously ambitious, one-night-only show at the Roundhouse in London on October 27, dubbed The Retinal Circus. Featuring music from across Townsend's 20-year career, and conceived as a "more musical than musical" (as Townsend told Gunshy Assassin in 2011), the concert featured everything from puppets to firebreathers and stiltwalkers. Hosted and narrated by Steve Vai, the show walks the line between midway, opera and rock excess. In a particularly poignant moment, Townsend invites Jed Simon onto the stage to perform two Strapping Young Lad songs, "Love?" and "Detox," effectively as a final farewell to the project. Townsend will state that this moment of closure was also deeply important for his relationship with his former Strapping Young Lad bandmates, because "we're friends. We started as friends, and the ramifications of quitting that band put all of that on the rocks." The concert is a moment of healing, both creatively and personally. The Retinal Circus also showcases some of the new visions that Townsend has for Ziltoid. He will later state that he wishes to "make a world and articulate it in ways that are really creatively free," and that the universe he created around the Ziltoid character allows him to do so.
2013 to 2014
In May, Ziltoid Radio, a satirical radio show hosted by the titular alien overlord, debuts on TeamRock Radio in London and runs for seven episodes. On October 29, 2013, Townsend releases both the CD and DVD/Blu-Ray version of The Retinal Circus, his highest-quality live recording to date. Townsend begins work on what he originally envisions as a sixth Devin Townsend Project record, called Casualties of Cool, but which quickly becomes its own, self-titled effort. Featuring vocalist Ché Aimee Dorval, who also worked with Townsend on Ki, and Morgan Ågren (of Kaipa) on drums, the tracks are eerie and haunted, and intensely personal for Townsend. Townsend uses the crowdfunding platform PledgeMusic to raise money for the release, promising to divert any excess funds to the Ziltoid sequel; the campaign raises 546 percent of its original goal, allowing Townsend to significantly expand his plans for the second Ziltoid record. Casualties of Cool is released May 14, 2014 and Townsend will later tweet that he has been working on the record since 2010, but considering how close to his heart the music was, it was something that could not be rushed. With the abundance of funds raised from the PledgeMusic campaign, Townsend makes the Ziltoid sequel, dubbed Z², a double record: Dark Matters, is the next instalment of the alien rock opera, and Sky Blue is a new Devin Townsend Project record. During the recording of Z², Townsend invites fans to send in their own vocal parts for what he calls the "Universal Choir," resulting in over 2000 unique voices being featured on the record. In September, Townsend launches a new Ziltoid website, which includes the first episode of a web series Townsend is creating based on the megalomaniac alien. The hair on the Ziltoid puppet is made of Townsend's own shorn skullet, cut off when he changed his lifestyle. The double album Z² is released on October 27. A huge Z² show is planned for April 13, 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, after which Townsend plans to take at least a year off from any recording or touring. For Townsend, the time has come to stop "the need for relentless releases right now. I really need to recharge my inspiration."
Essential Devin Townsend
Strapping Young Lad City (Century Media, 1997)
This industrial-tinged record has a sparking, groaning quality, and the combination of Hoglan's thunderous drumming and Townsend's unhinged vocal performance is still hair-raising. The wall-of-sound intensity and chaotic songwriting can be overwhelming, but its such an intelligent violence, with just enough hook and grip to keep the listener enthralled while being flayed.
Devin Townsend Infinity (HevyDevy, 1998)
While Townsend had ostensibly released solo records in the past, this was the first to appear entirely under his own name. Inspired in part by a nervous breakdown, subsequent hospitalization and bipolar diagnosis, the record unites aspects of Townsend's psyche that were previously at odds, and it the first example of Townsend experimenting with juxtaposing aggressive and gentle modes, and light and dark textures. Fresh and raw, with an intense vulnerability pulsing just below the surface, it heralds a willingness to expose and explore the self that will continue to manifest in Townsend's work.
Devin Townsend Ziltoid the Omniscient (HevyDevy, 2007)
A true solo record, which Townsend composed, played all instruments on, produced and engineered entirely himself, this concept record is one of the flagship projects of Townsend's career. Firmly located in rock opera, the record follows the narrative of Ziltoid, an alien commander who comes to Earth to demand tribute in the form of the best coffee in the galaxy, invading the planet when the offering is not up to snuff. The record is hilarious, unexpectedly touching, and disarmingly well-composed, with a bombastic theatricality that revels in being over the top and invites unreserved investment. It also represents the beginning of Townsend's interest in the theatrical and orchestral, which would come to define his later career.
Devin Townsend The Retinal Circus (HevyDevy, 2013)
An extraordinary live record, The Retinal Circus captures the most ambitious stage show Townsend has yet put on, featuring music spanning his career. The sound quality is exceptional and while there are several records not represented, it still allows a solid sense of progression through the various modes and stages of Townsend's creative out put. Appearances by Steve Vai, Jed Simon and Anneke van Giersbergen add a great deal to the show as well, and give a sense of the development of Townsend's intensely collaborative style. It also may come to mark the moment that Townsend truly moved from thinking in terms of the next album to creating theatrical productions as his primary creative unit.