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This article was originally published in issue #24
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He’s a super singer, guitarist, writer and producer. He’s one of the most exciting and radical musical figures in Rock. Stuart Bull meets the astonishing Devin Townsend, while Levi Clay tries to get the measure of an enigma.
An enigma is “a person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand” and I can’t think of a single person more fitting to the moniker than the incredible Devin Townsend.
Born in 1972 in Canada to a musical family, Devin Townsend picked up banjo at the age of five and didn’t make the transition to guitar until he was 12. High School years saw him playing in a succession of Metal bands and eventually developing a project he called Noisescapes, which he submitted to record labels. A Noisescapes album followed and it was through the offices of his record company that Townsend was first introduced to Steve Vai, and then offered a singing spot in his band, completing the line-up for Vai’s hotly anticipated follow up to Passion and Warfare, 1993’s Sex and Religion. Devin got the opportunity to tour the world (there’s a fair few videos on YouTube worth checking out) as a hired gun and to show off his vocal prowess while developing a name for himself.
In 1995 Townsend became disillusioned with the music scene and where he was heading and vented his frustration in an astonishing new project, Strapping Young Lad - the extreme industrial metal band, written-off by various labels (the head of Roadrunner, apparently, dismissing it as “just noise” and having “no commercial appeal”). Townsend was to have the last laugh as the band eventually signed with Century Media and released five albums, the last being 2006’s The New Black. Currently the band is on hold as Townsend says he no longer relates to the music. That may change as time passes, but Strapping Young Lad made a huge impact and left enough of a legacy for fans to enjoy for many years to come.
But where do you start trying to assess such a one-off? Townsend’s vocals are remarkable, his songs are unique and if you were to say you found his style of guitar playing with Strapping Young Lad ‘a little different to everyone else on the metal scene’, that would be a fair enough observation!
The fact is that Townsend complements his unique compositional style by playing in rather bizarre tunings. He’s gone on record saying that when he learnt the song Friends by Led Zeppelin, he toyed around with Jimmy Page’s open C6 tuning (CACGCE) and eventually found himself liking the way he could compose with a slightly adapted open C tuning (CGCGCE). It gives him lots of power chords, and because all the standard chord shapes are out the window, you’re forced to go out and find ways to work in the tuning (taking this one step further by tuning his 7 strings GCGCGCE). The result is that Townsend likes to play a lot of octaves and just go out and find riffs. There’s very little theoretical basis behind this: instead he makes light of such considerations, saying things like: “Pentatonic, Penta meaning 9 and tonic meaning types of drink”.
In recent years Townsend has taken this tuning to the next step and shifted to open B (BF#BF#BD#). A tuning like this is a wonderful choice for some of the more melodic territory he’s ventured into in recent years as it enables you to allow more strings to ring out to create interesting harmonies. In fact, when tuned like this the guitar just feels a little more resonant. It’s a great way to inspire you if you feel you’re in a compositional rut. Try it, sometime!
When it comes to crafting a tone and gear, Townsend characteristically takes things to the extreme. He currently plays Peavey guitars and has a signature model (an EMG-loaded, 7-string, 28” baritone - the Peavey PXD Vicious) though he is still sometimes seen playing Framus guitars loaded with an EMG 81 and a 66 and for much of Strapping Young Lad, he was using ESPs. Ampwise, before switching to a Fractal Audio Axe FX, he was noted for the use of Peavey, Mesa Boogie and Marshall gear. When it comes to effects, he likes to have a huge ambient reverb (lasting several seconds) so all of his notes can bleed into each other. His complex effects rig is currently controlled by the Fractal Audio Axe FX II, and with a little digging online, you can find Devin’s own patches which he kindly gives to anyone interested.
Outside of extreme music, Devin Townsend has a mild preoccupation with ambient and electronic music. Albums such as Devlab and The Hummer fall closer to music for mediation than something with a melody: background noise consisting of low frequencies, ocean sounds and various audio samples. This is really art in its truest form, Devin himself admitting “Some people are going to think it’s just buzzing and humming noises, so again... it’s not for everybody.”
So how on earth do you try to summarise a career that has covered so much ground so quickly? If you’re looking for a way in, one of the fan favourites seems to be Terria, which is one of his solo records, or perhaps Ki, the first recording from the Devin Townsend Project. In more recent years he’s devoted a lot more time to the Project, with recent efforts like 2010’s Ghost and 2012’s Epicloud, still featuring some crushing electric guitar textures, but with a sense of melody that you can’t help thinking couldn’t possibly have come from the mastermind behind Strapping Young Lad, yet somehow did.
These albums have brought Devin Townsend to a whole new audience. Recently he performed a retrospective concert in London to a sold out Roundhouse, performing for almost three hours and featuring an elaborate stage show with numerous performers and story sections. The subsequent CD and DVD release entitled The Retinal Circus was released to huge critical acclaim in September 2013.
People have drawn comparisons between Devin Townsend and the great Frank Zappa and they may have a point. Zappa was a great guitarist, a fine composer but perhaps most of all a visionary and they are all true of Devin Townsend. You would have to add ‘world class vocalist’ too. Oh, and an enigma. I still think that applies. We can’t wait to see what he does next.