His tour shirts may have “Lower Mid Tier Prog Metal” self-deprecatingly emblazoned across the back, but THE DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT‘s UK run with homegrown tech metal scene leaders TESSERACT and icy Norwegians LEPROUS in support is on paper a bill of your modern progressive metal fan’s dreams. The tour may include a one-off full performance of his 1997 solo debut Ocean Machine: Biomech in London, but at stops like tonight’s in Manchester Devin is keen to show off material from his most recent release Transcendence alongside old favourites.
Where Devin Townsend’s world is full of extravagant and eccentric colour, openers LEPROUS are monochrome down to their smart black appearance and shadowy lighting. What this is most definitely not to say is that they lack character or engaging qualities. Rising to prominence as the backing band for EMPEROR frontman’s Ihsahn’s solo performances, what they share with their former collaborator is not so much visceral extremity but a sense of glacial fragility amid a grander wider vision. Their music is subtle but expansive, the staccato punches and thuds of opener Foe from 2013’s acclaimed Coal building through glossy and luscious textures as frontman Einar Solberg injects fluid personality from behind his keyboard. Solberg is stunning, his vocal acrobatics seeping with emotion as his croons build into impassioned and powerful highs, physically immersed within the flow of his band’s music as he flicks his hands in small motions and racks his whole body in heavier passages. Drummer Baard Kolstad is a thrashing sea of limbs, but at no point does the playing of anyone in the band step into overly flashy territories, instead all operating within the sonic realm they’ve created. The audience lap it up, and by the time Solberg transitions into a full extreme metal bellow for the climax of closer Slave LEPROUS have all but won the night.
It sets a high bar that TESSERACT, despite their popularity, struggle to come even within vague distance of. Having finally seemed to maintain some momentum after years of singer swaps and off the back of a well received album in Polaris, you would hope that TESSERACT would finally be able to make the strides so many people seem to have their fingers crossed for them to do. Of course technically the musicianship is impeccable across the board, and it’s undeniable that there is a sense of drama and a palpable human heart to their music that so many of their peers lack. With their ethereal take on the style TESSERACT undoubtedly deserve some level of props for being one of the few djent bands to take their MESHUGGAH template in a direction that at least vaguely warrants the “progressive” tag, but ultimately despite it all it fails to translate in any tangible way. There is none of MESHUGGAH’s deathly crushing assault or terrifying sense of panicked paranoia, the band in fact having little to no bite at all, which would be fine if their atmosphere didn’t fail to immerse and their songs fail to inspire at all as well. They’re clearly a band with grand ideas but they have yet to enact them, and unfortunately what TESSERACT are left with is a cardboard snare drum and a pile of edgeless polyrhythms.
Luckily, great songs are something Devin Townsend has aplenty, and fans will know that that isn’t the only thing he has in his arsenal either. The voice of Ziltoid the Omniscient addressing the crowd over the PA is greeted by laughs stemming from warm familiarity, Townsend’s affinity for the comedic and the surreal long established in a career now spanning over two decades. The show tonight however is fairly stripped back by Devin Townsend standards. He still fires out jokes and chats to those in attendance at length, but compared to his 2015 performance at the Royal Albert Hall which saw him perform the sequel to his Ziltoid the Omniscient musical-comedy in full or the bonkers beyond belief Retinal Circus in 2012, tonight is fairly light on the wacky and on the ludicrously overblown production. Instead THE DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT tonight thrust the most important aspect to the fore, the music itself. Opener Rejoice is initially hampered by muddy sound, but once its idiosyncratic female vocals are allowed to shine THE DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT sweep the room up in their universe effortlessly. Manchester is given a brief taste of the upcoming Ocean Machine show as Night is aired second, and as the night unfolds more and more corners of Townsend’s enormous back catalogue are unearthed.
If Transcendence seemed a little ordinary and business as usual for Townsend (the euphoric Offer Your Light aside, which is sadly not aired tonight presumably due to a lack of Anneke van Giersbergen), the measured chug of Failure still manages to feel momentous and of weight, the songs solid additions to the Devin Townsend arsenal. It’s when Devin brandishes a frankly enormous flying V though for a demented rendition of Planet of the Apes that things really click into gear, the song a mind-blogging marvel of brain-melting insanity stretched over ten minutes working drummer Ryan van Poederooyen to his absolute limit. If the first portion of the show suffered somewhat from having too many mid-paced songs together, here the pacing proves exactly right as the instantaneous metal attack of Ziltoid Goes Home positively roars in Planet’s wake. March of the Poozers is unstoppable, and main set closer Kingdom is greeted by cheers of total unadulterated joy. Throughout, Townsend is engaging and charming, and his humour never becomes grating as it is offset by a sense that the whole time Townsend is winking at you, fully aware of its silliness. Moments like his candid dissection of his own on-stage persona, poking fun at encores as he doesn’t even bother to fully leave the stage, and his pausing of an acoustic rendition of Ih-ah! halfway through in order to laugh at a man in the audience’s enthusiastic declaration of love allow the whole vibe to slip into place, zaniness balanced perfectly with self-deprecation and a genuine down-to-earth likability. Tonight is not so much an outlandish triumph like some of Townsend’s other ventures, but instead a subtle consolidation of the worth of a key figure within our world.
Check out our photo gallery from the night’s action in Manchester from Sabrina Ramdoyal Photography here: