Of all the eccentric ambassadors for progressive metal out there, Devin Townsend is certainly the most theatrical, and one of the most prolific. Depending on how you count them, Empath is Townsend’s 26th full-length album, and devoted fans will be pleased to see he’s showing no sign of slowing down with this one. More reminiscent of 2011’s Deconstruction than anything else, Empath pulls from much of Townsend’s successful sounds and brings us an intriguing and inspired concept about the uniting qualities of shared human experience.
As expected, Empath once again utilizes a variety of sounds, voices, and contributors to bring the listener a truly dynamic experience of arguably the greatest scale of any of Townsend’s albums. We are treated to the return of the perennial guest vocalist, Anneke van Giersbergen, as well as contributions from Anup Sastry of Monuments on drums, Steve Vai, the Elektra Women’s Choir, and several others.
The most surprising guest credit has to be that of Chad Kroeger of Nickelback. I guess Canada really is that strapped for famous singers? Apparently Kroeger does some harmonies on “Hear Me,” which is actually one of the heaviest tracks Townsend has ever delivered outside Strapping Young Lad. To be honest, I didn’t notice the contribution, and Nickelback may be my most hated of all bands, but according to Townsend, the entire album would have been a complete sellout pop album without Kroeger’s advice—so in a strange twist of fate, thank you Chad Kroeger for saving this album?
Individual contributors aside, Empath truly displays an impressive range of sounds, including some really heavy stuff on “Genesis,” the aforementioned “Hear Me,” and throughout other tracks. The heavy bits are on par with what we’ve heard on Deconstruction, and some of the softer, proggier tracks such as “Evermore” and especially “Sprite” are reminiscent of some of the best moments on Synchestra. “Sprite” may be the most well-crafted soft track Townsend has ever recorded, while “Spirits Collide” is closer to the gospel sounds of Epicloud. “Why” is the most stage musical-esque song yet from Townsend, with a touch of his signature humor, though delivered more deftly than the sporadic fart sounds on Deconstruction.
All the variety of sounds help to deliver a cohesive theme throughout the album—namely that we are all in this together; nobody has it figured out; we all experience jubilant highs and crippling lows in life, and according to Townsend, in the end, it will be alright. There is a loose concept of a castaway stranded on an island (of the mind), but Townsend rarely returns to this idea after the introduction. More often, he addresses the audience directly, almost to comfort us through a message of solidarity. In “Genesis,” he says “All the world is in this together. Feel no fear. we’re fearless forever…When we’re apart, we fall. Together, we feed the world….Let there be stars, and let there be you. Let there be monsters; let there be pain; let us begin to feel again.” On “Spirits Will Collide,” he states “Receive the pain, but this isn’t where this ends. Don’t you forget that you are perfect. Don’t you forget just who we are. We’re strong enough….” Again, in the epic 23 and a half minute finale, “Singularity,” he says “Life is light. We are infinite. Rejoice and fill your hearts with love. Light begins with you…but there are still monsters.” Though the lyrics in other places are more cynical, the hopeful message carries clearest throughout the album.
There are flaws to Empath. Parts of “Castaway,” “Borderlands” and “Singularity” are more or less vacant for minutes on end. I understand the cerebral element Townsend is trying to bring in these moments—attempting to capture the essence of being adrift, lost, and yet all heading in the same ultimate direction. However, too many of the lulls feel either out of place, too long, or too boring to keep me engaged.
Similarly, “Spirits Will Collide” is simply too slow, simple in structure, and repetitive to be a strong track. I think Townsend achieved exactly what he wanted with this track by bringing us a dramatic and layered gospel song, it simply isn’t in my taste, and exemplifies much of my critique of his Epicloud album. Townsend is best when taking himself seriously and transitioning between heavy, technical parts and airy, beautiful ones. “Requiem” is another song that is too one-note. Though it’s clearly meant as a transition piece, it doesn’t do enough to carry us from the track before to the one after.
Also, though I always appreciate an epic prog track over twenty minutes, “Singularity” could have been a stronger finisher for the album. It has some excellent moments in it, but I would have preferred something that builds more organically to a climax, like “Planet of the Apes” off Deconstruction.
Taste aside, Empath is massively creative, utilizing much of Townsend’s best sounds of past albums while delivering a cogent and hopeful message of our collective future. The heavy parts on this one are excellent, while there are also some softer gems that any listener should appreciate. Empath is full of drama, passion, and is the best album to come from Townsend since Deconstruction. The fact that this guy continues to gain inspiration after all these releases is impressive in and of itself. Here’s hoping the well never dries up, and we keep getting more music like this until all our souls converge into a giant, slippery mass of eternal bliss.
FAVORITE TRACK: “Hear Me”
RELEASE DATE: 3/29/19
FOR FANS OF: Dream Theater, Ihsahn