The Royal Albert Hall, over the course of its 144-year history, has played host to some of the world’s leading artists and the day’s most famous figures. In May 1877, Richard Wagner conducted the first half of each of the eight concerts making up the Grand Wagner Festival. 14th September 1901 saw Sir Arthur Conan Doyle judge the first major bodybuilding competition. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Allen Ginsberg, and Jimi Hendrix all took centre stage in this illustrious venue throughout the 1960s. In 1995, Professor Steven Hawking became the second physicist to sell out the Royal Albert Hall when he spoke about his latest book Does God throw dice in black holes? (the first was Albert Einstein in 1933). And on 13th April 2015, Devin Townsend, in a century and a half’s cultural culmination, officially became The Royal Albert Hall’s first musician, in his own words, “to have a farting ball bag shriek across the stage”. Picture someone wearing an oversized fancy dress of a testicle crossed with the alien from Mars Attacks! and Iain Duncan Smith and you’re closer to understanding the ludicrousness of this spectacle.
The Canadian musician and composer Devin Townsend is prolific, maverick, and more than slightly mad. His musical career has spanned over 20 years, starting off as Steve Vai’s outgoing and loopy lead vocalist, before going on to be take the helm of his own bands and projects to become one of the most highly-regarded figures in modern metal. Even though Devin’s influence doesn’t reach far outside of the metalhead milieu, his output has been increasingly genre-defying, adding spaced-out ambient, laid-back country, and experimental dark noise to a canon more than 20 albums strong (and that’s ignoring live albums and collaborations).
The most unsettled and kaleidoscopically-psychotic aspect of Devin Townsend’s psyche was exposed in Strapping Young Lad
Just as his musical output has developed and shifted over time, so has the nature and expression of his insanity. The most unsettled and kaleidoscopically-psychotic aspect of Devin Townsend’s psyche was exposed in the extreme metal of Strapping Young Lad, unmedicated and intense (not long after the release of 1997’s City, Devin checked himself into a mental hospital as he approached a breakdown). Strapping Young Lad was officially disbanded in 2007, with Devin entering a hiatus followed by a period of self discovery, resulting in sobriety and a fresh outlook on life. Now, Devin’s madness finds other avenues of expression and here it is channeled, like a puppet master with a split personality, through the extraterrestrial Ziltoid.
Ziltoid was first unleashed in 2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient, a tongue-in-cheek metal musical. The story follows the alien Ziltoid as he travels to Earth in search of the perfect cup of coffee, who upon arrival is presented with a foul-tasting and “fetid” brew, resulting in the outbreak of inter-galactic war. Devin Townsend has long been renowned for his sense of humour (which seems a frequent pairing with mental fragility) and nowhere is this more on display than Ziltoid. Astonishingly perhaps, Ziltoid proved popular enough that a sequel followed in 2014 with Z2 a double-album consisting of Sky Blue, the sixth album in the Devin Townsend Project series, and Dark Matters, part two of the Ziltoid musical narrative, proving that humour is not incompatible with metal.
Devin Townsend proves that humour is not incompatible with metal
This is as good a point as any to come shrieking back to the aforementioned alien ball bag, otherwise known as a “Poozer”. The first half of Ziltoid Live is a full performance of Dark Matters which, while as daft as ever, is a much more collaborative effort in which Devin does not take centre stage (Ziltoid the Omniscient was in fact an entirely solo album, with Devin even programming the drums himself).
Devin has been increasingly joining forces with female vocalists, with ex-The Gathering lead singer and songwriter Anneke van Giersbergen providing guest vocals on Addicted, Epicloud, Z2, and Canadian vocalist Ché Aimee Dorval teaming up with Devin on Casualties of Cool. In Dark Matters, as too this live performance, vocalist and accordionist of experimental prog rock band Stolen Babies, Dominique Lenore Persi, plays the role of The Warrior Princess, giving a singing and spoken word performance.
How does this all link to the Poozers? The Warrior Princess commands an army of these things and goes to war with both Ziltoid and Earth.
And that’s as far as I’m going to go in explaining the narrative of this thing because its not important, merely a silly backdrop to 50 minutes of heavy progressive metal, laden with Deconstruction-style madness where there’s an unexpected twist at every turn, moving through complicated rhythmic and melodic structures.
The DVD/Blu-Ray begins with a cheesy animated Ziltoid monologue on board his spaceship, setting up the narrative as a prelude to the music. This sets the appropriate tone immediately, preparing you to have tongue firmly in cheek. The set list runs through the entirety of Z2 in the order it appears on record, with title track Z2 kicking things off with a trademark oddly-formed melody sung with the assistance of a backing chorus (stood on either side of the stage is a group of male and female singers providing vocal depth outside of the samples typical of a live Devin show). Narrator, Bill Courage, greets the audience: “Good evening dorks, pick your hands off your peckers and lend an ear, what will be revealed for the next 50 minutes will make you crap your pants…” A chorus-backed melody line continues, chirpily dissonant in a style not really heard since 1998’s God-complex, Infinity.
This is music that was made to be performed live… surprising, dramatic
This is music that was made to be performed live – probably the intention all along – constantly surprisingly, dramatic, this was music made to fill the Royal Albert Hall and reach every one of the 5000-strong audience. The performance is flawless, as is the production. The ability of bands to replicate the quality or nature of their recorded music varies; some play rough jammed-versions of their music, while some try to reinvent it entirely. Townsend is one who strives for faithful reproductions.
Dominique Lenore Persi joins in during War Princess from her throne at the peak of the tiered stage, coming down to join Devin and the rest of the band. Her style of singing is reminiscent of the operatic Anneke van Giersbergen on previous Devin recordings, but she also adds screaming to the mix. The slower paced singalong Dimension Z wraps up the first half of this live performance and to encourage participation from the crowd, the lyrics to the song are shown on screen, karaoke style.
Devin Townsend takes less a centre of stage than the music and the spectacle
Somewhat unusually for a Devin Townsend performance, in part one, he takes less centre of stage than the music and the spectacle, much of this influenced by there being far fewer solo singing sections. Part two is a “by request set” where fans voted on Facebook and Twitter for the songs they most wanted to see performed live from the entirety of Townsend’s back catalogue, with a bunch of the songs being performed live for the first time and here, the focus is much more centred.
It is evident from Townsend’s wide-mouthed grin and the way he talks to and thanks the audience, just how much playing his music in the Royal Albert Hall means to him. And really, when you think about it, it is truly incredible that Devin Townsend has been given this opportunity, for, as talented as he is, he has never been, and still isn’t, a mainstream musician though he has always maintained a cult following. And, in a weird way, it makes me proud that it is Britain that has shown Devin the open arms to do what he does on such a grand scale (it was at The Roundhouse in London that Devin performed his last over-the-top recorded performance The Retinal Circus).
It is in this second set that, as a long-time Devin Townsend fan-boy (who would have guessed?), my hairs stand up on end as I hear music that has accompanied me throughout my life over the past 15 years. Like the first half, the performances from the entire band are completely spot on (I’m particularly impressed by drummer Ryan van Poederooyen who plays with meticulous accuracy). Throughout this greatest hits catalogue including songs such as Namaste, Night, Earth Day, Christine, Supercrush, and Lucky Animals, Townsend looks like he’s having the time of his life, jamming with the band, and his banter in between songs maintains the lighthearted mood.
Suddenly, the mood has changed. No absurd theatrics, Devin looks vulnerable.
It’s with 20 minutes remaining of the concert and as the stage fades to darkness, Devin hands off his guitar and walks, back turned, to the drums as a repetitive and mechanical rhythm begins with haunting samples providing an ambient backdrop. Anyone who has spent time living within Ocean Machine will recognise this as The Death of Music, the album’s 12-minute outro that sounds like a left-on radio seeping into your dreams. Suddenly, the mood has changed. No absurd theatrics. No reunion-tour-nostalgia performances of greatest hits. Without his guitar, Devin looks vulnerable, like a soldier who has set down his arms in an act of peace.
As much as Devin Townsend’s sense of humour is ever-pervasive, this is not what causes his music to take up residence in your heart; that is the consequence of his deeply personal and introspective music and lyrical subject matter, and now, as Devin begins to whisper the words “One comes, the rain will always be, and things I am, are things that should not be”, we are reminded we are witness to his world and that this is anything but light-hearted. “Don’t die on me, don’t go away, when I need you here.” You feel like Devin is talking to you, the fans, and you sense the insecurity lurking behind his stage persona.
As the final song of the evening approaches, the band is joined on stage by the behind-the-scenes crew and “VIPs”, as well as Devin’s son, Ray, who, as I’m sure we all would, looks completely overwhelmed. We conclude with Universal Flame from Sky Blue and this joyous anthem, combined with the rapturous participation of the crew and audience, cannot fail but bring a huge, idiotic grin to my face. There is no other way to describe this than “happy metal”.
Devin Townsend shows us the emotional richness of life and how art and music can reflect this. Even within as aggressive and inherently ridiculous a genre as metal, you can show humour, deep introspection, and ultimately celebration. Absurd, beautiful, and fist-pumpingly joyous, Devin Townsend, with a little help from an extraterrestrial, reminds us of what it is to be human.