When we asked our contributors to tell us their albums of the year, we also offered them the opportunity to retrospectively review any of their Top 10 list that we hadn’t reviewed already. Ruth Booth took us up on that offer.
The Devin Townsend Project
Hevy Devy Records
20 June 2011
by Ruth Booth
With those weightless woodwind notes, we come to the final (planned) part of the four-year, self-titled epic: Ghost, the ambient calm to Deconstruction’s storm of chaotic metal. Though Deconstruction is the more abrasive and complex of the two, Ghost has potential to be the ‘difficult’ record here – and not just if you’re still pining for Strapping Young Lad. Townsend has attempted ambient and folk sounds before, though they’ve largely been complimentary or quirky flavours on more eclectic albums. Meanwhile, his only fully ambient records, The Hummer and Devlab, were self-conscious, rather willful experiments in THC sound, and remain cult choices even amongst devoted Dev fans.
Ghost, however, takes whatever comes – whether it’s the pattering rain of ‘Monsoon’, the warped electronica of ‘Dark Matters’, or the Deliverance-in-negative-banjo of ‘Blackberry’ – blending each into a far more relaxed and coherent whole. For an ambient record, Ghost covers a lot of ground. Townsend tackles folk, electronica, bluegrass, Enya and Pink Floyd, as he explores themes of fatherhood, love, the nature of the universe, and… Isn’t this starting to sound a bit familiar?
While Deconstruction packed in layer upon layer of disparate flavours from industrial metal to opera, Ghost is just as dense, but in a different way. Guitar and woodwind notes converse and sustain, while Deconstruction’s self-confessed fret-wanking is replaced by mellow jams, underscored by Mike St-Jean’s delicate brushwork and Dave Young’s subtle keys. This depth of sound is created with a smaller, more familial cast than the last record. His usual collaborators are joined by celebrated flautist, and Townsend’s childhood hero, Kat Epple, while vocalist Katrina Natale usually works at a Canadian Buddhist centre. It’s nothing new for Townsend to create depth without a cast of hundreds – he’s been creating records this way for years. Yet those other albums always felt censored, almost apologetic for that. Ghost is not just comfortable with what it is, but also generous enough to play to the strengths of its individual players. Arguably the star voice of the record isn’t Townsend, or even Katrina Natale’s warm, unassuming tones, but Kat Epple. Her flute and EWI melodies virtually dance over the album, like some fleeting spirit of innocence.
In many ways, Ghost is almost like Deconstruction from another point of view. While Deconstruction tries to shovel as much as possible into its ever-hungry maw, Ghost acknowledges each melody, makes the most of it, and then lets it go. Like Deconstruction, it’s an easy album to lose your grip on – not so much because you’re constantly bombarded by sound, but simply because those soft beautiful moments will just slip right by you if you don’t pay attention.
There will be those who regard Ghost as just something else to get out of his system – like a bad breath burp from Deconstruction‘s cheeseburger. Considering the legacy of Strapping Young Lad, this is not surprising. And in that way, even though he’s touched on this style of music before, this is the braver effort. Besides which, it’s arguably easier to hide behind the kitchen sink than to stand there stark bollock naked.
Despite this, Ghost is an incredibly comfortable and accomplished foray into ambient and folk sounds. So much so, it’s easy to understand why Townsend feels this is the music he was supposed to be making all along. And if further validation were needed, the presence of eight-time Emmy award winner Epple, whose work usually covers orchestral scores and film soundtracks, is more than enough. Ghost’s prowess is the more remarkable that it was completed in the same six month period as Deconstruction – and without compromising the one for the other. For their differences, Ghost can be just as dense, and at times potentially bewildering, as Deconstruction. Then, this was never a competition, and that goes for any of the four albums.
In the end, the Project goes full circle: Ghost ends right as Ki began, borrowing the melody from the first album track, ‘A Monday’. As the four records show, Devin Townsend Project was not about choosing one side of his music more over another, but about accepting the complexities of each one without fear or reservation. At the end of this four year journey, we find Devin Townsend comfortable enough with every aspect of what he does just to disappear into his music, and let whatever will be, be: no fear, no compromise. Which means that wherever the muse takes him next, it’s going to be one very interesting ride.
Sounds Like: Enya, David Gilmour, Bjork.
Top Track: Feather, Infinite Ocean, Fly, Monsoon.