In November 2011, Devin Townsend (and friends) came to London to treat fans of the Devin Townsend Project’s four album concept to the whole shebang. That meant four shows across four nights, featuring august djent, seething progressive metal whales, gothic cheerleaders, soft shuffle blues, presidential campaigns, glorious power metal, and pretty much everything in between. And they filmed it. We asked Ruth Booth to check out whether By A Thread is as good to watch back as she remembers it being at the time.
Six things we learned from the By A Thread DVD by the Devin Townsend Project:
1) When Devin Townsend announced his return to making music, few could have imagined the scale of the four records he had in mind. Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost took fans on a journey across four very different moods, stretching from the intensity we saw from Strapping Young Lad, to almost Enya-like ambience. And when we heard Townsend was bringing the Project to London for an album-a-night extravaganza, we couldn’t resist heading down. By A Thread is no less ambitious than the four shows that spawned it. With sound mixed by Dev himself, the event is spread across four DVDS (and five CDs), rather than a single highlights disc. But rather than feeling incoherent, this means there’s pretty much something for everyone, no matter what style of live DVD you’re into.
Watch ‘Gato’ from Ki performed live in London:
2) Ki, aka The All-Stars Reunion disc: As I wrote at the time, with its restrained metallic bursts, Ki was always going to be an odd sell as a full album gig. Turning it into an all-star show, bringing together players from across the weekend, was a stroke of genius. Watching back, seeing Townsend and New Age flautist Kat Epple grooving on ‘Ain’t Never Gonna Win’, and Dirk Verbeuren (from Soilwork) beating the ass out of ‘Ki’ is a treat. Sort of like a grassroots metal Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or a Pink Floyd reunion without the palpable bitterness. And with the sound mix across all the DVDs by Dev himself, many takes here stand out as definitive versions. The disc is only marred by the detailed menu art, a deft riff on the album sleeve that’s unfortunately tricky to read on an old school TV. Likewise, the red light at the start means watching these DVDs on anything other than a flat screen is a no-no, unless you like tenth-from-the-front youtube vids circa 2007. That apart, it’s a solid start to the four nights.
3) Addicted, aka The Van Halen Party disc: Addicted may not be the night with all the balloons and streamers, but out of the four DVDs, it’s the one that feels most like a celebration. While the album’s exuberent power metal may have more than a little to do with it, the onstage chemistry between Townsend and guest vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen (from The Gathering and Agua de Annique) is thrilling. Having van Giersbergen onstage seems to push the entire band to up their game, with Townsend in his best vocal form of these four discs. Meanwhile, in her second, gig of the night, van Giersbergen’s ethereal vocals are so powerful, even Townsend is mouthing “oh my God” during ‘Hyperdrive’. I still defy anyone who claims they’re not completely in love by the end of ‘Awake’. As Townsend remarks in the commentary, “she’s more metal than all of us put together.”
Watch ‘Awake’ from Addicted performed live in London:
4) Deconstruction, aka The Iron Maiden Metal Opera disc: “Let’s keep out fingers crossed. This is going to be a hell of a thing,” says Dev, at the start of the Deconstruction DVD. And what a thing it is – a puppet Greg Puciato punching himself in the face, Joe Duplantier as sky-whale with a beanie, a hellion choir and a six foot diameter cheeseburger. The Deconstruction night was the DTP’s chance to go all out in terms of sound and spectacle, and certainly if you like live DVDs that put on a show, this is definitely your night. Not least for the Ziltoid’s 2011 President of the Omniverse campaign, complete with balloons, and a flag-patterned top hat balancing precariously on Townsend’s bonce. It’s also great to actually hear the four person choir on the final mix. But more than that, you get to see what a sheer sweat-stained effort this whole thing was. Even with the choir, and Dirk Verbeuren on drums, that still left a myriad of sonic layers, tackled with the help of notes taped all over speakers. And then there’s the fraught tech-metal fret-spidery covering the likes of ‘Planet of the Apes’. If you ever needed proof of why Townsend picked up the Dimebag Shredder award at this year’s Metal Hammer Golden Gods, here it is.
5) Ghost, aka the, well, Live at Islington Chapel disc: Out of all four nights, Ghost is the one I felt most apprehensive about watching again. These folksy ambient sounds might well have been written for the Victorian arches of the Islington Chapel. But half a live show is always in the mind of those watching, and no matter how well mixed and edited, surely there’s no way a recording could match up. What immediately comes across is just how relaxed Townsend and the band are, not just because they’re in mufti. As it turns out from the commentary, this line-up had the greater rehearsal time of all of them, and by God it shows. The sound is absolutely sublime. Ghost gets pretty damn close to that night, only falling down when it comes to just how magnificent the setting was – that’s left to the Extras footage of setting up at the venue. What still comes across is the contrast between this show and the previous night. Fun as all that wondrously ridiculous stuff was, it’s a joy to see Townsend just taking his foot off the gear and enjoying playing with an ensemble. No matter what your opinion of his mellower output, that’s just a delight for anyone.
Watch ‘Ghost’ from…err…Ghost performed live in London:
6) With the usual promo vids, interviews, candid commentaries (Townsend takes a break halfway through one to take a shit), photo galleries, and a butt-ton of
Easter Ziltoid Eggs, there’s a lot of bang for your omniversal buck here. And we haven’t even mentioned the encores of rareities, such as the first UK outing of ‘Pixillate’, or songs from 1996 sellout concept record Punky Bruster – Cooked on Phonics. It’s only a shame the picture quality suffers at times, especially when the audio mix is excellent. This is the little live DVD that could. However, it’s clear that By A Thread will stand as testament of very exciting and important time in the Devin Townsend Project (a moniker Townsend has since adopted for the long term), albeit still a work in progress. Though it never felt like a shoestring production at the time, the four shows together form the foundation of what Townsend has been working on since he returned to music. It’s really an effort towards something bigger, something we won’t know for sure until October, when Townsend unveils his Retinal Circus show at the Camden Roundhouse. And after all this, you have to wonder what he’s got planned. Over 1,500 square feet is a lot of fibreglass fast food.
By A Thread – Live In London 2011 is available to buy now from all sorts of shops and online retailers – here it is listed in Inside Out’s webstore, here it is over on Amazon, and here it is on HMV. You should buy it so Devin Townsend and co. will make more DVDs in future, yeah? Normally we’d got tell you to buy tickets for Devin Townsend’s next UK show – the aforementioned Retinal Circus show at the Camden Roundhouse – but that sold out long ago. See what happens when you sleep on these things?