On the eve of Devin Townsend’s Retinal Circus, Ruth Booth headed to Newcastle in search of the universe’s ultimate warm-up show.
Six things we learned when the Devin Townsend Project played in Newcastle:
1) Warm-up shows are like buying coffee from a strange vending machine. You’re never sure whether it’s going to be too hot, too cold, taste anything like coffee at all – or whether that was the owner’s intention in the first place. It’s a bunch of local lads kicking this one off – Dragnet, a handful of young chaps still working out their presence and rather hard rock sound. Arcite, meanwhile, prove perfectly polished as they pound out some powerful metal from upcoming debut Salvation-Temptation-Deliverance.
2) For the headliners, this is of course a warm-up for the long-anticipated Retinal Circus show. London will host a one-night only extravaganza of pyrotechnical wizardry, choral transcendence and giant body parts. With three jetlagged Canadians and their frontman, this is a little more stripped back than the 96-strong team they’ll have backing them this weekend. There is a blonde viking type with a pizza boomerang, though.
3) It’s a brave start to a set with a song you admit you’ve not played before, and even braver when that song is a progressive metal song that weaves through several movements. ‘True North’ is pretty appropriate for a night that sees changes of tack from gospel, to industrial metal, to polka, to melodic rock. As expected, recent album Epicloud proves stuffed with sparkling live material, including ‘Lucky Animals’ and ‘Where We Belong’ to a backdrop of drifting planets and geometric shapes.
4) While Epicloud dominates, tonight throws up a few surprises from Townsend’s catalogue. The bouncy pop rock of ‘War’ might be expected after recent records. The interesting choice is that of lullaby, ‘Babysong’, with its tongue-in-cheek refrain on the merits of fatherhood.
5) However, the pick of the vault has to be ‘Vampolka’ followed by ‘Vampira’. Accompanied by a crowd directed to sing “hey” to the tune of Metallica’s ‘Seek and Destroy’, they’re a delicious seasonal pair of Hammer Horror scream-alongs. Even if they are missing – as Townsend points out – a clown car full of dwarves.
6) It’s hard not to go looking for hints of Retinal Circus in tonight’s set. Aside from the setlist itself, there’s no prizes for guessing it’ll be saturated with Townsend’s trademark humour and an audience full of Ziltoid puppets. For all that Townsend’s relaxed, quirky stage manner and the hilarious backdrops show, it’s later in the set that you really start to see they’re working towards. ‘Grace’ may be missing the huge choir, but even with the sample track, it’s a thundering tour de force positive. If they can pull it off, this weekend’s gig will be one ultimate cup of coffee indeed.