There will be Steve Vai. There will be Strapping Young Lad. And, of course, there will be Ziltoid The Omniscient. For one night only, Devin Townsend is bringing The Retinal Circus to London. Ruth Booth headed to the Roundhouse to watch this strange rebirth through a giant green alien vagina.
Six things we learned when Devin Townsend’s Retinal Circus came to London:
1) So what precisely is a Retinal Circus? Tonight’s spectacle sees projections tumble between Georgian archways, their columns clustered with dead-eyed Devin Townsends draining beer from their head sockets. Then there’s the gaggle of marauding police chimps imprisoning innocent furries in a cage. A man named Harold has a nice picnic under a Bodhi tree. Three doctors supervise the delivery of an alien mutant – later followed by a gospel choir – from a giant green vagina with googly eyes. The spectacle is narrated by Steve Vai in Space. There is Strapping Young Lad. There may be carnage. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
2) Meet Harold – just an Ordinary Guy. Tonight is, as Townsend explains, Harold’s “convoluted dream, which you all participate in because you all bought tickets”. Harold’s got a lot of issues with sex, death and religion – which our narrator is something of an expert in – and he’s going to work them out through the medium of Townsend’s backcatalogue. At least, that’s the idea.
Devin Townsend presents The Retinal Circus @ London Roundhouse – 27 October 2012 c/o Ruth Booth
3) Passing through Harold’s psyche, the stage is a rotation of dream sequences, performed by a motley cast of acrobats and fireworks artists, a pair of dwarves, a belly dancer, and an accordion playing knife-thrower. Cameos come from recent collaborator Anneke van Giersbergen, Strapping Young Lad‘s Jed Simon, and yes, Ziltoid The Omniscient. Yet the Retinal Circus itself is difficult to pin down. Though there’s a train of thought running throughout, the moment you try and define it, it slips away. If you’re looking for a retrospective, you might wonder at the albums missed. Musical? Not entirely. One man’s coming of age tale soon evaporates into something behind the dream. If there’s a story here, it’s got both everything and nothing to do with what’s going onstage.
4) For much of the night, it’s like there’s two shows going on – the rock show from the moshpit, the dreamstate above. A theatrical mullet, if you will. Townsend himself proves an evasive MC. Though suited up in top hat and tails, he’s hidden in plain view – front and centre stage, but out of the spotlight – rocking the tunes while the story continues around him. At least until the second act, when Harold is kidnapped by grey aliens during, well, ‘The Greys‘ – shortly followed by Townsend, escorted off by more nightmareish equivalents. Afterwards, it’s a quiet return. An acoustic solo take on ‘Hyperdrive‘, followed by a duet with the ethereal Anneke on ‘Ih-Ah‘. No Harold. No narration, save Townsend’s own banter. It’s at that intermission point the fourth wall on this show starts to crack, evil Devin appears on the monitors, and that’s when things start getting heavy…
5) Hello Strapping Young Lad. Subject of the most persistent questions, since Townsend’s return from hiatus. To his credit, he’s never ignored them, but all the same insisted he’s no inclination to return to that time in his life. Until tonight, when Steve Skull (that’s Steve Vai – as a skull) wheedles Townsend into ‘Detox‘, later followed by ‘Love?‘. Both boasting guest slots from Jed Simon, it’s balls out and to the wall – no playing by numbers here. And that’s it, baby. No intention to reform the band. One night only. When ‘Detox‘ finishes, the speakers erupt into the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, and the mosh pit collapses into a sweaty post-coital mass. Wham, bam, thank you Boney.
6) But if you’re focussing on SYL above anything else tonight, you’ll miss a myriad other little reconciliations, including – finally – a proper theatrical setting for Ziltoid the Omniscient. Steve Vai back collaborating with Townsend, albeit by video screen. And somewhere close to the cast of thousands that tracks like ‘Planet of the Apes‘ require. Yet in the end, after the acrobats and tickertape confetti cannons of ‘Grace‘, we’re back in an onstage living room, watching Harold and the band in mufti jam along to Epicloud bonus track ‘Little Pig‘. Rather than simply taking their bows, it’s certainly no less odd to see the cast just hugging and enjoying a brew together. It’s almost as if they’re acknowledging of what a collaborative effort tonight, if not Townsend’s whole career, has been. What seems a strangely muted ending sort of fits the vision involved in the entire Retinal Circus. Not as simply a retrospective, but a celebration of a career conceived by the imagination of one and birthed by the creative collaboration of many.
Still, that doesn’t really explain why they’re backed by a load of lumberjacks.