Jordan Campbell’s take:
As we reach the final entry in the Devin Townsend Project series, it’s become clear that Devin’s entire work can be broken down into (roughly) four categories: unhinged metal, song-based heavy-pop, sprawling prog, and smoothed-out chillage. These aren’t rigid categorizations, by any means–bleedthrough abounds–but these are the broad strokes with which mere mortals can swing unwieldy brushes. He’s had varying success with these angles at different points in his career: Where he failed with Physicist, he succeeded with Addicted. The missed tackles on Synchestra were pick-sixes on Infinity. Et cetera.
With Ki–and now Ghost–Devin Townsend has proven that his forte, at least at this stage in his career, is subtlety and restraint. Crazy, considering that this is the guy that wrote “Underneath the Waves,” but he’s seemingly shifted his focus from electroshock to acupuncture.
Ghost is a welcome respite from the unfocused clusterfuck that was Deconstruction. From the opening seconds of “Fly”—where a smoothly rippling bassline is accented by earthen ambience and a lilting flute—it’s apparent that this is the most relaxed work Devin has ever concieved. Unlike Ki—which was quiet, yet seething—Ghost is completely free of tension. It’s a liberating listen; “Fly” is deceptively simplistic, built around a soft-yet-robust chorus punctuated by acoustic guitars and electronic tones almost reminiscent of his Project EKO excursions (though much more even-keeled).
And, in all, Ghost is a gorgeous record, the first half in particular. “Heart Baby” a cascading lullaby, as Devin turns his wall-of-sound production technique inside out, pumping a ton of lifeforce into layer-upon-layer of breathy whispers. “Ghost” and “Blackberry” are comparatively upbeat campfire jams, combining this newfound new-age tilt with folky pep. But Ghost’s true treasure is the naked, acoustic “Kawaii,” a delicately-brushed masterpiece of quiet honesty that stands alongside “Terminal” and “Numbered!” as the most brilliant rays generated by the Project’s energy.
The second half, however, is a more challenging listen. Not in that the compositions are difficult, by any means, but that the intent is blurred. Where there are moments on Ghost that require undivided attention due to their evocative nature—the aforementioned “Kawaii,” for one—there are lengthy passages that simply drift off into the ether, taking your attention span with it. There are colossal chunks of this record that are seemingly designed to be background music, and this runs in direct conflict with the more song-based tracks. (The eleven-minute “Feather” is a microcosm for this compositional confusion, as it initially engages before dissipating into the wilderness.)
While Ghost is designed to provide calming closure to this four-album cycle (and, simultaneously, a commencement of sorts), it’s still a tad too stream-of-consciousness for its own good. However, Ghost’s lack of focus lies in stark contrast to the madness of Deconstruction, as it’s not only a pleasant listening experience, but it’s arguably the mellowest thing ever released by a heavy metal musician. Also in contrast to Decon, Ghost arrives exactly as advertised: far from perfect, disarmingly passive, and often beautiful.
Chris McDonald’s take:
At long last, we’ve finally reached the last chapter of the four-album Devin Townsend Project. It’s been a fun ride, if a bumpy one, with some incredible peaks and some pretty disappointing lows, but above all, it’s been a great experience to witness this outpouring of creativity from one of heavy music’s most unique and likeable characters. A lot of people, including Townsend himself, were questioning the future of his musical career around 2007, and to see it reaffirmed in such grandiose fashion was a real pleasure for yours truly. And while closing album Ghost’s ambient/new age style is anything but grandiose musically, this album nevertheless feels like one of the more complete and well-realized projects Townsend has created, and opens up a fresh new dimension to the man’s musical output that few would have seen coming three or four years ago.
A soothing, ethereal union of beautiful vocal harmonies, quiet acoustics, and a variety of instrumental and atmospheric touches (primarily in the form of some gorgeous flute accompaniment), Ghost’s mellow and unassuming atmosphere is an absolutely ideal follow up to Deconstruction’s manic, oppressive cacophony. Ghost layers lots of different sounds and subtleties on the listener, while simultaneously maintaining a clarity of focus and theme that was lacking from its heavier counterpart. This is deep and carefully constructed music that feels simple, relaxing, and carefree, and it’s primarily due to how honest and pure it sounds. Townsend has remarked several times recently about his increasing lack of interest in metal, and when spinning Ghost, this observation takes on a whole new significance. Everything just feels so much more natural and unforced then it did on Deconstruction. Ghost flows along at its own pace, on its own terms, and the music benefits greatly from the lack of pressure.
While this is definitely an album meant to be digested as a single piece, I was surprised at how distinctive each song feels after a couple of listens. Considering how light and airy this music is, Townsend does a great job at structuring the songs around coherent hooks and melodies that really pull you in once they distinguish themselves. Moments like the escapist musings of opener “Fly,” the more upbeat pulse of “Blackberry,” and the stirring melodic swells of “Texada” are surprisingly memorable and do a lot to move Ghost out of the realm of pleasant background noise that his purely-ambient albums occupy. Some of the longer songs do feature extended jams that feel unnecessary, but fortunately there’s a bevy of shorter, more immediate tracks to break up the pace. I was particularly fond of the soothing “Kawaii” and the spacey meditations of “Monsoon.”
Special attention has to be paid to the production on this album; it’s some of the most impressive production that Devin Townsend has ever achieved. The unrestrained, low-maintenance nature of this music allows Townsend’s mixing expertise to shine through like few other of his projects have, and the results are simply stunning from this standpoint. Melodies float in and out of the mix with an incredible sense of grace and delicacy, and the myriad different sounds are always perfectly leveled against each other. It’s becoming easier and easier these days to blow people away with a wash of harsh, loud noises, but few albums can be as simultaneously complex and unassuming as Ghost. Most of my listening with this album has been late at night at a low volume, and the depth of the sound is still incredible. The utter mastery of dynamics and layering seen in the gradual, serene fadeout to “Infinite Ocean” or the uplifting chants that gradually seep from the speakers as the title track opens is simply a sight to behold.
Ghost is perhaps the most un-metal album you’ll see reviewed on the site this year, and even rabid Townsend fans well accustomed to the man’s diverse musical vocabulary may need some time to uncover the intricacies that make this album great. While Ghost is a bit excessive in terms of running time and is probably the least immediate record that Townsend has made to date (that isn’t named Devlab or Hummer), it’s a beautiful journey that happens to feature some masterful production values and a plethora of worthwhile hooks and memorable moments. While certainly not for everyone, even Devin Townsend fans, this is easily one of the man’s most immersive excursions yet, and a fitting end to this chapter of the musician’s storied career.