Six Thoughts: Devin Townsend – The Retinal Circus

Devin Townsend is a busy, busy man. Under the moniker of the Devin Townsend Project, he has released five studio albums in the last four years, most of which received intense critical and fan acclaim. It is only natural that he would choose to reflect on this period, and his career as a whole, with The Retinal Circus, a retrospective, absolutely behemoth live set. Included are songs from most of his solo work (strange omission of Ki, Terria, and Accelerated Evolution material, however), and a couple Strapping Young Lad classics as well, all formed into a well-rehearsed, extremely thought out production that took a year to prepare. From the beginning, this was conceived and designed as something that would not only be shared with the lucky few in attendance, but to his fans worldwide. And as you will read below, the entire thing is pure fucking magic.

Two qualifiers for this little write-up. First, I am a massive fan of Townsend’s music, but who better to discuss such a release, right? Second, I have not seen the DVD side of The Retinal Circus, so this is merely a discussion of the audio portion of the set.

On we go, to the thoughts!

1. THIS IS HOW IT’S DONE

Live albums, that is. Don’t insult us with the obligatory fulfillments of contracts. Don’t follow every tour with yet another live album (sorry, Iron Maiden) just because you always have. And certainly don’t exploit your hardcore and rabid fan base through blatant cash grabs. But THIS. This perfect celebration of a man and his music, and those he has chosen to bring along for the ride over the years. Devin and his cast of musicians (including the ever-divine Anneke Van Giersbergen) aren’t just resting on a collection of great tunes and their impeccable abilities, but upping the fucking ante anywhere and everywhere possible. This includes a full choir, some Jed Simon appearances on SYL standards, and a tendency to slightly adapt songs (“Hyperdrive” is reworked again, and “Love?” sounds more Synchestra than Alien). What Epicloud did for “Kingdom,” this album does for every song included, at least to a certain extent. It causes The Retinal Circus feel less live album than just album.

2. THE RETINAL CIRCUS STANDS ALONE

At least, among metal live albums. There is simply no point of comparison for The Retinal Circus within metal when it comes to how this was designed and conceived. Some might point to live productions of Scenes from a Memory and Operation: Mindcrime, but those were designed for individual concept albums, not full careers. For something comparable, you have to look back to a pair of live albums Frank Zappa did in the 70s: Roxy and Elsewhere and Zappa in New York. (Hell, whoever plays Ziltoid’s wife sounds strangely like Terry Bozio as the devil in “Titties & Beer.”) By ignoring rules about live albums – even in an era in which the live album ruled – Zappa gave these two collections a feel all their own. Townsend has done the same here, redefining classic material not only through the aforementioned adaptations, but through the arrangement of the whole. It isn’t just a metal show, it’s a production. But more than anything, those two live albums may have been the best examples of exactly who and what FZ was, and The Retinal Circus does the exact same for Devin.

3. MATERIAL IS ELEVATED

Material that I initially rated as “merely pretty good,” either by the silliness (Ziltoid the Omniscient) or through feeling a touch of Devin overload (Deconstruction) finds new life here. “Juular” is a perfect pummeling to follow “Kingdom,” while “Planet of the Apes” feels far more at home – and seems to drag less – within this setting than in its original incarnation. As for the Ziltoid material? It was always fun, but mixed in with the “story” of The Retinal Circus, it’s both a blast and a complete laugh riot, adding to the party atmosphere of the album. The lyric “WE! ARE ALL! PUPPETS!” never sounded more fitting.

4. THE MARRIAGE OF VOICES

Has there ever been a more perfect union of vocal talents than Devin Townsend and Anneke Van Giersbergen? Doubtful. When mixing Devin’s chameleonesque tendencies to scream, growl, croon, wail, and do everything else humanly possibly with Anneke’s immeasurable ability to both soar and sound angelic (you can almost hear her smile), you find a level of lung and vocal cord talent unlike anything else. Anneke provides plenty of leads (“Babysong”), but the tiny flairs she adds really enhance the whole. Harmonies in “Wild Colonial Boy,” background work in “Planet Smasher,” some horror-movie-wails in “Vampira,” it all goes so far in upping the texture for music that is already tens of layers deep. The power of this duo (may it never cease to be) is at its height during “Ih-Ah,” the quite unmetal ballad from Addicted. With full realization that metal fans aren’t always searching for beauty in their audio adventures, this still has to be heard.

5. LIFE AFTER LIVE AFTER DEATH

Because of the stated reasons, The Retinal Circus may very well be the greatest metal live since Live After Death. Go ahead, try to think of something else. Maybe Alive In Athens, but what else? Most metal live albums are either 1. A clinical rehash of studio material that is muddled in crowd noise, or 2. Sloppy performances that are exposed without the energy of being there. (To make up for the dig at Maiden earlier, I’ll admit that they somehow still capture that energy on tape. After all, they’re Iron Goddamn Maiden.) Because of this, and because it is such a great intro to The Man Townsend, The Retinal Circus is easily more necessary a purchase for the casual fan than several of his studio albums.

6. PRESENTING THE ULTIMATE GIFT

With all of the classic albums Townsend has released under any number of banners, something about The Retinal Circus feels like his ultimate gift to his fans. If he retired tomorrow (please, no), this would be as perfect a send off as one could imagine. Casual fans will love it; hardcore fans will be in absolute heaven. If one thing defines the magic of this set (other than “ONE MORE TIME FOR THE WORLD” done in full Paul Stanley voice), it is the moment right when the classic “War” is hitting stride. Devin, with blissful earnestness in his voice, yells out “Who here’s ready to fucking party?!” to the crowd, revealing that despite all of the struggles he has had in life, through all of his self-deprecating humor, there is nowhere else he would rather be than on that stage at that exact moment. Long time fans will feel exactly the same.

Pure joy. Can’t wait to dive into the DVD.

Posted by Zach Duvall

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Obnoxious overuser of baseball metaphors.

  1. I gotta say, I’m very surprised empath wasn’t reviewed here considering how much a few of you guys really love Devin, but it’s the first time for me that he’s really wormed his way WAAAAY into my mind. I’ve been listening to it constantly for a good while now, and the live show that’s been released along with it has started me on a retrospective journey through Devins work. His By a Thread series is absolutely amazing, as well as the Ocean Machine show… the guy is honestly brilliant. Just wanted to throw my 2 cents in there and maybe poke old fans and not-yet-fans alike to give the guy a real chance.

    Reply

    1. Empath was definitely discussed behind the scenes, but neither of the two biggest Devy fans here (myself and Danhammer) were very taken with it. Obviously a ton of people loved it, but for some reason it didn’t land as well with us. His new live album (which heavily features Empath material) is good, but part of that is his charm in a live setting, and also being mixed with older material.

      Reply

      1. I’m surprised that empath didn’t resonate…tons of fun and he’s just brimming with positive energy. Singularity really feels like a summary of his entire career and is worth the price of admission even if you don’t love the rest of empath. I love being able to listen to 2019 Devin and hear SYL come through. What a beast

        Reply

        1. I also understand that I’m catching the end of the wave here so I’m sure coming into empath with really only a pretty solid knowledge of addicted under my belt alters my vision of him as an artist. I remember someone here once said colored sands was their gorguts album…well empath is my Devin album I guess

          Reply

          1. Those first big introductions can mean so much. I got into Devin’s solo music about when Accelerated Evolution came out, so albums like that and (especially) Ocean Machine have the strongest places in my heart. There’s nothing wrong with Empath, but it’s easy to get Devy overload, especially when the album itself is meant to be bursting with ideas and sounds. I kinda miss the more understated side of his music. I’m a big Ki fan, for example. Anyway, glad you guys like it so much. Gives me motivation to return more.

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