I’ll wait for the ocean to rise up
And meet me, as it rose up before
If you’re at least 25 years of age ‒ and by virtue of reading an article about a 90s Devin Townsend record, you likely are ‒ think back on the first quarter century of your life. Revisit your accomplishments (or lack thereof), your sense of self (or… lack thereof), education, hobbies, jobs, loves, struggles, triumphs, losses, family, and everything else that comprised your experiences to that point. If you’re like me, you lived a relatively light life. I was born, grew up in the country, spent some time in college, some time out of the county, and there I was, half a city planner. So what. I was only beginning to discover who I really was as a person.
By the time he reached that age, Devin Townsend had experienced more than most of us do in a lifetime, and yet had not yet released his first truly honest and emotional work of art. He was thrust into the spotlight at about age 20 when he got the gig as the vocalist of Steve Vai’s new band, and despite the inconsistencies of Sex & Religion, Devin’s talents were unmistakable. He had seen the high and dark sides of rock stardom and traveled the world, but was repeatedly told that the material for his Ocean Machine project ‒ some of which went as far back as Devin’s teenage years ‒ was simply not marketable. Instead, Century Media gobbled up Strapping Young Lad, and that funnier, more extreme version of Devin took root. During these years he even put out a comedy punk album and made some thrash demos with Jason Newsted and Tom Hunting, but that great honest expression, the most important part of his musical self, stayed bottled up.
This all happened before he turned 25 on May 5th, 1997. Ocean Machine would finally see the light of day just a couple months later through his own HevyDevy label. Devin turned 50 in May of this year, and if you find it shocking to know all the things he accomplished and experienced before even turning 25, looking at all he’s done since is all the more mind boggling. But there’s something about his 1997 album that serves as a summation of his experiences up to that point, a sort of liberation from his past, and a guidebook to all he would do after. It’s a deeply layered, impeccably produced, diverse, and kind of futuristic album. SYL already showed that Devin knew how to go big, but Ocean Machine showed that when he also went small, he could craft mountains, a quality that helps this record be cathartic and escapist in equal measure.
As stated, the record that became Ocean Machine: Biomech took years of rejections, recording troubles, and other issues to finally bring to public ears. These trials and tribulations have been covered in detail elsewhere, but to give you a quick rundown of the madness (and in retrospect, a bit of hilarity), know that they involved rejected demos from his first band Noisescapes, a total lack of funding, the snare sound from “Sad But True” (really), the need to create his own record label at a young age, and Antonio Banderas hijacking a studio for bro time (also really). Even when it eventually came out there was confusion, with the record briefly being released in Japan under the band name Ocean Machine before seeing shelves as Ocean Machine: Biomech under Devin’s own name everywhere else. That this record feels like such a cohesive whole, all the way down to its wink-wink “bonus track” and horrifying closing scream, is not just a minor artistic miracle, but a testament to the determination and talents (as composer, performer, and producer) of its creator. Ocean Machine was and remains The Little Metal Masterpiece That Could.
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam, A.H.H.”
Ocean Machine opens with Devin reciting that excerpt from a lengthy poem by Lord Tennyson, written as a requiem to a university friend that died suddenly. In many ways, Ocean Machine is Devin’s requiem for his youth and innocent worldview, which had been shaken by his sudden stardom in the years leading up to the album’s release. But in many other ways, and surely to countless listeners, it is a universal coming-of-age story, or even more fundamentally, a message about changes we all endure in our lifetimes. Devin’s chosen excerpt from “In Memoriam” speaks of nature, cities, the ocean, simple form, and of course, change. Surely he chose this particular passage for its vagary and applicability to many things in life.
The music begins with the entrancing opening bars of “Seventh Wave,” a song as ominous and foreboding (the growing thunder of its beginning) as it is beautiful and comforting (Devin’s already elite knack for emotional depth in his vocals). Devin sings of running away, needing to find home, and coming to grips with adult independence before the magical chorus washes away any pain just as the waves of the ocean greet our young narrator. The water cleanses, purifies, and heals, reminding us all that we’re never alone. But watch out for that titular seventh wave, because just when you feel comfortable, life smacks you with the unexpected, and the process of wandering begins anew. The song continually swells, with Devin’s later wordless vocals being joined by a choir and managing to maintain all the emotional depth built to that point. A striking beginning, to say the least.
From there, the album stays in a more standard rock format for a few tunes, but each offers a different mood, setting, and melodic approach. “Life,” despite being about the shortness of life and the anxiety of not knowing when it will end, is thoroughly playful and uplifting, as if saying “well, we don’t know when it’ll be over, so we may as well enjoy it.” It’s another of the album’s simple but universal messages, and it’s helped along by another great chorus and monster, super heavy bridge. “Night” follows, shifting the mood into a darker, futuristic, and pulsating mode. It’s about the love affair/unhealthy obsession Devin formed with Japan while on tour, about how a city could be lonely despite the throngs of people, bustling activity, and neon lights. Again it uses water ‒ this time “rain… falling down” ‒ as a means to cleanse oneself of anguish. As Devin sings that he’s “closer now,” it becomes clear how much of Ocean Machine isn’t necessarily about life’s big questions or necessarily the answer to those questions. Rather, it’s about the time spent processing those questions, or even the moments that happen between those questions, when the mind is allowed to ponder the simple things or peacefully reflect on the chaos.
The first act of the album finishes with “Hide Nowhere,” a song that returns to a lighter feeling while also being one of Ocean Machine’s biggest predictors for where Devin would go in the years that follow. It mixes a fist-pumping drive, bouncy riffs, a preposterously massive and catchy chorus, and Devin’s studio magic ‒ a wondrous layering of various wordless vocals and choral passages ‒ to give the song extra depth. It packs a massive journey for a song that caps out at a mere five minutes, serving as the album’s first act climax before a big shift in mood.
It’s the grey days that
I’ll remember the most
The album’s softer, sort of de facto intermission is an eerie, lighter stretch, and it’s natural to view it as the one weakness of the album, at least at first. None of the mostly acoustic “Sister,” brief “3 A.M.,” or “Voices in the Fan” can be counted among Ocean Machine’s best or most gripping songs, but after experiencing this album just a few times ‒ to say nothing of the innumerable times many of us have spun it ‒ such a break is greatly appreciated after the bombast of “Hide Nowhere.” It’s doubly appreciated considering all the aural and emotional thunder that is about to follow. Even taken on their own merits, these songs are a very pretty trio, especially the rumbling electronic rock of “Voices in the Fan,” which offers a warm escapism—perhaps literally, as the song may or may not be about being carried away to something nicer by aliens. At the very least, it’s Devin’s smooth and polite way of saying “how do you like me now?”
“Greetings” fittingly offers a slow emergence from this softer stretch, and whether it’s meant as a metaphor or it’s another track about alien abduction is up for debate. What is known is how much it feels like a rebirth, that we’re emerging from those “grey days” and into something much more alive and emotionally aware. Really, the track serves as both a transition and fitting intro to something utterly mammoth…
That wooly tune is live favorite “Regulator,” which kicks off with drums and a serious SCREAM FOR ME roar before a gargantuan, swaggerific, absolutely swinging-balls riff lands right on your face with all the force of that aforementioned seventh wave. It’s quite frankly unclear what the song is even about (maybe feeling controlled by external elements?) other than riffs, ass-shaking syncopations from drummer Marty Chapman, and Devin’s barbarous screams, roars, and wails. It eventually goes on an absolute trip, returning to the neon city of “Night” but this time soaring high above it all as colors and lights and the noise all pass you by, becoming an insignificant blur.
The day’s gone and the year’s gone
And I don’t know when I’m coming home
I can’t hold on to what I’ve had
When in what I’ve had
There’s nothing left at all…
To this point, Ocean Machine has shifted several moods, offered tales of life and loss and searching and finding and searching again, and generally run a full range of dynamics, both musically and lyrically. And yet, it is not until its masterful late album trio of lengthy tracks that the record reaches its highest heights. It begins with a tune that makes a strong argument for the greatest Devin has ever written.
In certain ways, “Funeral” feels like Devin’s version of Grace Under Pressure-era Rush, in no small thanks to the shimmer of the guitars and the fact that trying to make sense of personal loss is a very Neil Peart lyrical subject. Also, in much the same way Peart and Rush could turn a dark subject into an uplifting moment, Devin uses the song to both mourn the shocking murder of a childhood acquaintance and to celebrate life. He desperately pleads for answers while also stating acceptance in the lyrics above ‒ which are impeccably delivered with both a touch of harshness and elegance ‒ eventually telling himself to sleep, if only for tonight. The song is permeated by a constant, simple downpick, serving as a throughline for every texture, twist, turn, crescendo, and soft reflection. It’s about an actual death, and yet, here is one tiny element providing a heartbeat. Compared to much of Devin’s later material, “Funeral” eschews shredding technicality, flamboyance, and humor. What it has is the type of desperate need for answers and reason that we all struggle with in our lives, and the type of earnestness and honesty that have made Devin such a beloved figure all these years since.
A world away, you turn away
I’m wide awake, and I don’t need your home
Tell me why he went, it seems to be
An element to this mystery
It’s so cold today, so I get away
And I’m left behind with nothing but words…
He has rarely been so raw and open-wounded as he is here, and quite frankly, on all of Ocean Machine. “Funeral” was not my first favorite track from the album, but all these years and countless listens later, it’s the song that still surprises me with how much it can soothe and comfort. It’s a peek into the emotional cosmos of another human, and the lynchpin of the record.
The crushing “Bastard” is a perfect follow-up, and while it doesn’t necessarily go deeper, holy hell does it go heavier. If the main riff of “Regulator” hits like the seventh wave, then “Bastard” opens like a tsunami. The song’s music shows off Devin’s ability to write material that feels gravitational in its heft, and yet creates vast space. It’s as if there’s one miniscule gap between these monolithic guitar parts, which is just enough to let in light, darkness, air, sound, emptiness… everything. “Bastard” returns us to the lonely city, this time flipping the perspective to one of observation of all the lonely “grey people” with their hopes and dreams and possessions and agendas. When it briefly turns inward, the message is that no matter how much parents or other role models may push people away, home never quite disappears (plus, the way Devin sings “quicker” during the lyric “Time passed quicker than you will ever know” is one of those perfect moments that dig their way to the depths of your soul). As the lyrics turn to the underbelly of the city, the music actually takes a lighter tone, another sign that acceptance is creeping into the mind of our narrator/songwriter.
Devin has spoken in interviews of how much being on the road with Vai and coming face-to-face with the bigger and badder side of the music business affected his enthusiasm, innocence for his art, and overall worldview. Hence, “The Death of Music.” The last of Ocean Machine’s lengthy epics is not remotely metal; it’s barely even rock. Rather, it’s a 12-minute expanse of atmospheric keyboards, samples, and Devin’s directly, powerfully delivered words about the loss, and eventual rediscovery, of his love for music. Like “Funeral,” “The Death of Music” has a throbbing heartbeat that runs through it, although it is fainter and less constant here. There are barely audible voices having conversations in the background of several passages; perhaps news on the TV, or perhaps the everyday worries of those “grey people.” It all forms a lush, textural base for Devin’s vocals, which build to an aching delivery of the main theme: “It’s like when death becomes musical.” Much of the latter minutes are spent in another long crescendo as Devin repeatedly tells his love of music not to die on him, because he needs it, as if actively trying to convince himself within the song. Eventually comes the understanding that he will heal, that he will emerge, and that “The rain will come / The rain will always be.” Like many things on Ocean Machine, these words can be taken as either a direct message or metaphor, but are best as both. And if you need purely musical evidence for the grandiosity of this track, the passages after the second chorus, when he explodes in emotions and soaring wails, might just be the moment when Devin Townsend the singer became a legend.
And I remember this smell from my dreams except it was sweeter then…
And even in this room, where I used to lock my secrets
It’s starting to smell just like my friend
Ocean Machine, almost shockingly, doesn’t end with “The Death of Music,” but with “Thing Beyond Things,” which is cheekily called a bonus track (get it?) but included on every edition of the album (and is indubitably part of the whole). It’s a simple, softer rock track full of understated beauty, carried as always by Devin’s glorious voice, and overall feels rather, well, grey. After all the external forces and searching, “Thing Beyond Things” reaches farther inward than any other song here to analyze two dreams, one of which is an idyllic fantasy of a perfect life with one’s love, and the other of emotional rot. Both are meant to stay secret, either due to shame (“these things inside are wrong”) or a feeling of insignificance (“these things inside are all just things”). It’s a hauntingly intimate finish for an album that at times feels so universal to all of our experiences, but even this is relatable.
As for THE SCREAM, well, who really knows if he only included it to extend the record to the maximum CD length, out of frustration at record labels, or just to be a goofball, but no matter how many times you’ve heard the record, it can still scare the pants off of you.
All that I’ve known is gone
Time to be moving on…
But hey, life is a scaring-pants-off type of thing. It’s also wonderful and joyful. There’s a reason humans are blessed/cursed with a full range of emotions. I know I certainly am, which is yet another of the countless reasons why this record stands strong among some of the most important music in my life. I first heard Ocean Machine when I was about 23 or 24, so close to the same age Devin was when he really started putting it all together. When I think back on that version of myself, I see a person that was searching, exploring, raging, both opening up and shutting down, and doing so many of the things Devin describes across the album. I believe that this album remains so appealing to so many not just because the music is mesmerizing, but because it communicates its messages in simple yet universal terms.
Devin has said that he doesn’t see himself as an emotionally intelligent person, but sometimes recognizing that lack of emotional intelligence is the smartest move a mind can make. We are all always searching for answers, always processing our past and looking to our futures, and always reshaping our experiences into greater knowledge and wisdom. Even at this young age, Devin Townsend understood this. He may not have understood that he understood it, but the words throughout Ocean Machine prove him wise beyond his years at the time. The album speaks of the healing waters of rain and the ocean, just as the lush, atmospheric, and sometimes crushingly heavy music washes over the listener, conjuring emotions even when the words have gone silent.
The trio that made up the band Ocean Machine would never again work together as a whole. By the time Devin decided to celebrate the album on its 20th anniversary, drummer Marty Chapman had tragically taken his own life. However, despite suffering from multiple sclerosis, bassist John “Squid” Harder joined Devin for the concert to play Ocean Machine in its entirety and appears on the resulting live album, so that more than just the leading man could be there to celebrate what had by then emerged as a true classic.
With the perspective of years and many, many more albums, it is now easy to view Ocean Machine as a watershed moment in not just Devin Townsend’s career but for progressive metal as a whole. He had already done heavier, more brutal music with SYL (and excelling at it on City) and would do a mix of poppier, wackier, and more technical material just a year later on Infinity. Together with Ocean Machine, these records displayed much of the wide stylistic breadth that Devin Townsend the musical visionary could and would explore. From there his career would continue to explode in a thousand directions and involve countless collaborators, always finding the smallest points of inspiration and taking them to their natural, sometimes unpredictable (even to him) conclusions. So while Ocean Machine might not have introduced every sound in the Devin Townsend repertoire, and despite not being his first work as the leading man, it was the most important part of his earliest explosion of brilliance. Dense but spacious, progressive but unpretentious, and deeply personal but accessible to all. The Little Metal Masterpiece That Could, indeed.
On my way, pass it on