The Devin Townsend Project – ‘Ocean Machine – Live At The Ancient Roman Theatre’

By Gem Rogers

Since the completion of the initial four album DTP series in 2011, Devin Townsend fans have grown somewhat accustomed to being treated to ‘one off’ performances; the four ‘By a Thread’ shows were followed by ‘Retinal Circus’ a year later in 2012, with Ziltoid Live at the Royal Albert Hall coming in 2015. Given that these were all based in London, you might assume that the 20th Anniversary show for ‘Ocean Machine’ would be no different… Townsend, ever full of surprises, instead opted for Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Of course.

Even by special anniversary gig standards, this was no ordinary show. As well as ‘Ocean Machine’ in full, it also included a selection of fan requests to be played alongside the choir and orchestra of the Plovdiv State Opera, in the unique setting of the 2000-year-old Roman Theatre – Devin Townsend does not do things by halves. For those of us unable to make the trip to the Balkans, the whole set was filmed and is now being released in full alongside a three CD recording.

This may be a celebration of his first true solo record, but in the 20 years since, Townsend has amassed a huge back catalogue and manages to cover a good portion of it in the first twelve songs. From the 1998 ‘Christeen’ EP right through to latest album ‘Transcendence’, the songs certainly fit the situation well – it’s not often you get the opportunity to utilise a full orchestra and choir, after all – and are among his most theatrical and elaborate. It’s an ethereal listening experience; ‘Stormbending’ and ‘Higher’ are truly phenomenal and make stunning use of both orchestra and choir, whilst the beautiful arpeggios of ‘Deep Peace’ will surely never be bettered.

Amidst this soaring odyssey is nestled an unusual gem in the form of ‘Bad Devil’. It’s safe to say this energetic and, frankly, slightly nuts track isn’t a natural fit in this set list, but boy oh boy does it deserve to be there – it is ludicrous fun! The orchestra inject even more joy into this thoroughly daft and enjoyable song and, once heard, it’s hard to imagine it any other way.

Pleasingly, ‘Live at the the Ancient Roman Theatre’ successfully avoids all of the common pitfalls of live recordings; with fuzziness, overly loud audiences and murky mixes nowhere to be found, it’s eminently listenable. If anything, it goes a little far in the other direction; occasionally sounding so polished as to not quite sound live. Sadly, the orchestra also sometimes get a little lost in the mix, which is a real shame – without a doubt, the best songs are where they are allowed to shine through.

After a short interlude (don’t worry – that bit doesn’t make it onto the recording), Townsend returns to perform ‘Ocean Machine’ in full alongside original bassist John ‘Squid’ Harder and the rest of the Devin Townsend Project. From the poppy, intensely uplifting ‘Life’ to the chuggy, playful ‘Hide Nowhere’, this is an album that displays Townsend’s ability to produce constantly surprising music in any style he pleases. It also still sounds delightfully fresh, helped by a few minor tweaks here and there – Townsend has a real knack for improving songs when played live, whilst maintaining the heart and soul of the original.

The real highlight throughout is, undoubtedly, the vocals. Devin Townsend’s voice is made to be heard in person; no matter how good on record, it simply doesn’t compare to the experience of his live performance and ‘Ocean Machine Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre’ captures that brilliantly. Watching the DVD and seeing the stunning venue can only make those who missed out wish they had been able to attend, though as it’s without any overly flashy staging, the songs are more enjoyable played separately through decent quality speakers. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have some kind of surround sound television madness going on, this point is moot – watch away (and also maybe let us borrow it?).

This concert and release may signify the end of an era for Devin Townsend, but what a spectacular way to close the curtain. If the next twenty years result in music even half as glorious, we’ll be lucky indeed.

GEM ROGERS

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