LIVE: The Devin Townsend Project / Haken @ The Roundhouse, London.

By Jade Greenbrooke

12th December 2019 is momentous for a couple of reasons in the UK, but mostly because Devin Townsend is making his annual pilgrimage to the big smoke. The Canadian has always been far more appreciated and successful on this side of the pond, and since his days with Strapping Young Lad seems incapable of putting on a bad show, so it’s with great interest and anticipation that a capacity crowd await his entrance.

But first, the crowd is treated to a prog masterclass. Haken are the prog metaller’s prog metal band, exhibiting the musicianship of Dream Theater, the experimental nature of Between the Buried and Me, the jazz of King Crimson and sprinkled with a healthy seasoning of Mr Bungle, Floyd and yes, even Devin himself. At first the audience seem unsure as they try to assimilate 34 time signature changes and 320 notes per minute but by the end of a 45 minute set they have won the audience over, especially after the truly insane harmonies of ‘The Cockroach King’ and rousing anthem (or as close as prog gets to anthemic) ‘1985’.

As the main event approaches, introductions are made via Devin’s backdrop, one by one, to the members of Devin’s current touring band as they are handed margaritas mixed by Diego Tajeda of the aforementioned Haken. It is an incredible list of talent. Diego on keyboards . Mike Kenneally (Frank Zappa) and Markus Reuter (Stick Men) on guitars.  Nathan Navarro on bass and Morgan Ågren (Kaipa) on drums. Casualties Of Cool vocalist Che Aimee Dorval provide the perfect counterpoint to Devin’s voice, along with a breathtaking series of costume changes.

Devin has promised no backing tracks, no clicks and a lot of room for improvisation and so it’s after he enters The Roundhouse stage dressed in a fetching Hawaiian shirt and, after acknowledging that today is a day of division but that tonight should be a time to forget all of that, that he launches into ‘Borderlands’ from the latest Devin Opus ‘Empath’.

A quick word for those of you who may still be criminally unaware of Devin Townsend after 23 odd albums and 30 odd years in the business. His music is almost unclassifiable as it straddles almost every possible genre in the realm of that which we call metal, and many other genres besides. There is the now legendary extreme metal of Strapping Young Lad and there is the deep country vibe of Casualties of Cool. And there is pretty much everything in between. On his latest album Devin has tried to give a genuine retrospective of all these styles. And there is the voice, stretching over 5 octaves and capable of brutality, operatic, spine-tingling whispers and cerebral cortex shattering death growls it is truly unique.

The first thing that stands out is how much fun the whole band is having. The beach party vibe transmits into the fun of the whole set as Devin rockets through a whole lot of the more mellow end of his discography (there will be heavier stuff, including revisiting some SYL on the second leg of the tour). ‘Borderlands’ is followed by ‘Evermore’, ‘War’, ‘Sprite’ and ‘Coast’. Each of which is played with spot on precision and sung by Devin accompanied by the almost impossibly talented Che and a backing ‘choir’ of Samantha Preis, Anne Preis and Arabella Packford – more on these three later.

Then, after Devin does Gato & Deadhead, Devin does Disney. Because Devin does whatever he wants. ‘Why’ is both perfect and perfectly Devin. Disneyesque, showcasing an unbelievable range both vocally and emotionally and punctuated by audience participation death metal vocals.  What’s not to love?

Devin has never been one to hide his own mental health problems and when he asks us to remember those who have been taken by this silent killer followed by a perfectly harmonised acoustic version of Spirits Will Collide with Che Aimee Dorval and the choir of Samantha Preis, Anne Preis and Arabella Packford, the hulking guy next to me breaks down in tears, as does much of the packed out venue.

Devin alludes to the farcical ‘encore’ culture the fans have to endure before returning with ‘Disco Inferno’ led by Che and closing with the magnificent ‘Kingdom’ which again shows off his incredible, effortless voice.