For those that have followed DEVIN TOWNSEND‘s career since his humbler mid-’90s beginnings with the harsher industrial-metal insanity of STRAPPING YOUNG LAD — and before that, as vocalist for Steve Vai‘s 1993 rocker “Sex & Religion” — it has to be incredibly satisfying to see the eclectic Canadian musician proudly making music on his own terms at this stage of his career. His modern musical output under THE DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT is the ultimate ideal of the phrase “progressive-metal,” his most recent record — 2016’s “Transcendence” — perhaps being the ultimate recorded omnibus of his current musical endeavors, confirming his status as perhaps the most truly life-affirming performer in rock and metal.
It is also satisfying that, in an age where the majority of DVD releases from bands of a similar stature consist of either competently shot yet flat live performance footage or scattershot documentaries that lack the cohesive narrative of a true filmmaker’s touch, Townsend makes true effort to give an “event” concert to the devoted fan that has already voraciously consumed his studio albums. The newest DVD release under the DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT banner — “Ocean Machine – Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv” — is a nearly three-hour show in an ancient stone outdoor amphitheater with origins dating back to the 1st century A.D. The release serves as both a celebration of deep cuts spanning Townsend‘s solo career, and the album that formally split him away from STRAPPING YOUNG LAD‘s early, unpolished fury.
The concert, recorded last September in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is essentially two separate sets. The first set of the evening consisting of fan selections, which resulted in the performance of many tracks that aren’t regular staples of Townsend‘s standard live sets. But the real allure of the first set on this DVD is that the main DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT lineup is joined by the Orchestra of Plovdiv State Opera. Townsend‘s sprawling and layered compositions have always had an aura of ambition to them, but the backing of the full orchestra expands the aura of the original songs to truly sublime levels. From second track “Stormbending” on, the strings of the orchestra sound gorgeous and full to a level that right away impresses, showing that true care and effort was put into the execution of the orchestral side and was not going to be just a half-assed gimmick. The orchestra performs with enthusiastic verve as well, with many musicians smiling throughout the set, and a few can even be seen failing to suppress a headbang or two while waiting for their turn.
The most transformative tracks of the orchestral set are “Gaia”, with woodwind performances adding a transcendent ethereal aura that crescendos into the most emotionally awe-inspiring closing stretch of the first set, and “Bad Devil”, an already swinging song that with the orchestral backing sounds like dirty jazz on steroids. If the DVD ended with the performance of “Deep Peace”, which comes after a spectacular fireworks display ascends into the Bulgarian sky, the set would already come to an emotionally cathartic conclusion.
The second set of the evening celebrated the 20th anniversary of 1997’s “Ocean Machine”, the album that launched the solo side of Devin Townsend‘s musical career. The orchestra disappears for this part of the show. Fans that have gotten used to the visual spectacle of more recent Townsend DVD releases, such as 2013’s “The Retinal Circus” and 2016’s “Ziltoid: Live at the Royal Albert Hall”, may at first be taken aback by the understated nature of the “Ocean Machine” stage set up, but it becomes evident quickly that the music will be what takes center stage for this part of the set. The emotion already runs high from the start of this set, as “Ocean Machine” bassist John Harder assumes his position on stage to join Townsend for the rest of the night. Even after all of the paths Townsend has taken throughout his career, “Ocean Machine” remains his most introspective record, and the emotion of revisiting this record from start to finish shines through in Townsend‘s vocal performance as well: the high point of the set being a rousing rendition of “Funeral”.
As mentioned before, on a pure stage-production level, this DVD is not the sensory overload of Townsend‘s more recent releases. The orchestral half of the set is still compelling visually, as camera drones sweep above the full orchestra throughout that side of the set. Musicians do occasionally get lost and obscured when the stage lighting goes into dark blue hues, but even during these points the visual imagery of the restored amphitheater architecture still impresses. The “Ocean Machine” side of the set is very stripped-down, with only the main band onstage shrouded in fairly dark lighting.
For those devoted Devin Townsend fans looking for new angles to explore with his music, the orchestral half of “Ocean Machine – Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv” will provide a very satisfying deep dive. For those looking to re-experience the raw emotion of “Ocean Machine”, the second half will do exactly the same.