– Words by Jordan Buford / Photos by James Villa –
Gas Monkey Live was a prime destination for progressive metal lovers on this Thursday night.
Monuments kicked off the night; and while I didn’t arrive early enough to see them, I heard they were incredible. Animals as Leaders was no different. Their instrumental pieces had even me — a person who admittedly doesn’t care for instrumental music — captivated; and you just had to admire the pure technicality of their musicianship in their nearly hour long set.
Both were excellent ways to warm up the audience for the main event of the night: Devin Townsend Project.
The singer — who achieved his fame from Strapping Young Lad — was bringing his show to Dallas for the first time in a couple years or so, and people were more than ready for it.
“…Holy crap! This place is wonderful!” Townsend exclaimed, piling on the praise of this 2,000-person capacity venue after he and his band took the stage. He was hilarious this night, and right away shared an anecdote with the spectators, mentioning the night before they played a place and asked if there were any liabilities they needed to be aware of. “Good luck,” he said one of the venue workers told them, giving the impression there was a night and day difference between that venue and where they were this night.
The 68-minute long set consisted of a variety of songs that spanned Townsends’ illustrious career, beginning with a cut from 1997’s Ocean Machine. I’ll be upfront and confess I haven’t listened to any of Townsends’ music before experiencing it live this night; but you could clearly tell “Regulator” was a classic and favorite amongst fans, as they cheered the track and sang along with it. “I need your help again!” Townsend shouted during a lull. That was right after he had said it had taken them an entire month to remember how to tour. Something tells me that was probably a joke, but either way, they were already firing on all cylinders this night.
They got more current with the recently released Z², doing “Rejoice”, which mixed the metal tones with the operatic style that was coming, though it was still all too easy to thrash around to. “Let’s get away from all the heavy for a minute…” Townsend said afterwards. He spoke about 90 miles a minute this night, though it was still easy to keep up with the conversation. You just had to pay attention. Personally, I enjoyed that. It added an element that’s different from a majority of the shows I’ve seen; and just from the words he used and how he phrased things, you knew he was an intelligent man. But I digress.
They stayed on that record with the beautiful “Midnight Sun”. It may be atypical for Townsend (it plays out more ballad-esque), though it was one of my favorites of the night. He and his band counterbalanced it with “War”; and while it may be a heavier metal number, Townsend still found time to start waving his arm from side to side in the air, getting much of the crowd to mimic him. From my experience, it’s not often you see a wave at a metal concert, though that was what was happening, and people loved it.
“Heavy Metal Inflection” was one of the next topics of conversation. Presumably, Townsend has coined that term; and he laughed how whenever you’re behind a mic, you can’t say words like “you” properly, and somehow always mispronounce some words. With that, they hit a stretch of new songs off the concept album that is a continuation of 2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient. Admittedly, a collection of songs about an alien coming to earth seeking an “ultimate cup of coffee” and subsequently waging war on the planet after disliking it is a bit odd. However, odd doesn’t mean bad.
The giant screen at the back of the stage had been showing a variety of visuals on it this night, and for tracks like “A New Reign”, “Z²” and “March of the Poozers”, it fit with the tracks, including Ziltoid himself speaking, to animated footage of space, etc. It looked cool; and all of those flowed into one another. “We have a new style for our sound: Oompa-Loompacore!” Townsend quipped at one point, getting a nice laugh from the attendees.
Reaction to those songs did seem mixed. Some people seemed to zone out, while others respected it for the great piece of work it was. Personally, I enjoyed them; and they had quite the epic sound/tone to them.
“Your guitar doesn’t smoke?!” he laughed, sounding shocked. “All mine do,” he noted as he grabbed a new axe from their stagehand, saying his guitars were “compensating” for… well, you know. “Here’s an instrumental,” he stated before “Ziltoidian Empire”. Townsend was also a very expressive frontman. Earlier in the night, he had given all these anguished looks as he contorted his face; and now, during that number, he surveyed the audience at one point, sporting a fiercely determined gaze.
“Twenty-five years and we’re still trying to figure out how to do this shit…” he cracked afterwards, before they broke into “Bad Devil”. The audience loved the classic, which found Townsend prancing about the stage when he could. Another couple new songs followed, and in between them, the singer tried to “talk like a normal human being” as he put it. He mentioned from up on the stage, you never really know what the audience is feeling, saying he was getting a “What the fuck are these guys doing?” vibe. “Am I right?” he asked, a question that was answered with a booming, “NO!” He went on to say he was all about “perpetuating the idea of love”. That seemed strange to many, until he elaborated that love is quite easily the most fearful thing there is, because it forces you to be vulnerable, and that vulnerability was what he was seeking with his music.
It bordered on a tangent; and then abruptly, they launched into “Grace”. I found it perfectly blended the metal and more opera styles that had been demonstrated this night. It still had some more tender moments, but was still heavy enough to appease the hundreds and hundreds of pairs of ears that were listening; and Townsend snarled on the often repeated line, “NEVER FEAR LOVE!” During a brief break they took, he even grabbed a sign from someone in the crowd and held it up for all to see. “Baby’s first rock concert,” it read, and he requested everyone make some noise for the couple who had brought their kid out.
Throughout the show, Townsend had been very appreciative towards the fans, and now, he fully expressed his gratitude to everyone for buying tickets, acknowledging how expense things like this can be. “What is this, a Wednesday night?” he asked, before a few dozen voices corrected it was a Thursday. “…Too much hookers and blow,” he laughed, before mentioning he didn’t do alcohol anymore, though it took several tries before he said “non-alcoholic” correctly. Both he and the crowd found the humor in that.
“Kingdom” whipped people into a frenzy, as they cheered and sang along. “Dallas, thank you so much. It’s been an honor,” Townsend said, before stepping off the stage and into the pit between it and the barrier, where he shook several hands; and his band mates threw all sorts of stuff out, from drum sticks to picks. It was a perfect ending, but fans being fans, they wanted more.
I don’t remember ever seeing a genuine encore (or even one I perceived as that.) To put that in perspective, this was actually the 750th concert I have seen.
Encores are expected these days. However, after constant cheering, the house music finally came back on and much of the audience filed out. I was one of them, making a pit stop at the bathrooms first; and as I washed my hands, I heard Townsend back in front of the microphone. They had been off stage for four minutes.
He again let his humor shine, mentioning this one was from the new album (“ill-received even by me,” he joked), fully admitting it wasn’t even as great as the one they had just done, but, “we’re desperate and need validation,” he finished. Perhaps “Deathray” wasn’t as good as the prior tune, but no one cared. Their idol had come back out to deliver one more song, and that was the most important thing.
I was quite impressed by the showmanship the band displayed. All of the guys were certainly worth watching, though Townsend was unquestionably the most polarizing. In his two-decade long career, he has perfected his angle at it, injecting a healthy dose of humor — both in dialogue and movements/expressions — while letting his genius and prowess as a progressive metal musician shine.
I certainly became a fan this night, which may not be a good thing, given it will be at least a couple years before Devin Townsend Project will tour in any capacity. He has announced a minimum yearlong hiatus after a show next spring, so realistically, it could be 2017 or later before he’ll get back to Dallas. Whenever it happens to be though, I know Dallas will be more than ready.