Stuck in horrendous Melbourne traffic, I missed dredg much to my annoyance. Having been a fan of their Catch Without Arms record, I was relishing the opportunity to see them in an intimate club setting prior to my Soundwave adventure due in a couple of days. Alas, I was just pipped by the line which had snaked its way back behind the dingy alleyway of the Forum Theatre, much in contrast to the classical opulence of its facade and interior (Read more about the decor of the Forum here, if you’re into that sort of thing.) One newbie approached me and asked, “Is this the line for Devin Townsend?” How did the legion of metalheads not give it away? It was either that, or his name emblazoned above the door?
Finding some friends in the seating area towards the very back, I asked their opinion of dredg - they hated them. Unequivocally consumed by loathing for them. They figured everyone else did too, the moshers at the barrier enduring their set for the sake of taking prime position for the mighty Devin Townsend. Or Meshuggah. (I couldn’t see who’s merch they were wearing from where I was to make sure.) But somehow, despite the sizable contingent of metalheads clad in their branded tees, I still felt the sheer brilliance of Devin Townsend in the flesh would trump even the greatest love for those crazy Swedes.
That said, Hevy Devy, for all of his spaced-out theories, headbanging hippie sentiments and that borderline insane sense of humour, is the great unifier of metal. Rivetheards, thrashers, pasty bedroom dwellers who don’t know what the price of beer is these days (no really, there were quite a few guffawing in handing over $20 bills and getting scarcely anything back save for two lowly vessels of domestic ratpiss) and bedraggled prog rock nerds sporting authentic The Wall tour t-shirts (held together scarcely by love at this point) dipping their toes into something much, much harder than they’re used to. They all squeezed into the Forum, at least twice as many showing up for Devy (and Meshuggah... of course some of them were there for Meshuggah, right?) than last night’s Shredfest USA convention. Sitting in the “bleachers” felt like I’d dropped a tab or two and walked into a macabre lecture theatre with a bitchin’ soundtrack replacing the professors; although we’d get a lesson in how to play our guitars about thirteen different ways in ten seconds when Meshuggah appeared.
Pacing eerily back and forth on stage in smoky red light to Rational Gaze, the diehard tech-heads up the front moshing their guts out, headbanging intricately timed to their dizzying time signature changes - though as the rows radiated outward, it looked sullen and rather depressed. This is what I never understood about Meshuggah - they were inexplicably popular among many metalheads, even the “casual” types at whom you scoff at when they invariably rattle off “metal” in their list of favourite musical styles. You know, the ones you snap back with “Really? Which bands?” Nine times out of ten, they can’t name anything else apart from Metallica or acts that aren’t even metal in the first place. But in that journeyman ten percent, the name Meshuggah invariably comes up. What, no Gojira? No Arsis? Ever heard of Darkane? Jesus christ, man. Atheist invented this shit, how dare you profess your ignorance! Get out of here! (Then we wonder why there aren’t any casual metalheads.)
Obtuse polyrhythms buckled under the sheer weight of their supporting riffs, Pravus tickled the serotonin levels of each and every guitar nerd that fussed over reverse heptatonic sweep whatever-the-fucks recoiling through triple platinum humbuckers instead of wondering if they could scrape together enough cash to buy a signed limited edition copy of Piece of Time (that’s Atheist again.)
Though Meshuggah looked about as appealing as fat free tofu with an extra serving of bland insofar stage presence is concerned, their raison d’etre primarily focused on testing out (presumably in some kind of sonic laboratory) which methods could yield a big enough kick to bust down the hulking guardian defending the purity of the entire metal genre, placed in front of a door with the words “Keep OUT!” scrawled across it (“Abandon experimentation all ye enter here” written underneath.) Sitting around in the studio and conjuring up new ways of stacking notes on top of each other is one thing (one very fine thing if done correctly), doing it on stage while one stares at their given instrument like it's the first set of real live tits they've ever encountered in their god damn lives is another.
Fredrik Thordendal stood staid and businesslike as the crowd cautiously warmed to them, swaying to and fro as if in a powerful guitar-induced trance. Jens Kidman’s cavernous growls had tinctures of Zappa, drained of his humanity and psychedelic prescience; as Thordendal and Dick Lovgren finally showed signs of life, one punter donned his headphones and made a beeline for the smoking area. Others were similarly ambivalent, a hit of nicotine seeming all the more appealing than another “djent” worth of reckoning. Once they engaged the strobe lights set to “seizure” during Bleed the band just about exhausted the count of possible candidates who might put their hands up if I'd asked if they were having any “fun.” Departing saying scarcely a word - apart from Jens asking if we wanted another song or if we “wanted to go to pee or something” - we were left scratching our heads; is this guy anti-social, really jetlagged or just really, really Swedish? The set just felt more baffling than intricately crafted or “mysterious.”
House lights were raised once they just abruptly up and finished, our coffee guzzling guitar nerd Ziltoid the Omniscient hijacked the PA system, as is now customary since his “arrival” to Earth in the 2004 record of the same name (I suppose Devy hasn’t figured out to get rid of him yet - note to Devy: never get rid of him.) torturing us with the Vengaboys. Growing tired of assaulting only one of our senses, Ziltoid appeared before us on “Ziltoid TV,” generally giving us shit for being puny humans, playing hilarious clips of Hispanic gladiators with a secret superpower of a microwaveable pizza boomerang (I’m not making this up, ask anybody) and Japanese anthropomorphic poodle aerobics (seriously) and of course, Ziltoid stirring up the “Technoviking” leaving us in hysterics. Ziltoid graciously granted us the privilege of becoming his sex slaves, insulting our balls to present the main attraction, Mr. Devin Townsend.
Dressed in his now trademark black singlet and purple-indigo suit, rapturous cheers almost drowned out the dialog preceding his early cut Truth. He was on point from note number one; I knew he’d have us enraptured and strapped in for his entire seventy five minutes. “Life is fucking beautiful,” he screamed. Then it hit me in the chest - for all the cynicism in this industry, the bickering, the sniping and the posturing that corrodes our ineffable spirit of metal brotherhood, he was absolutely correct. Waves of sumptuous guitar and his sublime, soaring voice washed over us, momentarily breaking the idyllic, fuzzy feeling by triumphantly declaring “We are fucking back!”
Grinning madly like the metal alchemist that he truly is, his magical fretwork burned into our eyes and ears throughout Regulator and Planet of the Apes, emphasizing that “everybody rips off Meshuggah.” I’m glad you did, Mr. Townsend - because the real Meshuggah would never even aspire to be as one-hundredth as entertaining as you. Lucky you said that as well, Dev; by this point I’d forgotten they’d even fucking played.
Ziltoid TV projected Between the Buried and Me record covers recreated with muppets, ticking off his appropriation points as he went; “let this be a lesson to us all,” I wrote in my note book at this point; “never miss a Devin Townsend show.” His innocent, manic outbursts of emotion such as “make a polyhedron pit” playing up to his nerd stereotype for the melancholic introspective cut Deadhead, the energy was such he could walk out on to the crowd - and at some points, he almost did. It, like his recent project, is unfiltered, uncensored, unashamed Devin Townsend. “For twenty-one years it’s been like masturbation into a sock” he said of his “marriage” to the music - his vulnerability spoke even louder than the blaring riffs and colorful melodies that coiled around our brains, a transcendental quality even more evident on the celebratory Life and explosive Supercrush!
Ziltoid made a stump speech for the “Nerd Party” in the 2012 election (Canadians telling Australians to vote in an United States election making it only more absurd) before catapaulting into By Your Command! encouraging us to embrace our inner nerds - “be even bigger nerds!” he bellowed. “If you stop, you’ll piss off Ziltoid!” He might be a puppet, but he was as real to us as he was to Devin. Undeterred by the rational center of his brain, he could be heard saying “We all love our mother’s vagina” and “Fuck you, Dad!” for reasons beknown only to him. The impossibly tight “Project” that accompanied him dotted his soundscapes with synths while keeping in complete lockstep with a gargantuan bank of overdubs because “we can’t afford epic fucking choirs, OK?” he confessed to us just prior to playing Kingdom. He made fun of metal posturing saying Vampira’s a stupid song (but gave a thorough explanation for our love of zombies - something to do with alienation via technology) but we all love it (and I paraphrase) and it was true; we all sang along, our fatigue swept away by Devin’s boundless energy and his incredible synchronicity with the video clip playing above.
Making light of the stupidity of the “encore” (“You know we’re coming back, right?” he drawled in his Toronto accent) light and positivity shining through Seventh Wave, before informing everyone with a wristband to come up on stage with him for the ultimate metal party anthem, Bend it Like Bender! dancers and moshers alike dancing in their own way, Devin included, as if we were all connected. Frightfully, he fell down into the security barrier for two or three terrifying minutes before popping out from underneath, gleefully smiling and giving two huge thumbs up. A mixture of sadness and elation weighed down on us as he left - it felt as if for seventy five minutes on a rainy Wednesday night in a corner of the world most had never heard of, it felt we stood at the Earth's very own epicenter of light, fun and brilliance. Emerging out of that hall, grins were plastered on our faces.
Devin Townsend, thank you so much for your music. Wednesday night will remain in our memories forever. We’ll remember your words, too - “You’re never a poser when you play from the fucking heart.” Devin, you did. You truly, absolutely did.