LIVE REVIEW: Devin Townsend, Haken, Barba Negra Music Club, Budapest, 30/11/2019
Devin Townsend has been a prolific figure in the world of metal, ever since his debut as the lead singer on Steve Vai’s 1993 album Sex & Religion. In the years since, he’s done everything from peaceful compositions that can send you to sleep, to brutal and aggressive songs that send shivers down your spine. His latest (solo) release since disbanding his successful Devin Townsend Project, is titled Empath and is the culmination of his career of more than twenty-five years, and the first full-fledged solo tour post-DTP had to match up. Along for the ride as opening act are British progressive metal band Haken, who are still riding the wave of their latest offering, 2018’s Vector.
Before going to take their place in the crowd, concert-goers could peruse the current offerings of the merchandise table, which this time featured a “Spin the Wheel” type mini-game, entitled “Ziltoid’s Wheel of Substance” after the alien character from the 2007 album, Ziltoid the Omniscient, and its 2014 counterpart, Z²: Dark Matters. Here fans could try their hand at winning a T-shirt, hoodie, the “lucky dip” (which was their choice of one of the following: a 2020 calendar featuring Townsend and his funny facial expressions, a keychain of another character, the “Poozer”, a badge set, some earplugs, or some socks, of which they had two designs on offer), or, if luck was on their side, a meet and greet with the man himself.
First to take the stage at Barba Negra are Haken. Precisely forty-five minutes after the doors open, the tape starts and their intro song, Affinity.exe, sounds through the P.A, after which they go right into Puzzle Box, one of the three singles released from their Vector album. Engaging the audience right from the start with their chugging, staccato guitars, and a stunning light show setting the mood. They then continue with another of the three singles, A Cell Divides, prompting fans to chant along to the “ooh-ooh” of each chorus, while guitarists Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall amaze everyone with their tight, precise 8-string guitar work.
Earthrise is next, with its soaring chorus filling the venue with positivity, followed by the djent-y instrumental headbanger Nil By Mouth, which gives the rest of the band a chance to shine even more, a fact evidenced by bassist Conner Green taking a power stance in the middle of the stage, right in front of the concert-goers in the first row.
“For those of you who don’t know us yet, this is one of our ‘Greatest Hits’,” says frontman Ross Jennings with a slight grimace to point out the irony in his words, before the Brits start playing their signature track: Cockroach King, replete with circus melodies and a capella backup vocals, courtesy of Henshall, keyboardist Diego Tejeida and drummer Ray Hearne, which fans know and love. Finally, it is time for Haken to end their set, finishing up with their retro-themed and accurately titled 1985, off of their previous album, Affinity. Tejeida performs a keytar solo while Jennings holds down the keyboard front, while also sporting some neon LED glasses, another tradition of their live shows. They take their final bow and leave the stage promptly and on time, but not before thanking everyone for being present, with Henshall and Griffiths throwing out some guitar picks as mementoes. The public are left pleasantly surprised and longing for a little more time with the Brits, but they must clear the way for the evening’s main attraction. 9/10
After a forty-five minute intermission, during which Haken‘s gear has been taken offstage to make room for the ten musicians comprising Townsend‘s band, the first to take the stage is Tejeida, pulling double duty and playing keyboards for the evening’s main act as well. He starts mixing a drink onstage for the rest of the musicians, with the audience yelling for “more!” vodka each time he poured some into the mixing cup. Choir singers Arabella Packford and sisters Anne & Samantha Preis are next, followed by bassist Nathan Navarro (who also performed on Empath), Swedish drummer Morgan Ågren, German touch guitarist Markus Reuter, vocalist/guitarist Ché Aimee Dorval, and guitarist/keyboardist Mike Kennealy, each of them getting their drinks from Tejeida in their (fittingly themed) coconut cups before taking their place on stage and being joined by the Canadian mastermind himself, Devin Townsend. He greets the audience, thanking them for their continued support, invites them to “forget about life and all its troubles and go on vacation with him for the night”, and the evening’s set begins with the cuckoo call of Borderlands. “Evermore!”, exclaims Devin, while starting the next song’s headbang-inducing intro; “I am, I am, I will return always” echo his vocals. War is next, from Townsend‘s 1998 solo offering, Infinity, followed by Sprite, and the first part of the two-hour set is finished.
Next, Ågren gets up from his monstrous drum kit (replete with three bass drums!) and sits in front of a much smaller, cubical unit, covered in a green faux-grass material and joined by a plush flamingo, that Devin immediately starts messing with, enacting a humorous “birth” scene of the pink plushie. The two start improvising, it one of the main focus points of this Volume One of the tour, the other musicians come back on stage, and they start playing a stretch of four songs off of the Devin Townsend Project‘s first release in 2009, the lighter in sound Ki: Coast, Gato, Heaven Send and Ain’t Never Gonna Win. This part of the show gives Dorval the chance to shine, as it is the first time she gets to sing the songs live since performing them on the album.
Up next is fan-favourite Deadhead, originally from the 2004 Devin Townsend Band album, Accelerated Evolution, the song later being slightly reworked to fit the DTP‘s touring sound. “You are the sun goddess”, proclaims Townsend with his signature, opera-like vibrato vocals, then changing into a sharp, banshee growl, which crescendoes towards the end of the song and culminates in some of the Canadian singer’s greatest live vocals. He heads offstage for a short while before coming back with a black, see-through skirt on. It’s time for one of his most light-hearted songs, which would not sound too out of place in a musical: Why?. One of the highlight moments of each performance is when he stops the song for a few moments, in order to instruct the audience to chant the next verse in their best death growls, “Let me go home!” – but this time, the crowd beats him to it. “Hang on for a moment, this isn’t allowed to happen! This is a big ‘STOP’ sign, right here!” says Townsend in his usual, humorous style. The audience chants along to his instructions and the song continues as planned, finishing as the singer belts into his vibrato vocals: “Why, why, whyyyyy?”. Lucky Animals from 2010’s Epicloud is next, with the frontman telling everyone to get their jazz hands ready for the chorus, something which has become a staple of the live shows whenever this song is performed. Following this is the first single and the main track of Empath, Genesis, and about half of its introductory song, Castaway. This track perfectly exemplifies the sheer brilliance (and implicit chaos, as well) of Townsend‘s mind and also allows the musicians to shine even further – Ågren with his blast drum beats, Kennealy with his shred playing, Navarro with his fast finger-style bass playing, and Tejeida‘s plethora of keyboard and synth sounds.
An acoustic rendition of Spirits Will Collide is the last song of the main set, and joining Devin Townsend are Dorval and the choir singers, Packford and the Preis Sisters. “Don’t you forget that you are perfect, don’t you forget just who we are, we’re strong enough” exclaim the collective in this emotional performance of the Empath single.
“Okay, now’s the part of the show where we f*ck off the stage for a few minutes, pretending to stay there but coming back, acting all surprised when the people want more songs” the singer exclaims in his usual, encore-disapproving manner before they go offstage and prepare for the last three songs of the evening.
After a short intermission to change the stage design once again, they come back again and start playing… a ’70s disco-soul song. That’s right, they start playing The Trammps‘ Disco Inferno, with Dorval taking on the main vocals and Townsend singing the chorus line, “Burn, baby, burn!”. Following that is a short rendition of Frank Zappa song The Black Page #1, courtesy of Tejeida and Kenneally. The last song is Kingdom, originally off of the 2000 solo release Physicist, later re-recorded for Epicloud. Except they don’t start it on their first go. “Oh crap, there’s a wah pedal missing, that’s why everything sounds wrong!” booms Townsend before quickly scrambling offstage to get said pedal, and before you know the song starts once again, properly this time The song is over, and the 2-hour set reaches its conclusion. The 10 musicians take their bow, Ågren throws one of his drumsticks, and they’re off. Some audience members stick around for some more memorabilia given out by the crew members – remaining picks, setlist sheets from the stage floor; Tejeida gives out a cup of his stage-brewed cocktail, Ågren sticks around by the stage to take pictures with fans and sign their possessions, and the evening ends with everyone happily leaving towards their homes, agreeing that this tour was worth the year-long wait. 10/10.
Written by: Florin Petrut
Photos by: Sophie Garrett (Camden Roundhouse, London, 12/12/2019)