My Record Of The Year 2009: Ki - Devin Townsend Project


23. Dez. 2009, 4:51

When I heard Devin Townsend was going to release two records in 2009; after a two year absence where he lost his skullet, disbanded his most successful project, and quit cold turkey on smoking weed, drinking booze and looking at porn; I was almost certain that at least one of them would be my favourite of this year.

And (haha, surprise!) they have taken spots 1 & 2, despite stiff competition from Mastodon and Lady of the Sunshine (and god DAMN I'm looking forward to the new Angus & Julia Stone record for next year). Two more Townsend records are slated for next year, half done and put on hold while the band tours on the first two records.

So uh... this was the first glimpse I got of Devin for 2009 -

...I'd be forgiven for thinking that the upcoming record was going to be a goofy exercise in insanity, right? The next two videos are actually even weirder.

But Ki threw Townsend fans a curveball.

So much of his work in the past has been a musical assault; whether with Strapping Young Lad, The Devin Townsend Band, or solo, he's always absolutely packed the soundscape with pounding drums, and schizophrenic ambience, most often paired with bludgeoning guitars and roaring vocals.

Townsend explains the disbandment of Strapping Young Lad to Terrorizer - "I had some horrible things happening in the last couple of years, that ten years ago I would've written a ferocious Strapping album about. But I changed. Pretending that I'm still angry would be cashing in on that past honesty."

For Metal Hammer re: the response to Strapping Young Lad's Alien- "...I had so many people in my world that were like, 'Yeah yeah yeah, do it again,' but I was like, 'Dude, this is really hard for me, this is emotionally fucking punishing, and in all honesty, this is going to fucking kill me if I do it again'. But they're going, 'Yeah yeah yeah', and I'm thinking to myself, 'So you want me to die? No fucking way. and you're not my friend if that's what you're after."

With this in mind, it maybe shouldn't have come as a surprise to fans that Devin's main influence here seems to be jazz (his sound owes as much to Ravi Shankar as it does to Morbid Angel, both Townsend favourites). But it's not a bombastic, heavy swing like we've seen in the past on tracks like Bad Devil; it's a quiet, brooding prowl, predominantly driven by the bass of Jean Savoie rather than the guitars, that occasionally lashes out with unexpected violence. Devin mostly sings cleanly, often not much louder than a whisper. Even when he does bring out the odd roar, it mainly accentuates a dynamic shift in the music that never seems to fulfill its threat; rather receding back into its shell to bubble ominously. The guitars and drumming on Ki reflect the vocal shifts tightly.

Duris Maxwell, ex-Gene Simmons, The Temptations and Jefferson Airplane, is a marvel. His drumming is always solid, whether loud or soft; he hits with the confidence of experience, even during the album's heavier moments where he must be unfamiliar. He seems to explore every beat at his leisure, throwing in slight but gorgeous fills and licks whenever he feels like it, though never so much that it's distracting.

The ambience of Townsend records has always been on par importance with the instrumentation; Devin can take a repeating riff and fill in the soundscape with whooshes, whirls, clicks and buzzes to expand the sound immensely and stop it from being monotonous. He does so here as well, aided by the impeccable Dave Young (who also contributes "kick-ass-ery", according to the liner notes). The ambience is almost entirely made up of echo, and barely-there synthesised hums and sighs, but also has sirens, distant thunder, zaps, and helicopter chops. It accentuates the oppressive silence around each track with a gorgeous sense of subtlety.

Devin, again for Terrorizer - "Silence is so... heavy. i wanted to make a record that doesn't demand your attention, that can play in the background, and the fourth time you hear it you'd say, 'I didn't notice that'. By the tenth time you'd say ''Hey, this is really fuckin' heavy'. And by the twentieth time you'd wonder if it's the same record you listened to the first time."

And it's true. Ki plays really well in the background when reading a book or surfing the net, but displays an incredible depth upon closer inspection, and rewards repeated listening.

The 3D cover - by Konrad Palkeiwicz. The rest of the art is great too

A Monday begins with a slow, relaxing acoustic guitar, echoing into the distance, brimming with beauty and tension. Bass and ambience heavy, A Monday manages to be loud without being violent. It seems to reach a point where it's about to take off... and then fades. It's a motif (emotionally, and musically) that's repeated throughout the album.

A Monday hisses into Coast over a throbbing buzz reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails. But where Townsend fans of old, indeed Townsend himself, might have expected an opening track to explode into a flurry of sound within seconds, Coast rises and falls rapidly; but gently and beautifully, contrasted with an undercurrent of tension that builds without ever seeming to rupture. It's marked by the same echoing guitar as A Monday, and clean, beautiful vocals. It ends in a rush of static and blurry vocals that threaten to whirl into a tornado... but never do.

Disruptr begins on a bassy riff, as Townsend expresses his frustration at being stuck in a musical and emotional rut. It's instantly heavier than Coast, and slowly builds over clean yet chugging riffs, ominous wails and bells from Young and heavy hitting from drummer Duris Maxwell. Townsend throws another curveball here; after the listener expecting the record to stay in a quiet mode, Devin suddenly starts shouting, and picking his clean guitar strings as if he trying to break through them while air-raid sirens howl in the background... but then it fades out again. This repeats and then is given some room to breathe deep through a snarling bridge, before receding and then rising yet again. It's really heavy, but not brutally so. The violent wall of sound one expects from Townsend is diminished almost entirely.

Gato follows a similar musical path to Disruptr, waving tension and release with a pummelling bridge that is reigned in at the last minute. It features excellent female vocals by another first-time collaborator, Che Dorval. The lyrics are... weird. Dynamic shifts are pitched over proggy, jazzy guitar licks that descend into distorted chugging, and a busy drum beat by Maxwell, while Savoie carries the tune and Young's ambience keeps the tension to the forefront. It again ends on a defiant shout by Townsend, receding relucantly into bitter buzzing and distant howling.

The buzzes change form suddenly, and gently wave into a slight, gorgeous acoustic number, Terminal (co-written with Dave Young... and you can really tell). Townsend croons softly, letting the ambience of the song shine over fantastically slight performances by all the musicians. It gently rises and falls, with its louder (but still quiet) moments surging with pride, and it's soothing softness just begging to lift up again. It's carried out by fading synth and a brief, but beautiful, piano solo.

Barely heard studio banter and a bouncy drum beat introduces Heaven Send, under an ominous, groovy clean riff. Townsends lyrics explore his spiritual beliefs, with Dorval returning for a chorus that will get stuck in your head. The tension through the verses seems even deeper than the previous tracks, propelled mainly by Maxwell's heavy drumming and the ever-present ambience. When the tension does finally split, it's into a smashing distorted riff that is carried by all of the instruments at once, heavier than ever before... which then disintegrates into a jazzy jam, and what is easily Devin's best guitar solo ever. A tiny breath of silence, and then back into the rolling verse. The chorus slams back into existence, this time really exploding into a brutal riff and hoarse vocals that ends the track... Or so you'd think. Townsend calmly asks if they want to start again, and then SMASH, the chorus resumes. Townsend screams in the background, and the riff pounds viciously to its conclusion.

Heaven Send disappears in an instant as ...Ain't Never Gonna Win takes over. It's a jazzy, drum'n'bass driven studio jam, where all the instrumentalists simply do their own thing, Townsend actually scatting softly over the top while barely playing his guitar at all. The tension of the last few tracks has disappeared completely.

Echoes carry the jam into Winter, again drum'n'bass, which repeats the same vocal refrain softly as Young's ambience sways gently in the background. There's a brief breakdown in the middle of the track, stopping and starting, and letting the bass and guitar stretch out, before swirling back into the vocally reinforced verse. It fades gently out of existence carried by savoie's bass noodling.

Then um... what? A train toots, Maxwell rolls out the drums, and Townsend swings into an Elvis drawl; backed by piano, a tooting keyboard and a simple bouncing riff, singing about girls on stripper poles and chugging trains. Then... ambience! Trainfire echoes the more bombastic moments of Synchestra for a little while, even exploding into a flurry of incongruous snarls and pounding riffs, then back into a jazzy pop, then screaming out again, then operatic vocals, and then bounces back into almost nothing. It's a weird but compelling piece. After an echo-y jam break, Che Dorval returns to sing a gorgeous double-tracked outtro into complete silence.

Lady Helen is a beautiful, relaxed piece. It makes a slow crescendo over Young's lovely piano and Savoie's powerful bass, while Devin sings in a voice just above a whisper. The drums come in at just the right moment to carry the song upward into a loud, yet gentle, bridge. It seems to have that same sense of pride and joy as Terminal, building in much the same way. It fades into a slow echo-y guitar piece, backed with beautiful synth.

Ki, the album's title track is introduced by a sitar that disappears as suddenly as it arrives, then a brief guitar noodle, and then a gorgeous acoustic lick that is backed by Townsend's trademark vocal layering. It's given a short triumphant spell, then fade-out, then into a short passage that's actually rescued from Soft, a demo Townsend recorded on "a shitty old cassette" in 1994. It repeats and echoes in a gorgeous crescendo, then fades into almost nothing. An acoustic and electric guitar noodle over and around each other for a little while, then begins a gorgeous series of acoustic arpeggios. A rapid, distorted guitar fades in, dozens of Devin's singing a nonsense verse gently, and faint double-kicked drums (if that really is Maxwell, then holy shit that man is good). It explodes into a gentle, loud, soft, heavy chorus that just KEEPS BUILDING, and refusing to relent. It's ethereal, holy, beautiful in every sense of the word. Then Devin unleashes an operatic howl over the top, and vicious screaming pushed to the background underneath. It continues pushing and pushing and then simply ceases to exist. It's a pinnacle among Townsend's musical achievements, mixed to perfection.

A soft acoustic number, the aptly named Quiet Riot, breaks in, backed by restrained piano. The drums and bass have disappeared, not to be seen again. It's relaxed as if in a sense of accomplishment from what's gone before.

A few seconds of silence precedes Demon League; a soft, tense number that seems akin to A Monday. Soft, echoed vocals lift over the track, and subtle synth increases the tension. It fades out quickly, and there's a rattle of studio equipment as if Devin is putting down his guitar and turning off the tape, and just like that, Ki is over.

Subtle yet refined, loud and soft, relaxed and tense, a mess of emotions and contradictions, and overall simply gorgeous; this is Devin's most honest work since Terria, and shares that same sense of beautiful mystery. It's a fantastic return from the mislabeled "madman", that can only promise more brilliant offerings in the future.


  • WinterWanderer

    Nice review. To clarify the Ki "double drum part": It's a loop playing in the background, not Duris playing.

    23. Dez. 2009, 21:36
  • noo_dog

    yeah nice work - that analysis must have taken some work but gee the record really deserves it. I've listened to it through 3 times now, but reading this make me want to listen through another 3 XD (and yet it takes it out of you - in a good way - there's a lot to concentrate on). It's weird that we both prefer Ki even though just about everyone else I see around here prefers addicted.

    26. Dez. 2009, 1:43
  • ontheupside

    I love the emotional depth of it. It's soul-baring in a way Devin just hasn't shown before. It's incredibly powerful in that respect.

    26. Dez. 2009, 11:37
  • jesse6669

    I agree with almost everything you said. I definitely like this more than addicted, and is prob my favorite album of 2009 too

    18. Mär. 2010, 1:18
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