Review – Devin Townsend Project – Ocean Machine – Live At The Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv – by Jez Denton

When I hear of bands with project in the name, I get a kind of pre-conception of what I’m going to be listening too. When the main artists name precedes the project I’m pretty certain that I’m going to be hearing a vanity project, some sort of self-congratulatory audio jerk off; a look at me, ain’t I clever piece of work. Not that there is anything wrong with that as often the artist is right, they are that good. They are entitled to show off and give it large. Like Muhammed Ali in his pomp, some projects own the ring they are in and they create an enigmatic aura of musical invincibility. They say, and prove, with some justification, this is great stuff, you WILL enjoy it.

Often the reason this arrogance is successful is because it is done with an element of tongue in cheekiness, a knowing sense of not taking things too seriously. And this is something achieved by the Devin Townsend Project with glorious aplomb. The live album that dropped into my inbox last week is a majestic piece of over the top, bombastic, showing off, rifftastic and oblivion inducing noisiness; a symphony of a tight and talented band being directed by the Project leader to create amazing sounds that help provide contrasting visions of the discordant ingredients that make up this performance on record.

As a reference point I couldn’t help but think back to the early 1980’s and one of the original, and often underrated, exponents and developers of science within electronic music, Thomas Dolby. In 1982 he released his ‘Golden Age of Wireless’ album which was chock full of ideas that invoked scientific exploration and discovery. Which is something that DTP seem to have taken on and updated for a 21st century guitar driven band. Quite honestly, like Dolby, there are great parts of this album that are just completely bonkers, mad as a box of frogs, completely and utterly deliciously loony tunes. With my headphones on, listening to this album, I imagined a band with Christopher Lloyd playing guitar, Dr.Frank ‘n’ Furter on bass and Dr.Frankestein on drums. It is seemingly a live performance directed by Tim Burton in one of his more weird moments. It is a triumph of surrealist bombasticness, an opera of madness, a cacophony of crazy.

The thing with this album and project is that there is a lot thrown at it. But it works. From the choir that moves between sounding like a southern gospel group through to Russian sailors, often in the same song, to the crashing meld of guitars and drums, this live performance treads the thin line between being too over the top, too pretentious, too silly whilst still having glorious moments of sheer, unadulterated and joyful, scenery chewing genius. Referencing a stand out kitsch cult cinematic moment of the early 80’s, if a director somewhere wished to remake Flash Gordon, then the Devin Townsend Project would have to be top of the list for the soundtrack. This live performance is fabulous, brilliant, funny and glorious.

Released 6th July 2018

Order this from Burning Shed here

Progradar Best of 2016 – Craig Ellis Bacon’s Top 10

Anderson/Stolt – Invention of Knowledge

Expansive and spiritual in the vein of Tales From Topographic Oceans, this album–like all things Yes these days–has sharply divided the prog world’s opinions. And everyone’s got an opinion on this thing. Well, I’m firmly in the camp that Jon Anderson, Roine Stolt, and Co. have gifted us with a masterpiece. The album is a singular experience, a meditative exercise in four movements. The unrelenting positivity might sound out of place for these dark days, but it’s nonetheless needed. Strong contender for album of the year, for those with ears to hear.

Big Big Train – Folklore

Big Big Train keep adding members, and with each addition they get a little–scrap that, they get A LOT–better. I think they’ve hit on a perfect line-up, because they’ve just released a perfect album. They continue here with themes of the English countryside and fading cultural artifacts, rocking a ‘pastoral prog’ approach that owes a lot to Selling England By The Pound and Wind & Wuthering. Be sure to listen to the extended version as released on vinyl and hi-res download.

Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
Donald Glover and Ludwig Göransson deliver the funk with plenty of 70’s heart and…well, y’know. There’s lots of organic percussion, fat synths and keys, deep grooves, and vocal effects to fill out the tracks. Childish Gambino keeps things varied here, but centered on those 70’s funk tropes, and somehow manage to inhabit rather than merely imitate. If Prince had released this album in the last few years, it would have been hailed as a renaissance and return to form.

Ben Craven – Last Chance To Hear

Great & Terrible Potions is quite an album to follow up, but Ben Craven has managed it with Last Chance To Hear. Loosely a concept album about the end of the music industry as we’ve known it, this album features William Shatner, prog-a-billy, a spot-on James Bond theme, and even a lovely piano elegy. It’s also a contender for best album art and packaging, with gorgeous designs by Freyja Dean. Cinematic, progressive, singer-songwriter with lush production.

The Fringe – The Fringe

Nick D’Virgilio, Jonas Reingold, Randy McStine. I was sold on the first two names alone, and I wish I had known about the third sooner. Perhaps the album I’ve listened to the most this year, The Fringe incorporates the more alternative rock side of prog into a garage band ethos with my pick for the best production work of the year. The album is stacked with deep grooves, vocal harmonies, and guitar solos. The Fringe are too good to remain a side-project, so here’s hoping that we hear more, and soon.

Frost* – Falling Satellites

Prog has always been a Populist musical venture, however strange that may sound these days. Why shouldn’t pop be progressive, anyway? The latest from Frost* is the most modern-sounding album of the year; it’s ahead of its time, really. All pop music will sound like this in ten years (we can hope). Hooky, layered, accessible, rich, and emotional–it suits a wide range of musical needs.

Steve Hindalong – The Warbler

Incorporating elements of his work with The Choir, The Lost Dogs, and his previous solo album, Steve Hindalong turns in another batch of so very human songs. His descriptive lyrics are so mundane–that is, they essentially capture the mundanity of everyday life–that they bypass our receptors for aesthetic filigree and hit straight at the heart. It’s not unusual for a song to prompt tears, chuckles, and tears again in the course of a verse and chorus. Essentially a singer-songwriter album, the rich production frames the lyrics while never obscuring them. Don’t let the religious backdrop scare you away; this is less of a ‘Christian’ album than what Neal Morse was writing before he was a Christian, and it captures themes of friendship and everyday existence so very well.

Marillion – F.E.A.R

Wow. Of course I want my Prog to be beautiful, grandiose, immersive, but to get one that’s also so…so important? If I were ranking albums, this would have to be #1, and I’ll happily listen to it twice for every person who’s turned off by the message. Political prog at it’s finest, and Mark Kelly is going to win an award for his keys on this album, right

Muriah Rose – Beneath The Clay

Muriah Rose hits the ground running with this gorgeous debut, comprising folk, country, Americana, and singer-songwriter forms recalling The Carter Family, Julie Miller, and The Byrds. Beneath The Clay is Appalachian music through and through, not only musically but thematically and emotionally. Her husband, Bill Mallonee, holds down the rhythm section and adds textured guitar, but Muriah’s voice and lyrics stand front and center in the spotlight, where they belong.

Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence

Continuing in the vein of Sky Blue but with some Ocean Machine thrown in for good measure, Transcendence finds Devin Townsend working the “emotional mid-tempo rock” thing the DTP have perfected over the last several years, except that here they perfect it even a little more. While I’d love to hear more of Anneke Van Giersbergen’s vocals, the decision to lean on her vocals a little less really brings Dave Young’s guitar and Mike St-Jean’s keys more to the forefront. It’s not just marketing, folks: this album sounds less like a Project and more like a band effort. Nolly’s mixing and production also add some breathing room to Devy’s typically dense arrangements. It’s heavy, proggy, inspirational, and good.