REAL GONE GOES OUT: Devin Townsend’s Retinal Circus – Roundhouse, London 27/10/12

For the months leading up to its one off London performance, Devin Townsend promised big things of the “Retinal Circus”. The near three hour career retrospective was said to contain various theatrical elements and a full choir – and perhaps more importantly – a selection of special guests, but in all seriousness, those of us who’d had tickets for a year prior to the event didn’t really know what would happen. Devin has always been unpredictable: a trip into his imagination could have included all of those things; it could have just as easily included a whole world of other bizarreness. Whatever, it was going to be special.

Since it is possible to view about 80% of the surroundings from the front of the stalls in London’s Roundhouse, we got a great view of activities on and off stage. Perhaps the oddest thing of all about The Retinal Circus was not the onstage antics, but the audience’s reaction. Partly due to there being so much to take in at any one time, the audience – at least for the most part – seemed far more subdued than at any of Townsend’s prior gigs. There were times when those standing at stage right became involved in the usual levels of moshing and lurching back and forth, but even during the more aggressive parts of the show’s first half, those below us at stage left stayed almost stationary. It was as if they were not actually participants at a rock gig, but just captivated by the whole thing as a theatrical performance. In the balconies, too, gig style atmospheres seemed less obvious…but there was little doubt as to whether everybody within the sold out 3,300 capacity venue was having a good time.

In terms of theatrics, the Retinal Circus was indeed a cavalcade of oddity, mixing carnival and sci-fi elements with themes of spirituality, dual personalities and eventual peace. Although the performance was supposedly taking place within the dream states of “Harold” – the show’s central character – was a thinly disguised plot to explore the various moods of Townsend himself over the years, something mocked with self-depreciating humour by Townsend himself and the shows narrator – Steve Vai, via an often badly synched video link – throughout the performance.

With a cast of various actors, the show initially seemed to be about evolution – cat costumed dancers, apes and a selection of tunes from 2012’s excellent ‘Epicloud’, start things off excellently, with Dev sounding great whilst complimented by regular collaborator Anneke Van Giesburgen. This relatively straightforward concept was quickly sidelined in favour of sci-fi and playing to into the hands of fan-favourite Ziltoid The Omniscient, a vulgar power-hungry extra terrestrial being. You can do anything with a dream state after all…giving Townsend a blank canvas for such a non-linear narrative. Naturally, this section involved alien reproductive organs, a green foetus and an ensuing war. Rather silly visuals did not detract from excellent performances of ‘Planet Smasher’ (including guest vocals by a face painted metal growler – reportedly journalist and Linkin Park hater, Dom Lawson) and a crushing ‘War’, involving angle grinders, huge smoke guns and women wearing gas masks and WWI Tommy Atkins helmets. In short, Ziltoid’s vulgarity aside, if this is why you came to experience the Retinal Circus, there was plenty of fun to be had. Actually, even with the often over-rated Ziltoid’s input, this was quite awesome. Finishing off the first act, rousing performances of ‘Addicted!’, ‘Color Your World’ and ‘The Greys’ did not disappoint, while visually, acrobats climbed material ropes and Dev was eventually dragged off-stage himself by semi-threatening gargoyles. You don’t get that at a Defiled show.

In the show’s second half, those who love Devin’s softer side were treated to excellent renditions of ‘Hyperdrive’ and ‘Ih-Ah’ in an attempt to bring Harold out of his dream state, before a huge throwback from the past…a revisitation of ‘Detox’ from Strapping Young Lad’s ‘City’, conceptually thrown into the mix after bring goaded by Steve Vai’s skull. Even after the appearance of SYL’s Jed Simon on stage, it seemed unnatural witnessing Townsend playing Strapping Young Lad material after so long. He’s moved on, both musically and emotionally and it shows: he’s got a family and, at the time of this big performance, is at peace with himself. While most of the audience went insane for rare outings of both this (and, slightly later) ‘SYL’s ‘Love’, these exteme metal numbers seemed shoe-horned in as lip service to the band that put Townsend on the map. Just as he feels no real connection to his blatantly angry past any more, surely half of his fan base who get stupidly excited at seeing him thrash out some angry sentiments should have moved on too? Seemingly not, since the (stage right) half of the audience erupted into a full on war zone of bodies within seconds, coaxing out (pretty much) the evening’s only crowd surfers. Enjoyable to see briefly, but Townsend is far more complex a composer, arranger and musician since his dark and angry SYL days. It’s a shame some of his audience still only appear to want flat out aggression from him. Maybe they have unresolved issues.

Rounding out the evening, Devin discussed the demons within his head with himself on a video screen (a nod to Townsend’s own struggles with bi-polarity) and things wound down nicely with the dumb singalong ‘Bend It Like Bender’, ‘Grace’ and – best of all – ‘Life’. The latter, one of the greatest songs within Townsend’s huge catalogue (from ‘Ocean Machine: Biomech’, a prog masterpiece), captures the musician’s most melodic side; its message of inner peace represented on stage by a tree.

Aside from a lack of ‘Ocean Machine’ material, the night was amazing. It was a performance worthy of ending a career on a high. For Townsend, meanwhile, this Circus was not the literal end – just a means of taking stock of his achievements thus far. While no material from Steve Vai’s own ‘Sex & Religion’ appeared and there was no mention of Dev’s brief tenure with The Wildhearts, all the performers – musical and theatrical – gave everything they had to give and the result was something the audience will remember for a long time. In terms of narrative, Roger Waters can probably rest easy, but one thing is certain: at the end of 2012, Devin Townsend is as close to a genius as anyone working within the boundaries of rock and metal gets.

October 2012

Devin Townsend talks about the Retinal Circus

Tonight at London’s Roundhouse, Devin Townsend presents a huge career retrospective. The show, unlike any other show Townsend has performed to date, promises to be spectacular. Aside from Townsend, the Retinal Circus will feature special guests, a full choir, theatrical performances (reportedly including actual circus events) and an art exhibit…

Metal Hammer caught up with Devin the day before the big performance. In the first clip, Townsend talks about the Retinal Circus, while in the second, he answers fan questions. To finish, a clip of Devin dancing to the stupidly catchy ‘Lucky Animals’ from his 2012 album ‘Epicloud’.

Set aside just over half an hour and spend it with Dev. You know you want to.

Chris Poland talks about guitars!

Guitarist Chris Poland recently asked fans to submit questions via Facebook regarding his guitars, playing, equipment and set up. The former Megadeth man subsequently uploaded a lengthy video clip, in which he goes into great detail telling those fans almost everything they wanted to know.

If you’d like to know more, you can find out via the near forty minute clip below! The clip is posted on Poland’s official YouTube channel – if you click the YouTube logo in the bottom right of the box, you can also view other Chris Poland related goodies!

Currently a member of Ohm:, Poland is best known for his tenure in thrash metal legends Megadeth, having contributed to their career-defining release ‘Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?’

Refused: five “final shows” in Sweden


Swedish hardcore punks Refused reunited at the beginning of 2012 to play live shows.  The decision was taken since the band felt they’d not toured their final album ‘The Shape of Punk to Come’ properly at the time of it’s release.

The band have spent the year almost permanently on the road, but all good things must come to an end, and the band are set to play what they’ve called their “final shows” in Sweden this December.

The cofirmed shows are as follows:

December 6, 2012 Malmo, Sweden KB
December 7, 2012 Goteborg, Sweden Pustervik
December 8, 2012 Stockholm, Sweden Annexet
December 8, 2012 Oslo, Norway Sentrum Scene
December 15, 2012 Umea, Sweden Exel Arena

NEAL SCHON – The Calling

Although familiar to almost all as the ex-Santana guitarist and driving force behind melodic rock giants Journey, Neal Schon’s instrumental solo records are hugely overlooked in comparison.  Working within complex rock and jazz styles (often leaning farther towards jazz and jazz-fusion than rock), the instrumental approach on those releases has always allowed him to stretch his talents farther than on any recordings made with his regular band post-1978.

His seventh release ‘The Calling’ isn’t without its fusion inspired jams, but it comes with a stronger rock bias than some of his previous works.  One of the album’s rockiest tunes, ‘Back Smash’, finds Schon attacking with an incredibly hard riff, with suitably aggressive drum compliment from sometime Journey colleague Steve Smith.  The riff dominates almost throughout, but just at the point Schon feels it could start to sag, he changes tack and plays an acoustic solo with almost a gypsy guitar influence, just before his pal Jan Hammer wades in with a huge noodly keyboard solo.  Rock fans need not worry; despite a little bit of indulgence, it’s not long before the riff and melodic rock tendencies reassert themselves – the end result isn’t too far removed from something you may find lurking on a Derek Sherinian solo album. Slightly more accessible, the title track comes loaded with a groove-laden rhythm, while the lead work moves between long, soulful notes and quasi-aggressive soloing, both made more interesting by various multi-tracking techniques.  There’s a fine balance here between metallic riffs and almost bluesy leads, but whichever Schon chooses to play, the results are always wholly melodic.

Another of the album’s most jazz oriented pieces ‘Fifty Six (56)’ fools the listener into thinking it’s going to be very rock rooted via a slightly chuggy guitar riff and busy (almost circular) drum groove, but it’s not long before everything kicks off.  Schon throws in guitars with and Eastern flair while the keys sound like sitars; the drive behind the tune gathers pace quickly, and soon, everyone’s playing like they are trying to blow each other out of the studio.  It would be intense enough with its strong leaning towards jazz fusion as it is, but keyboard player Igor Len bashes out a piano solo that’s firmly in the improvised jazz category.  It kind of fits with the carefree abandon of parts of this tune, but it certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes – especially not those approaching this album with the ears of a rock music fan.  In terms of fusion, though, bits of it sound fantastic.

‘The Calling’s two absolutely unmissable tunes are also two of its quietest.  The slow ‘Blue Rainbow Sky’ is simply lovely.  With a mid-pace, Smith’s drums joined by a blanket of organ, meaning Schon is given ample room to fill the space however he chooses, and wisely, after a slightly Hendrixy intro, he chooses to fill most of the three and a half minutes with long, soaring notes, its cinematic style leaning towards the epic.  In terms of brilliance, it’s up there with the intro to Gary Moore’s ‘Parisienne Walkways’, or any number of tunes of a similar elegance.  Soft and bluesy, with fantastic clean toned guitar work throughout, ‘Song of the Wind II’ has a very laid back and rather simple tune; this allows Schon scope to lay down a selection of atmospheric notes, while calming keys (leaning slightly towards the lounge) provide excellent accompaniment.  Schon’s playing is a world away from his Journey “day job” here, much closer in spirit to the more ambient side of Santana’s 70s jams (of which, this song’s title is partly in tribute).  Thankfully, on this gentle nod to his former employer, Neal chooses not to shift things into “samba mode” for a big finish…

A huge chunk of the album falls between these two extremes, with the guitarist sounding in fine form throughout, whichever mood or tempo takes his fancy. ‘Irish Field’ is a short piece, where in solo mode, Neal lays down a wistful, yet slightly clangy melody that’s evocative of solitude and expansive, rolling hills without ever being tempted to wander into any Celtic clichés, while ‘True Emotion’ captures a soft rock guitar performance set firmly in ballad mode…at least to begin with.  The overall tone of the latter brings to mind the best feelings of Gary Moore in slow blues mode (once again), with perhaps a touch of Jeff Beck creeping in, while it’s louder moments are unmistakeably the work of the Journey six-stringer.

The lengthy ‘Tumbleweeds’ is a heady mix of jazz-rock and funk, dished up with a slightly distorted guitar line. Reminiscent of some of Michael Landau’s recordings, the multi-tracking of clean-ish guitar rhythms, dirtier leads and occasional aggressive tendencies results in a busy arrangement that is perhaps this release’s most indulgent.  The eventual split between edgy guitar and another Hammer keyboard solo is very effective here and, surprisingly, the seven minutes seem to fly by – the tune busy enough to thrill the more muso-oriented, while staying (just about) accessible enough to entertain the more casual listener.  Schon’s guitar playing on this track is so full sounding and well arranged, it becomes easy to forget that ‘The Calling’ is an album recorded without the involvement of a bassist.

With most of its tunes impeccably crafted, if you are looking for a decent guitar instrumental record, then ‘The Calling’ should hit the spot. Its busy nature can mean it is possible to enjoy different aspects of the performances with each play, but that is potentially a good thing).  If you are happy enough to step a bit farther into the world of jazz fusion and are keen to find out more about his extra-curricular recordings, dig deeper and you’ll quickly find Schon has recorded material that’s potentially just as interesting than this.  If you’ve never heard it, seek out his 1997 double set ‘Electric World’; therein lies a whole world of great jazz based music often quite far removed from the Neal Schon most people know…

October 2012