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.