In 2009, Devin Townsend embarked on a rather ambitious project. He set about recording four albums in contrasting styles, each one focusing on a different element of his music.  The project’s first release, ‘Ki’, had a more organic sound than many of Townsend’s previous outings, having stripped away the many layers.  In doing so, the songs were left to speak for themselves without the level of density they would have previously been given.  While the songs were largely excellent, the performances became slightly unsettling with their starkness in places.  2010’s ‘Addicted!’ reinstated many of the typical Townsend quirks – and most importantly, a lot of studio post production – making it a far more by-numbers affair.  A good album, but there was still a sense there was more interesting material on the horizon.

The next two instalments of the project were released simultaneously – like a musical yin and yang. ‘Deconstruction’ captures Townsend in an intensely heavy mood, while ‘Ghost’ is an ambient, progressive set of songs.  Townsend’s lightest ever work, ‘Ghost’ moves away from his progressive metal – and indeed full-on metal – tendencies. A work almost entirely constructed of atmospheric beauty, it’s not an album that’ll appeal to all of Townsend’s fans; however, for the more adventurous fan, within its duration of 70+ minutes, there’s some simply gorgeous, inventive music waiting to be absorbed.  In short, ‘Ghost’ is stunning, and potentially far more interesting than ‘Ki’ and ‘Addicted!’ combined.

‘Feather’ – spanning some eleven minutes – is one of the key tracks. Similar in style to ‘Nobody’s Here’ from Townsend’s ‘Terria’ album from 2001, it offers a great combination of ambience, depth of feeling and intricate musicianship.  However, ‘Feather’ expands on ‘Nobody’s Here’s previous dreamy style by adding soft flute sounds (courtesy of Emerald Web’s Kat Epple) and a female vocal.  At the centre is Townsend, his clean toned guitar work, picking notes and offering ringing chords.  The song sounds like it could end at five and a half minutes, but instead falls into an extended coda with the gentle vocal calling “Generally we are a lonely people / generally we are alone / generally we are in lonely worlds”.  The addition of some understated ambient keyboard work and equally understated drumming means that the track doesn’t drag, even though there is ample opportunity for it to do so, even taking into account two minutes of new-age plinky-plunkiness tacked on the end.  Epple’s flute contributions to the album are pivotal, like on the instrumental cut ‘Monsoon’ where her flute plays a dreamlike lead part over an electronic ambient drone.  Between this and the short ‘Dark Matters’ which follows – which finds the flute work complimented by an almost distant Townsend multi-layered vocal – it’s almost impossible to believe that this is the work of the man behind uber-metallers Strapping Young Lad.

The title track eschews the extended atmospheres for something akin to a middle of the road 1970s pop song. With an acoustic guitar at its centre delivering what could best be described as a rumpty-tumpty rhythm, Townsend and his band revel in the sunny vibe.  It’s not alone in its upbeat nature though, since ‘Blackberry’ is similarly feel-good, only here, the acoustic work is augmented by plucked banjos, like something from an old road movie.  The bluegrass style elements are balanced out by the rather more traditional Devin Townsend moments; his lead vocal is heavily processed and there’s a keyboard drone throughout making this feel like a natural successor to his classic ‘Ocean Machine: Biomech’ release.

Townsend’s acoustic finger-picking provides the heart of ‘Heart Baby’, a track with a slightly Celtic air which could have found a space on a Mark Knopfler soundtrack work. The acoustic guitar sits well atop flutes, strings and another keyboard drone.  The vocal lines are used sparingly at first, often focusing more on general harmonics than the lyrics themselves, which seem a little obscured by the studio trickery.  As the number builds to a (rather unobtrusive) climax, Townsend’s vocals are multi-tracked and looped for effect and while this puts him rather more at the forefront of things, it’s still the acoustic guitar and keyboard providing the strongest elements.  Also fairly cinematic, ‘Infinite Ocean’ – as the name suggests – has a long, rolling quality which sweeps the listener along.  A droning keyboard provides a blanket for brushed drums and a flute, while whispered vocals give the sense of something lurking beneath.  Aside from Townsend occasionally plucking acoustic guitar notes and a few chord changes, this track barely deviates from its opening statement, creating an atmosphere which is reminiscent of some of David Gilmour’s work.  Townsend pitches the mood just right, and so, like ‘Feather’, the musical minimalism sustains eight minutes easily, without becoming tiresome.

If you have only ever loved “Devin Townsend the metal guy”, ‘Ghost’ will offer you absolutely no thrills – and that’s a promise.  If you came looking for Townsend’s metal side, then ‘Ghost’s companion release ‘Deconstructed’ is the one for you.   While Townsend has included similar sounding works here and there on previous releases, ‘Ghost’ is the first time a whole work has been dedicated to such a reflective frame of mind – and for those who can get into it, there’s plenty of greatness to be discovered on this slow-burner of an album.

June 2011