The Retinal Circus

Devin Townsend

Inside Out, 2013

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


The clown prince of industrial metal, Devin Townsend here turns in a two-disc tour de force that is at once loud, fun, intense and exhausting. Townsend and his band recorded this show at the Roundhouse in London, running through the majority of his catalog (including several songs from his 2012 album Epicloud) and even hitting one song from his Strapping Young Lad days.

Townsend came to the scene as a member of guitar hero Steve Vai's band and promptly went solo with Strapping Young Lad, a band that both embraced and poked fun at the absurdities of metal. Townsend helped write all of the band's music and would alternate between solo project and SYL discs until 2005, when he abandoned that band to record alone. He released five albums between 2009 and 2012, so much of this has been played live frequently and the track list will reveal no surprises to fans of the man.

Critics have compared Townsend to Frank Zappa, another musician who was restlessly experimental, quite prolific and embraced humor as a crucial part of his music. Townsend describes himself as "ringleader" of this particular circus, while Steve Vai narrates the tale, which very loosely weaves together Townsend's songs into some sort of story about a man named Harold on a journey who discovers that life comes down to relationships, or something. It's not important, and even Townsend knows it, instead using it as a way to introduce and frame the songs to create the illusion of a cohesive show, a metal rock opera of sorts.

Those unfamiliar with Townsend will be blown away by the sheer power of the music and the quality production; metal rarely gets heavier or louder than this, and the band is in peak form, whipping out an army of bone-crushing riffs and face-melting solos, never afraid to cross into the realm of absurd or overkill when needed. Because there is so little differentiation in the sound, the songs tend to run together after a while, but they all sound excellent, particularly the multi-part "Planet Of The Apes," the very good "Addicted" and the drama of "Colour Your World" and "The Greys" (the latter is not listed on the CD case), both of which come from the 2007 album Ziltoid The Omniscient.

The second disc starts after the show's intermission with three acoustic songs which are among the best of the show, notably a version of "Hyperdrive" and "Ih-Ah," both from Addicted. As she has on the studio discs, singer Anneke van Giersbergen helps on several songs as a counterpoint to Townsend, and her voice elevates "Ih-Ah" to something beautiful, the most emotional part of the set. "Where We Belong" could have been good but Townsend ruins it with his asides during the song and his dismissal of this section as the "’80s portion of the show."

Shortly after, the nonstop thrash of "Detox," "Kingdom and "Juular" bring the show back to its purpose, which dovetails nicely into the appearance of Townsend's old SYL bandmates on their song "Love?". The slower songs "Grace" and "Little Pig," both from Epicloud, end the show with what is supposed to be sort of an epic feel but comes off somewhat unsatisfying after the power and borderline insanity of what comes before.

Those unfamiliar with Townsend would do well to start here as a sampler of his albums and then dig deeper if interested. Fans of true heavy metal with a humorous but intelligent bent will truly enjoy this, and Townsend fans not already in possession of this material elsewhere will enjoy the quality and intensity of the show (rumor has it he touched up a few of the songs in the studio, what he calls "turd polish," but only to clean up a couple of loose ends and not to change the integrity or approach of the songs or show itself, so it's not a big deal). The Retinal Circus is meant for the eyes but is a true feast for the ears, even if the sheer amount and noise level of the songs is enough to keep you satisfied for a long time. One only wishes a little more variety could have been injected into this carnival.

Rating: B-

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