After a two year hiatus from creating original music, Devin Townsend returns with the first of four in a series of records under the imaginative moniker of ‘Devin Townsend Project’. Whilst perhaps more known for his extreme metal outfit, Strapping Young Lad, Townsend has never been a stranger to the more melodic side of rock and metal, entertaining a highly prolific ‘solo’ career and creating some of the more unique progressive albums of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It comes as no surprise to fans then that, having cleaned up his lifestyle of mind-altering drugs and habits, Townsend returns to the mellower side of his output. However, quirky ambient albums such as Devlab and The Hummer aside, never before has Townsend been so instrumentally laid back as on Devin Townsend Project’s debut, Ki.
Described by Townsend himself as a record to ‘set the stage’ for the entire project, Ki as a whole is unimposing when compared to the oppressive wall-of-sound production techniques that encompass most of the musician’s prior output. That is not to say there are not moments where Townsend’s trademark hostility and dense instrumentation dominate. On the contrary, the third track, ‘Disruptr’, seems to indulge the metal side of “Hevy Devy” about half way through, with a gradual crescendo of snarled vocals and distorted guitars quickly building up to assault the listener as if out of nowhere. What is different though is that this aggressive momentum doesn’t explode, but rather deflates itself almost as quickly as it began, cutting off before its musical climax to begin the initially mellow-paced song ‘Gato’. Whilst several songs on the album do similar, there are often clever musical juxtapositions to diminish the effect of the outright heavy moments - whether it’s the rhythms of jazz and blues drumming veteran, Duris Maxwell or the slightly disjointed, yet oddly serene additional vocals from guest singer Ché Dorval. Whilst actually only having one writing credit on the entire album, the mere presence of Maxwell seems to have inadvertently influenced a lot of the rhythm riffs of the album - Townsend opting for clean electric guitars and playing slightly off-beat grooves that will inevitably have the listener clicking their fingers along to the track after a few plays.
Although fairly subdued, Townsend’s bizarre sense of humour is also noticeable on occasion, as Ki is littered with moments that are guaranteed to bring a smile to the listener’s face. For instance, as ‘Heaven Send’ reaches a point of dense guitars and horns, it suddenly cuts out to reveal a small exchange from recording sessions between (presumably) Townsend and Maxwell before returning to its prior insanity. Indeed, the musical variance is almost witty in itself. ‘Trainfire’ seems to have an undeniable 50s rock & roll vibe, Townsend’s vocals reeking of a rather charming Elvis tribute act for most of the song, whereas penultimate track ‘Quiet Riot’ borrows a melody or two from ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’, with the acoustic guitars offering a stark contrast to the hit cover version of the titular band. Whilst a radical change in comparison to a lot of his work of old, for those familiar with albums of the Devin Townsend Band and previous pseudonyms, there are more than enough similar stylistic points for the fan to feel at home. The title track itself smacks of Devin Townsend Band’s Accelerated Evolution, with its floating vocals, soothing guitars and eventually huge melodic overlay of music acting as the angelic equivalent to the album’s earlier deafening disorder.
Upon initial listens, Ki’s fluctuation between laid-back, gentle tones and unrelentingly dissident fury is extremely daunting to even the most seasoned Townsend listener. It certainly takes a couple of spins to actually get used to the bouncing back and forth between the two extremes. However, it is in these repeated listens that Ki really begins to shine. At times, there is almost too much going on musically and the listener is led in to a false sense of smooth jazz-based security. As such, the listener needs to get to grips with this difficult fusion of musical styles before they can really begin to enjoy the album. This is certainly not an album for the casual music fan, demanding far more attention than to be relegated to just background music. Whilst possibly one of Townsend’s most alienating releases, Ki also appears to be one of his most well-crafted. Clearly a huge amount of thought has gone in to creating a rather eclectic collection of music, from the diverse mix of musicians on the records to the huge variance of sounds presented on the album. If this album is only an appetiser for what is to come from the Devin Townsend Project, I eagerly await the next course.