And the real Devin Townsend stands up. It’s re-released next month
For Devin Townsend, ‘‘Casualties of Cool’’ is more than just the latest release of a prolific career to date.
You probably know him as the founder of Strapping Young Lad, you might have Steve Vai’s Sex & Religion, which features the Canadian metal star on vocals, or the countless other releases he’s put his name to.
But you can forget all that for now. For Townsend, ‘Casualties of Cool’ is an escape – from over 20 years of relentless productivity, of the pre-conceptions of him that come with being one of the biggest names in his sphere. “When you’re younger you do these things and of course you become the product of them” he admits. “But as your life changes, your true nature comes through and becomes overlooked in lieu of what people view you as.”
With metal a genre that’s resisted the cultural fragmentation of our age to remain intrinsically tribal, so the family you become part of remain the overbearing baggage you can’t throw off – how far do you have to go before you’re not, as Devin says, “the guy in the Motley Crue tshirt?”
It turns out he hasn’t had to go far at all. A project over four years in the making, largely at night when home from turning the dial up for the day job in the studio, ‘Casualties of Cool’ has seen Townsend look at himself in order to go forward. Digging out a battered old Fender amp and telecaster, he revisited the rootsy country and North American folk music of his youth. It provides the backbone of the album that’s eventually come to fruition, opening with ‘Daddy’s’ shuffling percussion and bluesy finger-picked motif, resurfacing during ‘The Code’s’ sultry twilight atmospherics and ‘Forgive Me’s’ hushed ambience.
It’s a subtly applied but vital part of this record, providing the bones for the flesh to hang from. “My childhood was full of that type of music,” says Townsend. “At Christmas my grandfather would insist on the whole family sitting around singing uncomfortably along to Johnny Cash songs and Irish stuff like the Clancy Brothers. It was a big part of my childhood, it’s not like I’m putting on a new hat here.”
However ‘Casualties of Cool’ isn’t a vehicle for nostalgia either; instead it uses these familiar troupes as leaping off points. Tracks like ‘Moon’ wind off and away towards astral planes, soft-edged textures coalescing and separating around murmured vocals; ‘Bones’ relatively straight-up balladry sits side-byside ‘Deathscope’s’ cavernous production, making for a sweet juxtaposition between that and the intentionally simplistic rockabilly that characterises its structure. Sometimes the quiet is burst open by a bright blast of saxophone or choral chanting, but always, always a sense of night-time and nature pervades. “There’s such a specific environment around my current home in Vancouver,” Townsend ponders. “There are coniferous trees, it’s really rugged. I find myself more and more just wanting to move north away from people. I like the rain, and the dichotomy of dark and quiet. I like being near the water or the mountains. Spending time in hot, dusty Los Angeles – for instance – in a recording studio isn’t stimulating. Making Casualties I found more excuses to get in some kind of environment.”
‘Casualties of Cool’ is a chance to switch off from our hyper-accelerated world, its relentless rush of 24/7 communication, and the competing voices that jostle for attention as they threaten to submerge our own. For Townsend, the themes of the record surround what he believes to be a bridge in his career; an acceptance of the artist he is today and embracing the fear of leaving behind what people know of him. “The song ‘The Bridge’ in particular is about transcending this period as opposed to succumbing to the fear and just reverting what I’ve done before,” he explains. “This whole album’s about fear; if you’re afraid of yourself or success it can be comforting to revel in that and let go – this record is like ‘go for it’”.
Driven simply by the desire to see how things unfolded, free of the usual recording contract constraints and subsequent limits on time, it’s apt that Townsend stumbled on a supporting cast of similarly wandering souls, all revelling in their own sense of outsiderdom. The luxuriant vocals of Che Aimee have draped themselves over a previous Townsend release – 2009’s Ki – and so it was perhaps no surprise that the two would find their way back to each other. Keen to keep spontaneity through every process of Casualties… creation, he refused to explain the meanings of the lyrics sent to the singer, while also encouraging her to pen her own for other tracks. “I liked the idea of the concept of the record being rooted in a duality where two people are meeting at a crossroads,” he explains. Recorded by Aimee herself on her laptop, her voice is as important as the shuffling folk that permeates the record, in acting as a glue for the whole thing – her wistful tones hold together constructs so freeform at times they might disintegrate. Like Townsend, drummer Morgan Ågren is a country boy who’s found his career pinning him to the city. Having drummed for everyone from Frank Zappa to Meshuggah’s Fredrik Thordendal – in a 25 year career beginning in his teenhood – the Swede found himself similarly keen for a respite from the relentless productivity that sessioning and professional collaboration required. In keeping with the spirit of the project, Townsend stumbled upon him thanks to a mutual acquaintance. With a remit to simply drum quietly (“I wanted this record to sound like an AM Radio playing in the background”), Ågren’s work over the record anticipates the gradual shifts in mood that shape proceedings, playing with the space of the record and slipping any rhythmical nuances underneath the surface rather than dominating the tone.
The pair got together to record the drum parts at his rural home in Sweden – a happy parallel to Townsend’s own secluded Oregon surroundings. Other guests feature too; Townsend cast back into his past in asking flutist Kat Epple to feature on the record – as a child he was blown away by her playing – while ‘The Bridge’ features a 50-strong Swedish choir, who come together to provide the surging climax of the album. As Townsend would readily admit himself, it’s Aimee and Ågren who complete the ‘Casualties of Cool’, ameliorating the moniker to a positive definition. It’s as a group that they renege on the trends of the music industry and the baggage they’ve amassed within it.
This is a project set on a different plain, with space to breathe and explore unhindered, with an artistic freedom they thought they’d long since lost. “That’s the whole idea of the ‘Casualties of Cool’” comes the simple explanation of a project that – 20 years after his career began – introduces us to the real Devin Townsend.