I’ve never been one to put stock in positive affirmations. Nothing against them, I just don’t feel benefits from stating things I either at least subconsciously know or don’t fully believe. I don’t speak goodness into the universe, nor do I pray. Inversely, I also don’t believe in ‘borrowing trouble’ because I said something remotely negative or considered a potential unideal outcome. That said, I do have hope. I have dreams. I wish for things to get better, but know that wishes alone won’t deliver us a better world. I’m just here to do what I can to help those in my life, just as they help me. Positivity in general doesn’t factor in much.
This is the philosophy by which Devin Townsend has been working into a new level of appreciation for me, despite my personal opinions and thoughts. For years, even if Devy’s music retained a heavy nature, he’s had a very sunny, positive spin on his lyrics and themes, reflective of the better outlook he’d gained from working on himself as a person, shedding his demons, and acknowledging mental illness he had long suffered from. It came to a head with Empath, which I enthusiastically reviewed a few years ago. Lightwork is the official follow-up to that album despite releasing a couple other projects between then and now, including a number of live albums (including the phenomenal Deconstruction Series #2 – Galactic Quarantine, which shows exactly why he’s one of the best performers our generation has seen).
In a very rare moment, I’m actually talking about a deluxe edition of an album, which pairs Lightwork with a companion of B-sides and demos worthy of not only talking about to begin with, but outright praise. It’s called Nightwork and shines a light (ha?) on the creative process that Devy had with producer/pal Garth Richardson to craft an album so amazing, even its leftovers were worth sharing. Throughout each one, you’ll hear some familiar faces/voices – Ché Aimee Dorval of Casualties of Cool fame, Steve Vai, The Elektra Women’s Choir from Empath, and of course Anneke van Giersbergen, who is a frequent collaborator. Both albums as a result are a journey of life in the last few years, informed by the pandemic and its effects on us, focusing on what’s important, and finding – and maintaining – your center to persevere through it all.
Each and every song on Lightwork, while not made equal, does have a place in the tracklist. Ten songs and just shy of 56 minutes, they take what made Empath (and other works) so enthralling and, generally speaking, strips them back a bit more than you’re probably used to if you’re a fan of Townsend. Yes, grand orchestrations are still abound, a massive soundscape for them to occupy along with more traditional rock fare, and Devy’s own voice, which would fill all of that space itself if it wanted to. It’s arena-ready, manufactured to reach beyond the nosebleeds, outside the ZIP code it’s broadcasting from, on high into the stars like a transmission to other life out there. Lightwork feels like it could be echoing in the craggy hills of Mars.
Take a song like the almost title track “Lightworker” and you see exactly the kind of thing Townsend is going for. It’s a song about love, peace, and unity – not wanting for your needs and coming together. “Call of the Void” is a slow charmer, gentle and grounded in its approach to valuing your own view on things and not give into panic. It also has one of the most charming videos – using footage of trains driving through snowy wilderness, a fixation that Townsend developed while working over the pandemic as escapism – and best hooks on the album:
‘‘Cause when you see the world’s insane reaction
To follow your heart, the worst reaction is to freak out
So don’t you freak out‘
This is what I’m trying to achieve as I type this on election night.
The darker moments are enchanting as well. “Dimensions” is more heavy and aggressive, but still shimmers in the light with its synthy foundation and how it builds up in a way that reminds me of a Pendulum track. A couple tracks employ more of a chanting and repetitive element to lyrics and motions like “Dimensions” or “Heavy Burden” to drive a point home in a mantra-like fashion, but also acknowledge and calm, much like positive affirmations can. In case it wasn’t obvious, Devy was a little less concerned with being cleanly progressive and/or metal with Lightwork (stay tuned for Nightwork, though), instead electing more of a contemporary, ambient, and indie feel at times. It makes sense and is good.