It’s all about the colors for Devin Townsend—both in this photo with one of his Framus signature 6-strings and on his new album, Empath, where the mile-wide sonic palette ranges from high-gain guitar tones to meowing kittens.
Photo by Tanya Ghosh

Devin Townsend’s accomplishments are a roadmap of his talent and versatility. He famously sang lead for Steve Vai, blazed paths in extreme metal with Strapping Young Lad, created one of the most endearing storylines in prog-rock history with his alien tale—and 10th studio album—Ziltoid the Omniscient, and proved the depth of his creative well with a steady stream of equally beloved albums by his Devin Townsend Band and Devin Townsend Project. Add in his work in instrument design, production, his acoustic albums, and his stunning fretboard abilities, and it’s easy to wonder if Townsend himself isn’t some kind of omniscient alien of the guitar.

But back in January 2018, Townsend took a break from all of that—right at the height of the Devin Townsend Project’s success. The band’s 2016 album Transcendence was a DTP-fan favorite that charted in 13 countries and even resulted in a tour stop at the Ancient Roman Theater of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, to perform with the State Opera Plovdiv’s orchestra and choir. So why did he put the group on hiatus?

Simply put, Townsend says that the music that was to become his 2019 album, Empath,was more than any rock band could hang with. “The parameters for being in a rock band are limited to what a rock band can achieve,” Townsend explains. “It just had certain limitations—even on a technical front.”

One spin through his new Empath and you’ll agree the album is something no quartet of rockers alone could deliver. You’ll find yourself in awe of the brilliant orchestral arrangements, astounded by Townsend’s ever-increasing vocal range, and dissecting each song’s vast architecture. But Townsend still places his jackhammer riffing, sheer dexterity, and earworm guitar work front and center.

Whether experiencing the anthemic “Spirits Will Collide,” the full-on Rodgers and Hammerstein influence of “Why?,” or the way Townsend blends punishing, Strapping Young Lad-like power with the album’s most mellow moments on the 23-minute “Singularity,” you’ll find his impossibly tight high-gain sound and ethereal clean tones leading the way.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s first single, “Genesis.” Serving as an overture of sorts, “Genesis” is like riding an out-of-control rocket through a soundscape of symphonic blasts, insanely intense death metal, disco, and meowing kittens. Yes, you read that correctly. Meowing kittens. More on that in a bit. Now, separate each of those disparate elements into their own songs, and you have a general idea of what you’re in for on the rest of the album.

But Townsend didn’t reach these expanses alone. In a recording process reminiscent of Steely Dan’s lauded work, he reached out to a large group of artists and players to bring his vision to life. With this dream team—which included YouTube stars Samus Paulicelli and Nathan Navarro, Steve Vai, rock ’n’ roll renaissance man Mike Keneally, metal super-producer Adam “Nolly” Getgood, and even Nickleback’s Chad Kroeger—in place, Townsend had the tools and inspiration he needed to complete his masterpiece.

Throughout Empath, Townsend is chasing the narrative of embracing life fully: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the serene and the violent. You’ll find animal metaphors appearing in the songs and music videos to help illustrate such experiences. But it’s Townsend’s ability to marry transcendent beauty and unrelenting brutality into one fully realized vision that truly drives it all home. He was more than happy to spend time with Premier Guitar unpacking the massive undertaking necessary to create his new artistic statement.

“Metal plays into my process like any other color. It’s an emotional tool in order to articulate heavy emotions.”

What inspired the new direction?
It has been a few albums coming now, to be honest. But one thing that has always been foremost in my mind—when it comes to creating new content—is to follow it where it wants to lead me. By doing that, it takes me to places that are of emotional authenticity. That’s what I’m looking for, more than almost anything.

If the directions that I’m being led are such that, with the amount of compromises I’m going to have to make with the current outfit, I’ll be beating my head against the wall or end up doing it all myself anyway, it ceases to make sense. That’s really what it came down to.

Another huge part of this story are all the people that you had play on the album. Why reach out to so many others to realize your vision?
I think midlife, I got to the point where I didn’t want to compromise. For example, [in the past] I might say, “I really want to get a good choir. But it’s going to be too expensive, so I’ll do it myself.” This time, I was like, “No. Fuck it. Let’s get a good choir.”

When it comes to these players, I really was determined from the very beginning that I wanted to make a statement that allowed me to use it as almost like a “best-of” of new material. To do that with the most uncompromising vision seemed like my path right now.

The guest that really stood out to me was Mike Keneally. What did he bring to Empath?
Mike and I met maybe a year before I started Empath. He was staying with me, and we were writing a bunch of other material, separate from Empath. [Later] he gave me a call and said, “Maybe we should try writing again.” I said, “Well, I’d love to write, but my mind is so much on this [Empath]. But I’d like to show you some of this material.”

TIDBIT: Despite amassing an impressive armada of amps and cabinets, Townsend recorded his guitar DI and then ran the tracks through an Axe-Fx amp and effects processor to nail his desired sounds.

Then, as I started playing it, he got such great ideas. He’s like, “That section would be cool there if you made the bass louder.” Or, “That section there would be really cool if you did this or that.” And because of his freedom with his ideas and the depth of his musicality, I found it really, really fun. It was like I’ve created this music that could act as a playground.He really was responsible for bringing a lot of dynamic things into the individual songs that I was thrilled about. He took the vision, which was there, and the songs, which were there, and he made them better.

Did he play on the album?
He did a couple of melodic things. In “Hear Me,” there’s a thing right before the second chorus where Chad comes in. That was him playing. I told him I wanted to have something that sounded like it was tripping. He got me to sing my idea, and then he transcribed it and turned it into this really cool part.

You’ve always been very forward thinking when it comes to the gear you use. And I know you’ve been using an Axe-Fx recently. Is that what you tracked with?
Well, it’s funny, man. What I did this time is, I decided I was going to go to the best studio in town. We got every amplifier I’ve ever wanted. I’ll rent them, I’ll borrow them, and I’ve got a lot of amplifiers. And I’ll get every cab that I hear is a good cab around town, with all the mics and all the preamps. I’m going to set it up, I’m going to take a full day, I’m going to go through every one of them, and I’m going to get the best guitar sound that I can find.

At the end of it, I had this combination of a Dual Rectifier with a Tube Screamer in front, and then the EVH 5150 III. I had a Bogner, a Soldano, this LAA Custom, Marshalls, and blah, blah, blah. I got a wicked big sound, then tracked the whole album. But I tracked it with a DI.

Then when I tried to incorporate this big sound with all this other crap that I had put on the record, like orchestras, choirs, and synths, it was too big! So I took performances home and re-amped them through the Fractal [Axe-Fx III]. I was able to get the same amplifier models and the same cabinet models, but captured in a way that worked with this massive thing I was creating.

Watch our Rig Rundown with the hilarious Devin Townsend: