‘Ocean Machine: Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre, Plovdiv’ captures an incredibly special event, that being the Devin Townsend Project’s 20th anniversary celebration of Devin Townsend’s ‘Ocean Machine’ album in Bulgaria. For the momentous event, Townsend played two sets – the first being made up of fan requests for augmentation by the performance of a live orchestra, the Orchestra of Plovdiv State Opera, alongside Townsend and his band; and the second of course being ‘Ocean Machine’ in full.
Townsend is a consummate performer, consistently delivering live shows of very high quality, so to say this event had even more gravitas than most is to make a big statement indeed. Nevertheless, the proof is in the listening to this gargantuan three-CD package (or viewing the Blu-ray).
The performance opens with the ethereal sounds of the enchanting and sombre intro to Truth, as performed by the orchestra. At the same time, the crowd can be heard chanting “Devy, Devy, Devy!” before going absolutely wild at the sound of Townsend and Dave Young’s opening guitar riffs. The heaviness launches with aplomb at the sound of a single beat on Ryan Van Poederooyen’s kick drum, before the pumping riffs and high orchestral parts that are so indicative of Townsend’s sonic identity. It’s immediately obvious that the presence of the Orchestra of Plovdiv State Opera will make this a truly epic, and indeed cinematic experience.
One of the most powerful aspects of Townsend’s performance is his voice, and that is certainly apparent in Stormbending, in which the man clearly shows how his voice has been matched with songstress Anneke van Giersbergen over the years. Whether performing harsh or gloriously clean vocals, Townsend’s voice rings out powerfully over the band and orchestra through this cerebral, somewhat meandering track; while along with Townsend, a backing choir provides further grandeur.
This is followed by a track never before performed live, Om from the ‘Christine’ EP. This track draws heavily on Townsend’s use of choral harmonies, but he rises to the vocal challenge seemingly effortlessly. The mood then shifts to an edge of anxiety with Failure and its deep, powerful bassline courtesy of Brian ‘Beav’ Waddell, while the orchestra augments the sense of threat and oppression. As Townsend’s voice weaves through the music, he alternates between uplifting and projecting a sense of distress with his touch of vibrato. The audience is also treated to an amazing and perfectly placed guitar solo, with elements of Dream Theater in its melodic parts as well as more dissident progressive sounds.
One thing even staunch fans of Townsend might note is that his music can be somewhat homogenous, and there are many tracks in this live album that do fit the sometimes too-recognisable Townsend style. By your Command, from the fan favourite album ‘Ziltoid the Omniscient,’ is one such track. The orchestra does add an extra element to the performance, bringing even more tension to this chapter of Townsend’s epic space opera.
The first disc carries on from there in much the same vein, with one standout moment occurring at the end of Gaia where some of Townsend’s famous banter is captured as he jokes about talking shit instead of remaining classy in deference to the orchestra. The tracks that follow pursue the gentler, more ruminative side of Townsend’s work, with Deadhead and then Canada opening the second disc. These are followed by the standout Bad Devil, the carnivalesque swing track that is one of those to benefit the most from the orchestral treatment with it chunky, cabaret show tune-esque feel.
Another impressive piece is Higher, a meandering and progressive song with plenty of choral voices as well as climactic heaviness and quieter moments. The “by request” section is then rounded out with two slower pieces, A Simple Lullaby and the much beloved Deep Peace.
The third disc then encompasses the entirety of ‘Ocean Machine (Biomech).’ The rendition is glorious right from the distinctive opening riffs, with Townsend’s voice consistently even more resonant than on the original recording, while Waddell’s strong bass presence really highlights the depth of the tracks.
The atmosphere moves from the positive, uplifting rock ‘n’ roll of Life to the fast and recognisable Townsend style of Night. Townsend’s carnivalesque sense of the quirky returns in Hide Nowhere, while Sister and 3 A.M. lend themselves to gentle, cosmic musings. As the show goes on, Townsend’s voice seems only to get stronger with his practically operatic vocals.
The sound becomes bolder again with Voices in the Fan, though it is more groove-oriented than geared to all-out heaviness.
The melodic journey continues through Regulator and Funeral, with a more diverse song manifesting in Bastard. The latter is at times both heavy and chilled out, with pumping riffs but also something lighthearted in its vibe. Progressive, expansive and climactic, the track opens out into a triumphant close.
Unusual for a metal gig, but not unheard of for Townsend, the show closes with two relatively quiet tracks – The Death of Music and Thing Beyond Things. The former utilises minimalistic, almost tribal drumming throughout, along with quirky, almost unsettling samples of a gaggle of voices. Townsend himself is almost sinister in his low, spoken lines before bursting out in glorious, commanding song. This song is a slow build, gradually becoming dense and powerful. By contrast, Thing Beyond Things is purely gentle and reflective, until the one great, agonised scream at the end that closes the show.
Townsend is far from the first metal artist to utilise an orchestra in live performance, though it has been achieved with varying degrees of success – from the triumph of Metallica’s ‘S&M’, to the somewhat less inspiring ‘Score’ by Dream Theater. Townsend’s performance has much more in common with the former, as the orchestra is utilised very effectively, adding to the performance without being overdone. Although the setlist could be criticised for having many songs of a similar flavour, the fans literally did ask for it – and you can’t argue with that.
GET YOUR HANDS ON THE DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT’S ‘OCEAN MACHINE: LIVE AT THE ANCIENT ROMAN THEATRE, PLOVDIV’ FROM OMERCH HERE!