Artist: Devin Townsend & Haken
Venue: The Roundhouse, London
Date: 12 December 2019
Thanks to the unexpected but thoroughly appreciated benevolence of a long-time reader of my website, I found myself heading towards Camden instead of making a beeline for Liverpool Street Station for my normal commute home. As luck had it, I was visiting a client for the day job in the capital so I had plenty of time to grab a beer at The World’s End pub before meeting Martin, my parter-in-crime for the evening ahead. Bedecked in my finest three-piece suit, I looked out of place amongst hardcore metal fans heading downstairs to the Underworld for an evening with Taake. That is, until I pulled out my Dimmu Borgir beanie to one or two smiles from tables nearby. What’s the phrase about judging books?!
The weather was filthy but immediately deep in conversation about all things music after we made our introductions, Martin and I grabbed some food and sauntered towards The Roundhouse. Greeted by a queue the likes of which I’d not experienced for well over a decade, we got another swift beverage at a local pub and then joined the end of the snake. Whether it was the sheer weight of people or the fact that the security quite rightly had to scan our tickets twice, check our bags and frisk us, we were not in situ to greet Haken onto the stage. In fact, they were a good five minutes into their set by the time I clapped eyes on their giant logo adorning the wall behind the sextet.
With only 45 minutes to work with, the setlist was always going to prove a challenge. But when you’re treated to the likes of the quirky ‘hit’ song ‘Cockroach King’, the enchanting ‘Atlas Stone’, the thunderous instrumental ‘Nil By Mouth’ and the wonderfully nostalgic and retro ‘1985’ complete with keytar antics and neon sunglasses, you can hardly grumble. Having watched Haken from the crowd for many years, I can safely say that they simply seem to get better with age. Never ones to put on a half-baked or sloppy performance they are, if anything, tighter and more well-oiled than ever before. Admittedly, these days I am forced to stand further away from the stage as their stock deservedly rises with every new album and tour. But from my relatively distant vantage point, I’m still as impressed and in awe of Haken as ever.
Blessed with a decent sound that got better as the set went on and the generous venue filled around me, there is no doubt in my mind that one of the hottest talents on the prog scene gained a number of new fans tonight. Faced with the reality that Haken no longer belong to me and are no longer a secret of the underground, I could throw my toys out of the pram. Instead, I wish them every success that’s coming their way and wistfully remember the time I interviewed them in their tour van at ProgPower Europe the better part of ten years ago. I’m just glad that I was there at the beginning and can now enjoy a band at the height of their powers, a band probably very capable of headlining a venue like this. If not now, then very soon.
Surrounded by a vast array of talent, Devin strode onto the stage to a hero’s welcome and immediately confronted the elephant in the room: the General Election. ‘It’s a crazy night over here’, he announced with great understatement before thanking the crowd for showing up and promising us a couple of hours of fun and escapism.
After several weeks of being bombarded by an unnerving amount of toxic bile from all sides of the political spectrum on my social media timelines, I was sorely in need of fun and escapism. And do you know what? That’s exactly what we got.
For someone who has had a hard time fully embracing some of the material on Townsend’s most recent release, ‘Empath’, I am a little surprised how much I enjoyed this performance. But then again, I really shouldn’t because Devin is the consummate pro, a person whose positivity, sense of humour and ability to entertain is thoroughly infectious and without question. Tonight he showed us his full repertoire and held us in the palm of his hand from start to finish. And, with a setlist that encompassed everything from his softer, more ambient, pop-sensitive side to his all-out blood-and-thunder ‘Heavy Devy’ alter ego, the music spoke for itself.
On stage with Townsend this evening were none other than an all star cast of guitarists Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa) and Markus Reuter (Stick Men), Haken keyboardist Diego Tejeida, drummer Morgen Agren (Kaipa), ‘Empath’ bassist Nathan Navarro and vocalist/guitarist Che Aimee Dorval, who graced us with her voice on ‘Casualties Of Cool’. Three female backing singers made the stage a carnival of colour, movement and sound, further enhanced by three giant screens that projected a plethora of images to increase the assault on the senses.
The positives of this engrossing and eclectic performance were, frankly, far too numerous but I’d like to pick out a few of the highlights:
Jazz hands from the entire audience, during the chorus of ‘Lucky Animals’ was a delight, as was the ‘beep, beep’ admonishment of the crowd when we failed to be loud enough at one point. Not quite so delightful, albeit very humorous, was the sight of Devin in a tutu, and his request for teddies from the audience to demonstrate his metal credentials tickled me more than it should.
Antics aside, the music itself was incredible with personal favourite ‘Dead Head’ delivered with the kind of energy and power that had me uttering to my sidekick that I could die happy. But whether it was the more metallic tunes or the more mellow ones, such as ‘Coast’ or ‘Sprite’, they were delivered with precision and with a sound clarity that was nothing short of remarkable; I could genuinely hear every instrument, every voice, every beat, and this only served to make the experience even more enjoyable.
What I hadn’t expected however, was to be moved and it is upon this aspect of the show that I wish to conclude. For all the laughs, hi-jinx and smiles, Devin demonstrated that he is one of the most genuine and caring people within the music world. When he says something, you believe it; there’s an incredible sincerity to the Canadian that I knew was there but which I hadn’t expected to witness to quite such an extent.
At one point, he took the time to address the crowd to declare that we should all understand who we are and embrace it, whilst himself professing his love for stuffed toys over martial arts. But it was the last song before the encore that had the biggest impact upon me. The stage cleared and Townsend was joined by Dorval, his three female backing singers and Tejeida to deliver a beautiful acoustic rendition of my favourite track on ‘Empath’, ‘Spirits Will Collide’. A beautiful song in its own right, it was elevated to a whole other level by the stripped-back honesty and purity that it conveyed. Devin dedicated the song to anyone affected by depression and mental health, whether it was through the loss of a loved one or as a sufferer of mental illness themselves. As someone who battles every day with depression and anxiety, the beautiful melodies, the gorgeous singing and the resonant, positive lyrics, I found tears streaming down my cheeks. Wow, I really wasn’t expecting that, I can tell you. But it was the sincerity of Devin Townsend that provided the catalyst for these feelings to emerge – the guy is a gentleman and a genius, and this magical few minutes proved it.
Due to the unique way in which the public transport operates for those living outside the capital, I was unable to remain at the Roundhouse for the encore. However, as I remarked upon my exit, it was the perfect time to leave. Those unexpectedly profound and heart-melting five minutes could not be beaten and this was the memory that I wanted to leave with. And, sitting here a few days later, I still get chills when I remember that moment on a cold and wet Thursday evening in winter 2019.
And the best news of all? I can relive the emotion over and again in the future because the show was recorded for a forthcoming DVD. It’s a blind purchase for me, as it should be for anyone who has even the remotest passing interest in the music of Devin Townsend. Trust me, you’ll not regret it.