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Road Reports

Who: Devin Townsend Group, The Ocean
Reggie's, Chicago, USA

"And so, as 2011 draws to a close, Devin Townsend's reinvention is complete. He has revealed himself in Ziltoid, hit the reset with 'Ki', pinpointed obsession on 'Addicted!', dug through the archives with 'Deconstruction', and at last settled himself via 'Ghost'."

On State Street, south of the Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago, Reggie's Rock Club is scant blocks from the waterfront of Lake Michigan. There, on the evening of October 19th, following a gloomy grey day, sunset brought with it the worst weather of this fall. The gales rolling in from the lake made mockeries of awnings, embarrassing photo-ops out of umbrellas, tested the footing and gumption of on-site meteorologists-in-training, and blew out office building windows. Fortunately for us—those who had made the trek to see Devin Townsend's headlining return to Chicago—the entrance to Reggie's was leeward to the prevailing winds. But this provided only a modicum of shelter to the growing number of anxious fans, and by the time doors opened at 8:00 the queue had been growing in the rain for over an hour, stretching past the building's shelter and into the vacant lot between Reggie's and J&J's Fish & Chicken depot.

The weather, no doubt, was foul, but I was actually glad for it. Several recent gigs at Reggie's with light attendance had raised doubts as to whether the venue could draw fans from the North side and suburbs; this evening firmly dispelled them. 25 foot waves and lakeshore flood warnings be damned; the metal faithful were out tonight. Or rather, Devin's faithful, for they are a legion unto themselves. And they packed the place.

Last time Devin Townsend came to town (with TesseracT as openers), he headlined an intimate evening at Lincoln Hall, a newly unveiled 500-odd capacity venue on the north side that rarely caters to metal artists. Since then, Devin has been almost perpetually on tour, both in the States in support of Children of Bodom and in Europe, earning top billing at some festivals and altogether (re)taking the metal world by storm. For this tour—his first since completing the four album cycle that began with 'Ki' and has just ended with 'Ghost'—he brought with him international collective The Ocean, and between the two of them they've rocked mid-sized venues across the nation. Devin has been a bill-topping talent since exploding onto the scene as Steve Vai's vocalist at 21, but in this new decade has reinvented himself once again—and his flock have followed.

The Ocean, then, had the tall order of playing to a house brimming with fans who really weren't there to see The Ocean. Indeed, many of them had never heard the band, or really even heard of the band, but crowded the front row nonetheless. Waiting for Devin, the five members of The Ocean collective would not be fazed, however, and delivered a performance as intense and frighteningly kinetic as the last time I saw them headlining on this very stage three years ago.

The makeup of the band was a little different this time around, and at last appears to have settled into a steady state. Loc Rossetti has become the band's one vocalist and handles the variegated styles—clean croons, hardcore shouts, and a lower register on the verge of growls—with commendable consistency. The clean vocal portions were occasionally hard to follow (and not just for the audience, as Loc would often lean down to his wedge monitors to hear himself) in the swell of percussion and heavy bass, but any subtleties lost through the PA were masked by his assertive stage presence.

The entire band, in fact, was utterly possessed: swirling heads, stabbing arms, instruments chopped about, monitors used as launching pads, etc. The audience, separated from the band only by the height of the stage, was not safe from The Ocean's tumult; Loc twice dove out onto the front rows, where eager hands guided him about and back onto the stage. Mop-headed bassist Louis Jucker also took his turn in the crowd, leaping down with his bass into the front ranks and then tossing the instrument back onto the stage before scrambling back up himself. At times The Ocean's music can be thoughtful, poised, and even delicate, but in concert it achieves an explosive catharsis that destroys the image of aloof prog showmanship and returns it to the sweaty brotherhood of the moshpit.

This group, helmed by guitarist and primary songwriter Robin Staps since its 2000 inception, has all the energy and acrobatics of a high school hardcore show, where the bodies are limber and everyone has everything to prove. Beyond all the arcane arrangements and prehistoric lyrical fare, The Ocean are rooted in a school where every performance is given as if it were the last on earth or sea. (Further tipping their hand, second guitarist Jona Nido wore a Converge belt and warmed up with a couple Kurt Ballou riffs.)

With five LPs and a decade of experience behind him, Robin could understandably be tiring of the tour circuit's demands, but he remains as driven today as ever. After the show, I found a sleepy Louis wandering around the room looking for something to drink (water), and we spoke for a while about the tour, pairing with Devin Townsend, and the band's constant drive to excel, all of which stems from Robin. When he isn't working on The Ocean, Robin also somehow finds time to run a record label, appropriately called Pelagic Records, and even lugs some other bands' merch out on tour with The Ocean. The band's several Stateside tours have helped open the eyes of American fans (their stint with Between the Buried and Me in particular), but they have yet to really achieve the recognition they deserve. And despite the exemplary records in their back catalogue, I think The Ocean's best years are yet to come.

After their 45 minute set, we had about a half-hour to wait before Devin's performance. This time passed rather quickly, in no small part due to Ziltoid Radio churning out such metal staples as 'We Like to Party' by the Vengaboys and Lou Bega's 'Mambo No. 5'. With the projection screen hanging overhead (that during The Ocean had flashed grim black and white footage from various archives), we were also treated to a lengthy collection of Devin's Photoshop chicanery: his contorted face superimposed onto iconic images of Darth Vader, Jaws, Mr. Potato Head, and so forth. When the set finally did begin, Ziltoid himself showed up on screen to deliver a rambling, genitalia-and flatulence-obsessed diatribe. As if the preceding images hadn't been enough, this drove home the reminder that for all his absorbed spiritual musings and protracted introspection, Devin doesn't—and cannot—take himself too seriously.

During this layover, while the audience giggled over one ribald visual after another, some roadies came out to move the wedge monitors and microphone several feet back from the front of the stage. Some might have thought that this was Devin wanting to keep his space, away from the clinging hands of the front rows. But when he finally strode out, clad in his now trademark grey suit and slung with his beastly Peavey 7-string V, he headed straight towards us. Moving the monitors wasn't to keep him away—it was to allow him to get closer. Over the 90+ minutes that his band was on stage, Devin only kept his distance when singing. Otherwise he was as close enough to hug, striding up and down, leaning out into the crowd and choosing individuals to greet, pulling them out of their audience shell and into the moment with him: “Hi, how are you?”, “Guy with the hairy armpits, come on!”, “You! I've been waving at you all night, but you're just standing there. Are you having fun?”

We were, he knew. Carried along with hardly a break for the first half-hour, Devin rolled through his back catalogue and set a euphoric tone for the night that rarely subsided for more than a moment. And while he gallivanted about, making faces, hamming it up with the crowd, his backline kept up a mighty wall. These three were Dave Young, Brian Waddell, and Ryan Van Poederooyen, whose chemistry with Devin comes from nearly a decade of live and studio performances. They are his rocks—steady, soothing but not soporific, faintly solemn—that maintain an impeccable foundation while Devin's pendulum swings between cavorting with fans and revelatory, eyes-shut soloing. Dave, at stage left, handled the backing tracks by simply clicking a button on a laptop that lay open on a rack of gear. Some traditional fans might be a bit aggrieved by the obvious technological support, but Devin's selection of the backing tracks for his live sets is judicious and highly appropriate. The use of keys and ambient effects contribute to a sound that is absolutely massive, but the core is always what we're seeing performed on stage, beginning with the stalwart pulse of Brian's chrome-plated Warwick bass and Ryan's bristling kit. Both Dave and Devin were running their Axe-Fx guitar rigs through the PAs, so it was an ampless performance, but the mix this evening was much better than their last time through at Lincoln Hall.

The setlist ran: 'Truth', 'OM', 'Gaia', 'Seventh Wave', 'Life', 'Kingdom', 'Stand', 'Juular', 'Supercrush', 'Disruptr', 'Colour Your World', 'Bad Devil', and an encore of 'By Your Command' and, of course, 'Deep Peace'. Devin's first real break to chat with the audience came between old and new, and only after 'Kingdom' did he take a moment to mention the recent albums. He also spent some time recounting a dream he'd had about a high school dance that left him feeling very self-conscious about his noodly legs. The two monologues were delivered with a completely extemporaneous flow and met with equally encouraging audience response. Later, once Ziltoid's moment had arrived, an audience offered up a mask of the coffee-loving nerd warlord, and Devin wore it while recounting another unrelated anecdote.

I had not expected his back catalogue to figure so heavily into the rotation—a total of four songs from his latest records and none from 'Ghost'—but really could not complain. Some of the recent material is so towering, ranging from a host of guests to the massive orchestration, that its replication here would have been a distraction. Devin rather chose songs that could be fully represented and maintained the close connection between audience and performer. As fascinating as it would have been to watch 'The Mighty Masturbator' at work, it could easily have become a disengaging spectacle. Instead, we grooved to the backbeat of 'Bad Devil', waved a sea of lighters for the epic solo journey in 'Deep Peace', and joined in a chorus of “It's all going away, now….” Besides, if anyone was disappointed with the setlist we might just have ourselves to blame; after 'Life', Devin remarked, “Don't think we don't read all that Twitter shit.” Which naturally was met with raucous assent, as was just about everything he said that evening. Though many of us blanched when Devin's famed skullet came off and his suit came on, these last two years have been his most productive and adventurous ever. For that crowd at Reggie's, he can do no wrong.

And so, as 2011 draws to a close, Devin Townsend's reinvention is complete. He has revealed himself in Ziltoid, hit the reset with 'Ki', pinpointed obsession on 'Addicted!', dug through the archives with 'Deconstruction', and at last settled himself via 'Ghost'. After 15 years spent chronicling his depression, obsession, and worry, the future is open and (relatively) uncluttered. Deservedly, Devin is relishing the moment. Sitting together on his bus before the show, when I asked him what comes next, he simply smiled and replied, “Just write music.”

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