Review by Jonathan Smith; Live photos by Adam Wills
One of the first bitterly cold nights of the season did not stop Ziltoid the Omniscient, accompanied by Devin Townsend and a handful of opening bands, from recently paying a visit to Toronto’s Opera House. His presence, both as a disembodied voice and a puppet who appeared on the screen above the stage, made sure that the evening was anything but a routine metal performance. It was certainly the only show I’ve ever attended that was presented in co-called “boob-o-phonic” sound, and the only time in my experience a show has opened with a booming voice proclaiming “75% of you are gay and the rest are ugly!”. Such is the level of the humour that is part-and-parcel of a Devin Townsend show.
Anyone familiar with Townsend’s work knows that this is par for the course. He just does not take anything or anyone (much less himself) too seriously (this is, after all, a man whose avatar is often a green phallic puppet). This was more clear than ever during his Toronto performance. Just when his more juvenile antics gave one cause to wonder who is in on his jokes and who is the butt of them (and the blurry line in-between), the self-deprecating but sincere heart that ultimately shines through all of Townsend’s work became clear.
The aptly-named “The Bearded and the Bald” tour featured not only Townsend but a variety of local acts. Extended dinner and spontaneous pre-show drink plans meant that we only witnessed the last of these openers, Ottawa’s Today I Caught The Plague. Their performance felt surprisingly brief given the amount of effort they poured into it, and their level of energy meant that I was never bored. While my unfamiliarity with their work means that I can’t recall a single individual song they played, it was clear that they are a hard-working indie band who seem to like to practice squats on stage. Their sound was a mixture of progressive metal elements; it would take multiple listens to be able to unpack the many layers that make up their songs.
Next we were verbally abused by Ziltoid and subjected to a number of Top 40 dance hits from today and years past. As the stage was being set up, the screen in the background played a montage of photoshop images that featured Townsend’s more ridiculous expressions pasted onto a variety of popular culture figures and a surprising amount of small and hairless animals. Eventually the lights dimmed and Townsend appeared to roaring fanfare, announcing that “I was an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master for years!”. He opened the show with “Truth,” perhaps one of the greatest opening shorts ever recorded, and then moved into “Om.” Next up were a few cuts from Ziltoid The Omniscient, “ZTO” and “By Your Command.” Then came live staple “Life” and an emotional rendition of “Earth Day.” The latter displayed just how much Townsend’s fans get into his songs, and their singing along made that much more of an impact. At one point he began to take things in an unexpectedly more intimate direction, bringing out an acoustic guitar to do a sing-along version of the radio-friendly “Ih-Ah!” from Addicted!. Material from his latest albums, in the form of “Stand” and “Juular,” didn’t appear until near the end of the main set. Throughout the evening, as if to distinguish himself from his more crass Ziltoid persona, Townsend spent a lot of time apologizing for being “dumb” and being unable to engage in intelligent stage banter. Toward the end of the show he seemed to be at his most sincere and open, telling us that “The only posers are those who don’t follow their dreams” and soon after screaming “I fucking love Enya!”.
At the end of the main setlist, Townsend announced “It’s time for the fake encore! You better start booing us until we come back out” The encore was itself almost a short second set; the band tore their way through “Vampiria,” more Ziltoid cuts, and then ended with the expected but always welcome “Deep Peace.” Notably absent from the setlist was any attempt at bringing in songs from the excellent Ghost album, a strange omission given that the band obviously had acoustic instruments with them. Admittedly, it must be difficult to craft a setlist when one has as much of a back catalogue as Devin Townsend, and it was hard to miss certain songs when the ones that were played were so enjoyable.
During the encore, a refrain of “We Are All Puppets” flashed on the big screen. Standing in a packed crowd that seemed completely sucked into Townsend’s performance, it was hard not to think of the ways in which Townsend lays bear, and then proceeds to mock, the act of “being metal” and extreme metal as a musical outlet. If we in the audience are puppets whose strings are manipulated by artists, then Townsend is both puppeteer and lead puppet, a living caricature of the genre who takes such obvious joy in poking fun at both the scene and his own place within it. His performances are both sincere and satirical, and that is what makes them unique.