Devin Townsend is perhaps the very embodiment of the “mad scientist” when it comes to the metal genre. From Ziltoid The Omniscent to his Devin Townsend Quadrilogy, Townsend’s approach to music is less that of a standard album and more of a theatrical experience where each album has a theme, a continuous string that can be followed so as to make the entirety feel like a journey.
And such is the case with The Retinal Circus, Townsend’s new live album, which takes music from the 20+ year history of his work and sets a story behind it, all to the visual and aural delight of a sold out crowd at the Roundhouse in London, England in a special one-night only event.
Now, this retrospective concert has been released and we take a look at it to see if Townsend’s work is as epic as he aimed for of if he strives for the stratosphere only to come crashing and burning to the ground.
The first thing that should be noticed about this setup is the multi-storied stage production, which allows for the “story” to take place both above the group and in the midst of them, creating a dynamic experience where we’re not sure if the band is part of the narration or are themselves characters in the arc.
Secondly, it’s amazing to see how Devin doesn’t so much perform, rather conducting the entire show, engaging with the audience and the stage cast equally. His charm and enthusiasm are incredibly evident and infectious, his joy-filled smiles nearly splitting his face in half. His jokes and commentary mock the somewhat cheesy nature of the event, poking at the absurdity and joining the audience in on the laughter while still being the master of the joke.
Third, the editing of the DVD is aimed at creating an immersive experience for the viewer. There are times when the edits are specifically done to further the narrative rather than just cut from one band member to another. This allows for the viewing experience to be something far more than just a concert; it becomes a captivating journey, each song a chapter in a book that won’t let you put it down.
The concert opens with legendary guitarist Steve Vai (Townsend was Vai’s vocalist on Sex & Religion) offering a monologue that sets up the story of Harold, the main character of The Retinal Circus. Injecting humor through visuals and cheeky commentary, Vai becomes an integral part of the show, appearing very often before a song to explain the meaning of the next track and how it relates to Harold. Also, creepy clowns come out and pantomime to the audience.
Suddenly, the choir, which is broken in half by the drum kit, burst into “Effervescence” and frequent Townsend collaborator Anneke Van Giersbergen comes onto the stage, her glorious voice soaring as our ringmaster, Devin himself, emerges clad in white. While it’s basically impossible to miss, it does need to be stated that the vocal chemistry between Giersbergen and Townsend can only be described as magical. It’s rare that two voices can mesh so well, even with Townsend shifting from soaring opera to vicious growls, and yet they do.
When the band breaks into “Lucky Animals” it becomes wholly obvious the scope and insanity that is in store for the viewer. Half of the choir cast aside their robes to reveal that they are dressed as animals. They begin prancing around stage, many of them sinuously slipping and sliding on their hands and knees, tails and noses twitching. These animals then face capture and are caged during “Planet Of The Apes” by, you probably guessed it, people in ape costumes, a subtle commentary on how evolution seems to come with a sense of superiority and need to control and contain those that are “below us”.
The audience is given more attention in the next track, “Truth”, while the light show is also on full display. The two choir halves take off their robes to show the one half are wearing DTP shirts while the other half are wearing Ziltoid shirts. This causes the two to mock and taunt each other, the beginnings of a battle that explodes into full force in “War”. It is in “War” that the term “musical theater” fully applies. This is where the concert truly cements its place as an event and not just another gig.
I could go on and on through each song but that would ruin the surprises that are in store for you, the viewer. I’ll say that there are more amazing and bewildering visuals and that things only get crazier from there on out. There is a giant inflatable penis, a large vagina that “births” a Ziltoid baby, skeleton dancers, she-devil temptresses, fire breathers, pole dances, silk acrobats, fascinating aliens that have the same back spires as the Xenomorphs from the Alien series, acoustic performances (“Ih Ah” is nothing short of stunning), and so much more. There isn’t a dull moment in the whole DVD.
Audio-wise, the only gripe I have is that there are times where I wished the vocals of each singer were turned up just a bit. I would also have liked there to be a bit more of the audience in the mix, something to make me feel like I was actually there. Visually the show is crisp and the camera angles plentiful.
A short documentary goes over the process of the event, from inception to actual performance. It’s rather amazing how much of the show was done in the 24 hours leading up to doors opening. It’s also a testament to the madness of Townsend but also to the trust that his band and crew have in him. Instead of worrying that it could not have been pulled off, they gave everything, their full energy and more, to make sure that everything would go as planned.
The Final Word: For fans of Devin Townsend, purchasing a copy of this is a no-brainer. However, for people who aren’t that well versed in Townsend’s work, The Retinal Circus is a perfect entry into the world of his music. It showcases his passions, his theatricality, and, yes, his insane genius while being entirely playful and charming.