Devin Townsend Project - Ziltoid: Live At The Royal Albert Hall (2015)

In nearly five years of Sorrow Eternal, we have rarely, if ever, taken the task of reviewing a live album of any kind. There are just too many variables at play; production, recording, execution, to name a few. Even the most intricately planned events can fall flat, through no fall of the performer. As such, it's difficult to assess the whole, without taking into account the bits and pieces, however faulty the logic may be. Needless to say, when a live album does cross our desk that raises an eyebrow or two, it's worth mentioning in more than a passing podcast comment. In April, Devin Townsend took his Ziltoid saga on the road, playing a special gig at London's Royal Albert Hall, to the delight of many. The show promised to be a monumental event; the entire Dark Matters album from last year's Z2 set, and a completely "By Request" secondary set. The music alone would have been worth the price of admission. But as the newly released audio/visual set proves, it's more than just music for one of metal's most forward thinkers.

We know Townsend's mind works in ways that are both mysterious and sometimes irrational, and the Ziltoid Saga is proof of that. But where he fails to get due credit is as a performer, a charismatic and well-rounded stage stealer. The first set, encompassing the entire Dark Matters record is a feature film, really, complete with video exposition. But this isn't a choice between showmanship and mechanical execution. Townsend and his entire entourage of musicians and back-up singers deliver the performance of a lifetime. The mix is crisp and clean, but not in a sterile, stainless steal manner. It's stylized and vibrant, something you can further appreciate in video form. Ziltoid calls to the crowd, asking if they feel the groove, and the answer is an unwavering "yes." The live audience finds themselves in the middle of the war on Earth, thanks to massive video monitors and a throne that oversees the entire crowd, where Queen Blattaria, played on this evening by Stolen Babies frontwoman Dominique Lenore Persi, orders her assault. Costumed characters stalk and slink around the stage, as does Townsend himself. His voice, underrated as can be, raises up and soars over the chaos, bolstered by the troop of background singers on risers behind him.

Much like the album itself, the interweaving of music and pageantry is a magical one, creating a spectacle that likes of which you aren't likely to see again on a stage anywhere. As Ziltoid barters for his freedom with Captain Spectacular on the monitors behind, Townsend is crouched before his effects pedals ripping through the central melody.It's not a give and take between sound and screen, but a harmony of the highest order. Even the arrival of Herman, The Planet Smasher is a moment of pure joy, as he resembles a furry face Abbath, in black and white face paint. Imagine the juxtaposition of a crowd, hands in the air, hands covered by a mass of Ziltoid puppets, as Townsend and company shred through song after song with surgical precision. And as the story comes to it's conclusion, Townsend urges the crowd to join in on a rendition of Dimension Z, which they happily do. A sea of hands waves back and forth, as the spot lights illuminate the entire audience, singing in unison, "we've gone." He stands, almost in awe of the entire production, and thanks the crowd for being a part of something other-worldly.

As exhilarating experience as the Ziltoid show could be, the second set, a fully "By Request" collection of tracks, was the crowd pleaser. An online poll was used to form the setlist, with some tracks being rarely heard live cuts. It's stripped down in a certain sense, with the band members back in regular clothes - Townsend himself reappears in a hoodie and jeans - and much of the animation of the background peeled away. But that simplification doesn't extend to the set itself, which sees the band tear the house down in a different, but similarly precise way. It seems like they touch on every corner of the Devin Townsend universe, old and new, and the assortment is beautifully tied together. It also stands as a testament to how enormous and diverse the back catalog truly is, some songs soaked in vocal melodies, while others seem to be controlled chaos. But regardless of which version of the man you crave the most, you are sure to revel in thirteen choice cuts.

One of the biggest takeaways from this album, especially if you watch the performance, is the mood; not of the audience, but of the people on stage. Despite the undeniable stress and strain that goes into putting on a show of this size, Townsend and company appear relaxed and happy. Even more than that, they often appear to be in awe of the people watching them, as if they truly had no idea that the music they've been churning out for the last decade or more had touched that many lives. To see the Royal Albert Hall, full, with every fan on their feet must be a humbling experience. And he handles it with grace and humility. Maybe that's what separates this from the growing list of live records being floated out into the market, and what will give this the replay value that many of it's contemporaries lack. To say The Devin Townsend Project has exceeded even the loftiest expectations wouldn't be fair. They've shattered them in every conceivable way.


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