Only Half There – Devin Townsend: A Review

Date Finished: July 12th 2017

One day, in early 2015, YouTube just happened to randomly recommend me something called Casualties of Cool. I became enraptured with this ethereal folk sound and resolved to find more of the musician’s work. Casualties of Cool, it turned out, was (so far) a one off, by a Canadian prog musician called Devin Townsend in collaboration with Ché Aimee Dorval. I feverishly began to listen to his other albums, constantly hunting, discovering and downloading. There was so much to his work, and so much of it: complex yet simple, honest and relatable, serious yet fun. The albums transcended genre, with his work spanning extreme metal, prog, folk, new age and always expressed with an irrepressible sense of theatre.

The man himself proved just as interesting as his music. Devin Townsend is an awkward, slightly gangling, infinitely curious and spiritual guy. One minute he’ll be philosophising about how his relationship with music is tied up with his identity and is ultimately an expression of who he is at a particular time – a therapy of a sort, which defines him as much as he defines it, the next he’s posting pictures of Instagram of his underwear around his knees as he takes a dump in a Swedish toilet. He’s a weird person, and weird people are by far the most interesting.

He’s such a force of music that he’s transformed the way I find new music, and has been partly responsible for introducing me to such artists as Che Aimee DorvalThe GatheringDavid Maxim Micic, Tycho and, somewhat improbably, Kendrick Lamar.

I know I’m gushing but oh well. It amazes me that Devin’s music has only been in my life for a little over two years, but with 24 albums to his name, spanning a range of styles, monikers and projects, his work has redefined my relationship with music and has proved hugely influential for me. Naturally, when I heard he was writing a book, I was on that pre-order list in a flash.

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It arrived in good time, and then sat on the shelves. I felt an irrational trepidation in picking it up. I didn’t want to start and finish it too soon, I was worried it wouldn’t be as good as I hoped, and I wanted to read it at a time that felt right, when I could dedicate myself to it. That time eventually came in July, and I began to immerse myself in the mad world of this weird Canadian guitar player.

I’ve found in the past that biographies can be somewhat overindulgent in regaling childhood memories. Brian Blessed’s had the advantage of being about an absolutely insane child, but nonetheless did go on a bit, and I was unimpressed to find the first volume of Dawkins’ biography was focused entirely on the somewhat uninteresting first eighteen years of his life. Even when authors skim over their childhood, it’s often the dullest part of the book.

It’s a welcome change then to find the childhood portion of Devin’s book is faultlessly interesting. Partly it’s down to his honesty – I can actually relate to the life and times of young Townsend because he looks upon his upbringing with a mixture of embarrassment, nostalgia and self-analysis, and partly down to how relevant his upbringing is to his later career. He talks reverentially about the music that inspired him, and his hit-and-miss attempts to dive into the various mad projects which he still embroils himself in to this day.

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After this, he goes onto his first steps into the music world, quickly culminating in him graduating to singer for Steve Vai, an understandably draining and surreal experience for a nineteen year old with little life experience. Still, there’s some great anecdotes from this time including a hysterical incident with a fire extinguisher on-stage in Germany. From here he worked as a touring guitarist with famously dysfunctional band The Wildhearts. This coupled with his failures to get his own solo work off the ground made for a somewhat angry and confused man.

From here, Dev sheds light on his immersion into drugs and alcohol and the behemoth that was Strapping Young Lad. In traditionally analytical fashion, he lays bare the personal, musical and existential troubles he was having and links them directly to his output and process. It’s intriguing to read, and adds another dimension to the music.

“You attract the lessons you need most, and I guess some of the greatest teachers I’ve had came in the form of nemesis.”

This era of drugs and madness continues in his early solo work too, culminating in Infinity – a great album. Dev expounds on his troubles and ends up taking us to a quite revealing and personal place in recounting the enormous strains that his addiction put on his work life, his relationships and his mental health. There’s a value in that sort of honesty, and it’s something often missing from autobiographies which can often result in some arrogant ego-wank. Not that Dev doesn’t have an ego, but he’s at least aware of it.

The retelling, much like Devin in interviews, is somewhat stream-of-consciousness, running down rabbit holes of self-analysis, retreading years in terms of different projects and events. There’s a lot to cover, and when you consider that this is a man who’s worked on/with over 40 different albums (of his own and those of others) over a 20 year career that’s a hell of a lot of material to get down. Dev manages to separate those stories into something approaching intersecting chronological tales, and it’s fair to say that he does an admirable job of writing the book in about as logical a way as such an illogical career could be written.

Obviously, tour stories, Dev’s characteristic philosophical ramblings, and discussion of his albums is a given, but there are some unexpected revelations beyond these biographical mainstays. One of the later chapters details Dev’s experience with touring and press, and he goes into some very honest detail about what the costs and wages of his business are – something you wouldn’t hear from a rich megastar; he talks candidly about his attitude towards live shows and how tiring it can be, whilst still wanting to go out and give it his all for the audience; on occasion, he offers a glimpse into his home life, though one can tell he’s trying to keep his personal life out of the book unless it’s directly relevant to his career; he offers touching and honest tributes to those he’s worked with over the years, and looks at disagreements and falling outs he’s had with others with an open mind and sense of responsibility. It all amounts to a work with far more dimensions than your average autobiography, layered, quirky and honest, much like his music.

“To have your identity so heavily invested in what you do, or what you perceive you do. is a one-way ticket to self-loathing. All that stuff fades and you’re left alone, feeling foolish.”

Of course, to read a book by a musician is so much more than reading. It’s a multi-sensory experience, composed of a continuous list of music recommendations, other influential material, and new ways of viewing songs you were already connected to. Devin constantly drops the names of artists that he liked and who inspired him: DeathLed ZeppelinSoundgardenEnyaGodfleshQueensrÿche… and countless others. Then there’s the bands he’s been in: from his early band projects Grey Skies and Caustic Thoughts to his early work singing for Steve Vai and touring with The Wildhearts, and then there’s the bands he’s produced for, including: SoilworkLamb of GodDarkest HourMisery SignalsBleeding Through… and finally there’s his own projects: Strapping Young LadThe Devin Townsend BandThe Devin Townsend Project and Casualties of Cool. That’s a hell of a lot of music to process, and it would be impossible to listen to it all. But, as well as revisiting some old favourites in Dev’s canon, I also made forays into unknown territory.

Starting with Steve Vai’s Sex & Religion, Dev’s first move into the big leagues, I concluded I’m not all that keen on Steve Vai. But the impact of the record and experience upon Dev’s own style is undeniable; the vocal tracking, the slightly muffled production and the snappy bass tone all call forth his early work. After that, I tried The Wildhearts album Endless, Nameless which Dev was involved with as a touring guitarist. Their music is as nuts as they are. At times reminiscent of the brit-rock style of Oasis, before launching into dissonant punky cacophony, and in this one can hear some of the sensibility that would come to underlie Strapping Young Lad. It’s intriguing to look at these projects Dev was involved in and trace how they affected his own style.

In terms of his produced work, I was familiar with Lamb of God and Soilwork, so I started from a place of obscurity, with Sight & Sounds, and didn’t regret that decision at all. Like a late noughties evolution of Story of the Year, early ThriceSaosinSights & Sounds propelled me back to a sound I’d long since left behind, but an evolution thereof that was new and exciting. I’m sure I’ll keep discovering new things as a result of Only Half There long after I finish it.

In Dev’s traditionally excessive manner, this isn’t just a book. Only Half There comes with a CD entitled Iceland, a selection of acoustic covers recorded in the eponymous country, including a gorgeous version of Funeral, a surprise appearance from firm-favourite Deadhead and a wonderfully melodic rendition of Solar Winds. It’s a great little addition to an already wonderful book, and is contained within a little case attached to the front endpapers.

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Published by Rocket 88, an indie publisher of high quality books, mostly related to rock music, Only Half There is a beautiful physical object: sublime quality, a ribbon bookmark, gorgeous cover art, high quality photos, gorgeous endpapers. It’s a lovingly crafted work, and I hope Rocket 88 end up releasing more books by more of my favourite musicians, because they truly know and care about what they’re making.

There wasn’t really any chance that I wasn’t going to love a rather expensive book from my favourite musician of all time, but Only Half There really goes above and beyond your average autobiography. It’s a brutally honest, comprehensive, analytical, funny, fascinating and humble journey through the career of one of the most compellingly bizarre auteurs to hit the modern music world. The book itself is a gorgeous object, lovingly crafted and detailed, the CD with it is a wonderful little addition perfect for a rainy summer day, and the content somehow manages to exceed the high expectations that I’ve come to have of an artist who always knocks it out the park. It’s a book I know I can revisit, not as some great work of literature or even an especially good book, but as a companion to the music I love and that means so much to me. It’s a sentimental sort of value that the work came preloaded with and if that sounds biased, well I’m biased.

9/10 

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