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LIVE REPORT: Devin Townsend/Meshuggah
Tom O'Boyle , May 9th, 2013 11:14

Tom O'Boyle spends an enjoyable Bank Holiday Friday bearing witness to a potent double-billing. Photographs courtesy of Carolina Faruolo

Whilst Londoners took to the roads in their droves to escape the urban sprawl for a precious few days' Bank Holiday grace, it left those of us crawling inch by inch towards Brixton Academy for 'Meshuggah Vs Devin Townsend', a dual headliner heavy metal punch-up, our very own double bass 'Rumble in the Jungle', increasingly frustrated. In the end, Periphery become a casualty of the War of the M4, a memory lost in a haze of municipal smog and a desperate urge to urinate. If it weren't for the traffic they would have served as the perfect, if somewhat polarising, warm-up act for the bout to come, their music representing an amalgamation of the styles of the two headliners. Two records into their career, their music softens Meshuggah’s atonal intricacies by combining them with pop hooks, saccharine choruses and Devin Townsend-inspired multi-layered harmonies. To make Meshuggah's blue print so accessible is to miss the point, but that hasn’t stopped a slew of bands that have followed in their wake in recent years. 'Djent', as the movement has been called, is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Periphery remain a technically proficient, groove-laden guilty pleasure for metal heads too cool to admit that they listen to them on the way to work, perhaps when stuck in traffic.

Meshuggah versus Devin Townsend makes for an interesting concept. Between the two artists they are responsible for the direction many in the prog/tech metal world have followed in their wake. Devin Townsend has gone on record as citing Meshuggah (and Fear Factory) as primary influences in the formation of his now defunct and much-missed former band Strapping Young Lad, with whom he created his heaviest masterpiece Alien in 2005, a fearsomely intense record which channelled Meshuggah’s aesthetic into yet more advanced permutations of technically-twisted rage. At the time Townsend’s drug-addled, troubled genius resulted in perhaps the purest artistic representation of mental illness yet achieved by the human race.

Opening tonight with ‘Swarm’ from last year’s still baffling Koloss, Meshuggah take a little while to warm up, but by the time fan favourite ‘Rational Gaze’ drops they are every bit the well-oiled touring machine, supported by a faultless, long-serving road crew that has every aspect of their performance down pat. The lighting jerks and flashes perfectly in time with the incessant, glorious polyrhythms of drummer Thomas Haake, who despite ensuring that a veritable drum cascade constantly pummels the audience, also maintains a constant 4/4 back beat that forms the linchpin of their undulating discord. If the ever-shifting rhythms of 'Bleed', 'Demiurge' or 'Dancers To A Discordant System' begin to lose you, the reassuringly precise snare and ride provide the key to accessing this inhumane machine. It is, as attested to by a friend as he sways to 'New Millenium Cyanide Christ', quite hypnotically meditative. Despite a sound that occasionally drowns out vocalist Jens Kidman's soulless rasp, Meshuggah take the first round convincingly, leaving the stage after rewarding the gleeful horde at their feet with an encore of 'In Death Is Life/In Death Is Death,' the chillingly atmospheric and explosive centre point of their still underestimated 2005 album/suite Catch Thirtythree.

Meshuggah always will be a hard act to follow, but it's a fact that pales into insignificance when the man that follows them is quite possibly the most beloved in metal. The relationship that Devin Townsend has with his fans is extremely special; his music, whilst perhaps not the most aesthetically or sonically fashionable, has a way of touching people in a deeply personal place. His fans seem to want to thank him for the profound effect his music has on their lives, to express to him the deep-seated emotional identification that his music engenders. The band take to the stage, bedecked in personalised hockey shirts, and as Devin strides to the fore, slightly awkward of demeanour and earnest of expression, all he can do is wave and smile at the adoration his arrival receives. Fans are in for a treat, Devin flanked by ex-Gathering vocalist Anneke Van Giersbergen who has shared vocal duties on two of his recent records, 2009's Addicted! and last year's Epicloud. The honest, powerful clarity of her voice has done much to add to Townsend's never ending quest for the most rousing of harmonies, and as 'Angel' bursts into life the soaring messages of love and positivity it heralds reduces even the burliest and most hirsute of individuals in attendance into gibbering, soppy fan boys, singing along, eyes closed, arms outstretched. It's quite the sight, and a wonderfully positive atmosphere to be part of. The all-out rocking riff of 'More!' follows, consolidating a party atmosphere present at many of his shows, and despite yet more washy sound, one that continues through 'Juular', 'Supercrush!' and 'Kingdom'.

Acknowledging the day's sad news of the passing of Slayer's Jeff Hanneman, Townsend leads the Academy three times over in the now festival ubiquitous clarion call of "Slayer!", a fitting tribute to a man whose music has had doubtless influence on everybody under the roof, not to mention the entire metal scene.

The level of utter adoration Devin receives is something that his UK-based management company have capitalised upon, and in recent years the amount of 'one off' shows he has staged has increased, with special VIP packages that, for a little extra money, allow you to gush over the man himself; something which the Quietus was only too happy to do in the serene settings of the Union Chapel at a one off performance of his Ghost album in 2011. Townsend finished the set and took to the audience to thank the crowd, embracing and thanking everyone but security, and perhaps then even them. The shift from an introspective artist reluctant to tour to a genial everyman has come hand in hand with a stylistic shift in the way the he writes his music. After disbanding Strapping Young Lad in 2007 he seemed tired of the music business, recording Ziltoid The Omniscient, a cathartic rock opera about a coffee-fuelled, record company-manipulated, alienated puppet. He then disappeared. The record is a fan favourite, its sonics laid down a blueprint for the records to follow. 'ZTO' and 'By Your Command' receive the biggest cheers of the night.

When Devin reappeared two years later he was a much healthier, happier man; a mindset which culminated in 2012's Epicloud, a record that translates as a political manifesto of positivity as opposed to the internal struggles of a man desperate to find it, and exemplified by the night's closing song, 'Grace!'. Backed by a forty-strong choir, bellowing to the heavens with outstretched arms, 'Grace! Live! Learn! Love!' are his slogans, plastered in multicolours on the stage's video screens. Whilst the Devin Townsend of 2013 may be in a better place, it has to be said that his output over the last couple of records, particularily 'Addicted!', 'Deconstruction' and 'Epicloud', have adhered to Ziltoid...'s blueprint of bombast, breakdown and operatics a little too slavishly. It used to be the case that a new release was a total surprise to the listener - 'Terria' sounds nothing like 'Accelerated Evolution', for example - and as proved by 'Deadhead', one of the few 'older' songs aired tonight, the introspective, troubled times of Devin's life have made for music that strikes a deeper chord; not that you would want the happiness he has found taken away from him. With Ziltoid 2 on the horizon, one hopes for another scintillating curveball instead of sonic similarity.

Devin Townsend's music is beloved for a very simple reason. It is an unashamedly honest celebration of the best things about being alive. His is a unique and prolific voice in the metal scene, one unafraid to tackle subjects most don't consider to be very 'metal'; often with his tongue in his cheek. His highly influential, innovative mind will deservedly be spoken of with reverence for many years to come. As round two closes in tonight's unique showdown there is no clear winner; Meshuggah's alien angularity captures the audience's minds, and Devin owns their hearts, making them, if you will pardon the rather obvious pun, a devastating one-two combination.