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Venue: Manchester Academy 2
I can’t remember a time when I’ve heard Abba at a metal gig before. No, I don’t mean those terrible power metal covers of Gimme Gimme Gimme or the kind of jokey, but not actually funny campness of, say Children of Bodom’s reworking of Britney Spears Oops I Did it Again. I mean on the PA in between sets. There’s something kind of heartwarmingly antithetical about seeing a room full of metalheads dance and sing along to stuff like Mambo #5 and All The Single Ladies, to the point where you almost forget that they’re all drug-taking Satanists (they are, aren’t they?). With cheesy pop music blaring out, even before Devin Townsend set foot on stage I had a feeling there was going to be something different and distinctly quirky about the evening. My inkling was confirmed when a large screen to the side of the stage flashed up with a video of Ziltoid dancing to the Vengaboys.
For anyone who’s unfamiliar with Devin Townsend, Ziltoid is a coffee-loving alien overlord (a fictional one, of course) who, on the album Devin Townsend Presents: Ziltoid the Omniscient, attacks Earth after it fails to deliver him a decent cup of coffee. It is, of course, incredibly camp and also welcome in a genre of music that is prone to allowing itself to fall into star-gazing overseriousness or teeth-bearing pretension. The crowd seems to agree, too, giddily laughing at the puppet on screen simultaneously dancing and declaring war on humanity. For a while we’re treated to images of Ziltoid dancing to pop tunes of the past decade until Devin takes the stage wielding his gothic flying V and a giant grin on his face. “The nerdfest is about to begin!” Devin proclaims. The band launches into Addicted!, the title track off The Devin Townsend Project’s latest album and the crowd surges forward and barely lets up the rest of the gig.
For a while the band works its way through some tracks off the same album and some older stuff, until the mood shifts and the tempo slows down. “Now we move into the emotive element…see I told you I was a nerd.” Devin states over the mic. I’m beginning to sense a common theme here – Devin is clearly a heavy metal enthusiast of the highest degree, but also aware of the genre’s Spinal Tap absurdity at times. It’s a bit like listening to death metal whilst watching a sci-fi box set at the same time (the screen behind Devin actually begins showing images of the Horsehead Nebula at one point). Though never does this camp acceptance of nerddom come across as strained or pathetically oversaturated. It’s all done with a realisation that, first and foremost, we’re here to have fun and listen to music, but with a wink and a nod to the reason a lot of us listen to this sort of thing in the first place.
So it’s with this in mind that the tone is set for the gig. “Are you ready for Ziltoid?” Devin screams, as if one should be sufficiently aware that this is all strictly nerdy and once we’re all agreed on that, then we can get into the extreme metal opera about an alien who is “so omniscient, were there to be two omnisciences…I would be both of them.” This was actually one of the highlights of the evening, as being aware of the means by which Ziltoid: The Omniscient was recorded (in Devin’s basement entirely by Devin himself) I was curious to see if it could be pulled off live. Thankfully, The Devin Townsend Project manage to get the entire 11-minute back to back of By Your Command and Ziltodia Attaxx!!! off perfectly, even the particularly tricky Meshuggah-esque guitar riffs.
The other highlight was right at the end, where, in a second encore (“it’s too fucking cold to hang out back there”) the band launches into Bend It Like Bender. There were people calling out for this song all night and its placement right at the very end led me to think for some time that it might not actually make it into the set, which would be a shame, because it’s one of those rare instances where heavy metal and pop music meet successfully. During the first chorus Devin motions for people to join him up on the stage and about 20 fans rush up onto the stage in time to cluster round the mic and sing along with the rest of the crowd. When everything’s finished, Devin goes around, shakes hands and leaves the stage. The whole evening was a spectacular display of musical virtuosity, great songs and geeky buffonery coming from a man clearly in love with his fans and the music he plays. There is simply nobody else in heavy metal doing this kind of thing at the moment. At least, not this well.