One of the first things to strike this reviewer, on hearing this audio recording of the Devin Townsend Project, is how much of the overall experience is lost without visual accompaniment. Recorded live, in October 2012 at The Roundhouse in London, at a concert that was simultaneously broadcast online and featured circus performers, puppets, fire breathers, pole dancers, a choir and a giant vagina and inflatable penis, all narrated by Steve Vai, there is no doubt that this was a performance that had to be seen to be believed. There is a palpable sense throughout that there is something going on onstage that we the listeners are not a party to, but leaving that potential disappointment aside “The Retinal Circus” is essentially a musical utilising Devin Townsend’s material over the years. But this is in no way a simple “Best Of” project. “It’s a musical, how gay can you get? …Right?” he declares during a thunderous version of “Planet of the Apes”. This is precisely the right way to approach this set. “It was an absurd project to start. But it was an even more absurd project to finish”.
Apparently conceived over a year and rehearsed in one and a half days, “The Retinal Circus” is “a story about a young man who goes to sleep and through characters dreams and the emotional metaphors that climax into the realisation that life is all about relationships”. As the journey begins with “Effervescent/True North”, the songs narrate the saga with equal part humour and sincerity. “Lucky Animals” features a beautifully catchy sing-a-long chorus that bounces along taking the willing riders along with it. This is grandeur theatrics that, in the hands of any other artist, could potentially be an embarrassment, but in the hands of Devin Townsend is a glorious occasion. “Planet Smasher” is dark and severe but still maintains a tongue in cheek edge and helps illustrate the breadth and depth of Townsend’s vocal ability.
There are some stunning performances cherry picked from a variety of sources throughout Townsend’s catalogue. “Lucky Animals”, “Kingdom” and “Grace” from the more recent “Epicloud” are boisterous in performance, whilst live versions of “The Greys” and “Colour Your World” from his “Ziltoid the Omniscient” project are surely a treat for listeners familiar with his work. The “Infinity” album is well represented by “Soul Driven”, “Truth”, “War” and “Colonial Boy”, with “War” providing evidence again, if it were needed, that Devin Townsend can pull off an unruly good time song with assurance. The atmosphere is given depth however with the inclusion of songs of a more affectionate nature such as “Ih-Ah!” from the “Addicted” album. There are a number of performers who will be familiar to the devotee, Anneke Van Giersbergen is a Devin Townsend Project regular whilst Strapping Young Lad’s Jed Simon takes the stage in the second half of the show.
The sound quality is reassuringly blurred in places, which gives this release a sense of authenticity and passion. Rather than a clinically sterile recording, we have a carnival atmosphere which is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face somewhere along its’ journey, and possibly inspire an investigation of the DVD releases. In an era where footage from a performance such as this is widely available online in a variety of formats and qualities, a release such as this is vital in capturing what a sumptuous performer Devin Townsend is in a number of disparate areas. Devin Townsend most certainly is, the consummate performer.