kiImagine, if you will, that your joke gets taken for gospel and your testimony is mistaken for a joke. What would that do to you? It’s a question that heavy rocker Devin Townsend has recently come to grips with. Townsend, the explosive frontman for the extreme metal combo Strapping Young Lad had, in years past, balanced that side with his solo projects, ambient work and side combo The Devin Townsend Band. When I say extreme, it isn’t light slang; SYL has produced some of the most incendiary guitar-based music ever committed to disc. Somewhere between the recording stage and the listening stage, however, an important detail constantly was lost upon a segment of the fans: SYL often had that fire-spewing forked tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Meanwhile, in his other outfit, Townsend sang about missing his wife while on the road, feeling somewhat empty in among all the metal insanity and, as a key lyric of his once indicated, “I’m tired of the way I’m feeling every day, and I feel it in my head now.” When asked about these more personal thoughts by the metal press, Townsend sometimes dismissed those songs as “taking a piss” or “rockstar bullshit.” Meanwhile, having exploded the roof off how far metal would go, the SYL fans kept pushing for yet another plateau, unaware of the satire inherent in it. Townsend, toward the end of that band, must have tried to make the point clearer when he sang/screamed, “Fuck you you fucking fuck, hell yeah, we fucking suck!” Many audiences missed the joke.

Townsend disbanded SYL not long after. With the release of his album Ziltoid The Omniscient, he created a metal farce to tell his story, how in fact he is a private person, not a metal lunatic, and how he could very easily be categorized as a “nerd.” And then he disappeared for awhile, making some significant life changes along the way. First, he and his wife had a child. Second, he decided that the booze and weed wasn’t helping him, so he quit. Third, and equally important, his very real love for extreme music changed or, as he has been quoted, “I got tired of all these guys screaming at me all the time.”

Cut to 2009. Townsend has now embarked on a four-CD conceptual unification of sorts, recasting just who the musician is and what he plays. The Devin Townsend Project puts together, under one tent, his love of rock, pop, ambient drone and texture and, yes, occasional bursts of metal. The first disc, Ki, acts as a solid reintroduction. The first hint that we’re into different territory comes right from the start with shimmering, clean tones on the introductory instrumental “A Monday.” With a brief, connective ambient wash of electronic drone out of the way, “Coast” begins with a pure pop-rock sound, again with clean guitar, percolating synth, tasty drums provided by Duris Maxwell and, underneath it all, a building tension. You can remove the man from the drama but you can’t take the drama from the man.

Don’t think that Townsend’s heavy tendencies are completely exorcised, though. Creating these builds, he sets the listener at ease until the moment he chooses to blow the doors off as in “Disruptr” or the hard-centered “Heaven Send.” Co-opting a rockabilly framework, “Trainfire” is a cousin to “Bad Devil” from his Infinity disc, a song that was essentially a big band boogie disguised as hard rock. And while my heart will always find his powerful Terria CD to be some sort of pinnacle, Townsend has never, ever written and recorded a song as beautiful as Ki‘s “Terminal” – If I could set the stage for the reader, the CD came on a particularly bad night for me. I grabbed it and went for a drive. While I immediately gravitated to the disc as a whole, “Terminal” was the song I sank into, repeated on what had to be a twenty-play loop, and found myself suddenly relieved of that day’s burden of anger and animus. I’m not claiming it will do the same for you, I’m only stating it has power enough that it could.

There are some longtime fans who are not going to like Ki. I’ve read some of the reviews, most of which are positive but some have the sting of a person betrayed. How could Devin turn his back on brain-exploding metal? How could he possibly think this is what he’s meant to do? I counter that the artist that decides what he wants to do, even in the face of this strange backlash rejection, is the artist that makes something that will last. Will I miss those insane freakouts of his? Maybe. All I can say is that if Ki is the prelude, I’m more than ready for the next chapter.

Ki is available from Amazon.com.

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