Canadian maverick Devin Townsend has released a five-part mini-documentary entitled Making Of The Puzzle via Youtube. Each episode runs approximately six to seven minutes long and is invaluable to understanding what this unique album is all about.
Devin Townsend: The Puzzle / Snuggles (HevyDevy Records)
Release Date: 3 December 2021
Words: Robert Adams
Devin has stated that The Puzzle is not the follow up to Empath. That will be the Lightwork album, which he is finishing up at the time of writing this review, which will be released via Inside Out / Sony during the first quarter of 2022. Instead, he describes The Puzzle as a stopgap multimedia project.
We have to go back to April 2020 and the beginning of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic for this release. Devin was one of many artists forced to cut short a tour due to lockdown, meaning he had to re-evaluate his place in the music business. Like many others, he decided to take to the internet and perform a series of live stream gigs. The first three Quarantine Concerts he performed, he donated all the proceeds to healthcare charities in Canada, New York, and the UK’s NHS.
An ongoing podcast series came next via YouTube, where Devin looked back on his catalogue of albums and told the stories of their creation, writing, recording and personal memories of that particular time. I can’t recommend these higher to anyone that has even a remote interest in music, creativity or humour.
Devin also wrote ambient music as the background for these podcasts, and they were also released as stand-alone musical pieces named Guitar Improvisation #1, #2 and #3. Ambient music was something that Devin has always been drawn to, and during the lockdown at the start of the pandemic, it was this freeform and abstract style of music that made the most sense to him.
While recording what was to become Guitar Improvisation #4, Townsend found that the material he produced had taken a darker turn. Realising that what he was actually doing was musically representing his thoughts, fears and anxieties caused by the pandemic, a different idea came to him. The Puzzle had taken its first tentative steps.
Devin contacted a few of his close friends and asked if they wanted to contribute to this project, with his only instruction being “just play whatever you want.”
As the files started to build up on his hard drive, Townsend contacted his artist friend Travis Smith, who he collaborated with for artwork used in the Empath box set, to see if he would be interested in creating some abstract images based on the music already recorded. The music was sent to Smith, and twelve abstract images came back.
Devin then examined the images, using tight close-ups and found he started to see images within the images. A process he likened to cloud watching, where you see definable shapes in cloud formations. Devin started to see characters in the images, and a story arc gestated.
What was originally planned to be a single disc release with a 2-page insert was suddenly becoming a different beast altogether. The snowball at the top of the mountain had started, its descent, gaining momentum and size as it went. At this point, Townsend contacted his label – Inside Out / Sony – to explain to them what he was working on. They politely passed on releasing this project, stating that they were looking at releasing a new Devin Townsend album during the first quarter of 2022.
They gave permission for Devin to self-release this ambient project via his Hevy Devy label. This gave complete artistic control to Townsend, with no one to answer to other than himself. “It was the best result I could have wished for,” says Townsend.
With a cast of around 60 musicians and singers involved in the music of The Puzzle, the task of editing the multitude of files was a mammoth undertaking. When The Puzzle was completed, Townsend realised it was ultra-dark and chaotic and there needed to be a respite to the chaos.
Snuggles is the yang to The Puzzle’s yin. It was created to give a sense of hope and comfort, and Townsend says of it, “it’s a piece that’s designed to be played in the background as you carry on with whatever you’re doing. It’s a relief from the chaos of The Puzzle”.
The Puzzle project ended up being two avant-garde / ambient pieces of music, a graphic novel, two films, a written novel, soft toys, visualisers and a collection of four character models. It’s a truly incredible achievement.
For review purposes, we were given just the music and some images. Given that’s how the project started in the first place, that makes sense to me.
“I know that The Puzzle won’t be for everyone, and I accept that,” says Townsend. “If you’re waiting for the follow up to Empath, then that is Lightwork. An album of proper songs that I am super proud of that couldn’t have been made had I not done The Puzzle first”.
After I listened to The Puzzle for the first time, I was overwhelmed and confused. It’s a schizophrenic barrage of sound, chaos, light and shade and leaves you with a definite sense of unease. I knew beforehand that both The Puzzle and Snuggles were ambient albums, but I really wasn’t prepared for how The Puzzle made me feel. Music is a highly emotive art form. A great song can transport the listener to a different time or place and make you happy or sad. Classical composers did the same thing without lyrics, just the power of the music.
I chose to listen to The Puzzle and Snuggles as two single pieces of music. Yes, both albums have track listings, but as there are no songs in the conventional sense of the word, I used the track listings as a guide to what emotions were being represented in the music at that particular point.
For example, one track listing on The Puzzle is titled Anxiety In Pyjamas which instantly creates an image in your mind. The music is a continuation or soundtrack to that self-made image.
The Puzzle is supposed to leave the listener uneasy or confused, as that’s exactly how the pandemic and lockdown made Devin Townsend feel. What he has done, along with his 60 collaborators, is transfer those feelings and emotions into a soundtrack, which is just a remarkable achievement.
Snuggles is just beautiful and comforting right from the start and is a very necessary antidote to the overwhelming nature of The Puzzle. While there are vocals sprinkled throughout both albums, the voices are used as musical instruments to add a different colour and texture to proceedings.
Yes, the spoken or sung words are important but not as much as the effect of hearing a voice within the music.
Devin is 100% correct in saying that The Puzzle isn’t for everyone, but if you should choose to immerse yourself into this unique musical project, then the rewards are massive.
I would also go out on a limb and state that The Puzzle is Devin Townsend’s crowning achievement – to date. It’s nothing short of spectacular.
The Puzzle can be ordered from devintownsendshop.com