Devin Townsend‘s “Ocean Machine: Biomech” (1997) is nothing short of a huge deal to his fans. When Townsend announced that he would be playing a special by-request show with the DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT in the ancient Roman Theater in Plovdiv with an orchestra, and that they would follow it with “Ocean Machine” in its entirety, fans from the world round scrambled to buy concert and plane tickets to the Bulgaria show. As fans of DTP and Ocean Machine ourselves, we gladly joined them.
While I am known for my love of DTP, I actually have only a passing familiarity with this particular album, having listened to it only a handful of times. However, the songs I know I like immensely (usually the ones they play live), and on a few new listens, I quickly began to see the reason for this album’s popularity. Plus, who doesn’t love an excuse to travel, right?
There seemed to be a lot of confusion and kerfuffle regarding the tickets to this show. For one, there were many complaints online that the e-tickets were not downloading properly, though fortunately they seemed to have gotten that fixed by showtime. As well, the receipts for those who had physical tickets suggested that they should be picked up in Sofia, not Plovdiv, leading to no shortage of panic from some people who didn’t come via the capital. The woman working at the local Eventim-sponsored music shop in Plovdiv also seemed to have no idea how to print tickets on the day of the show, nor any real idea of what was going on in general, in spite of other attendees printing tickets there easily on previous days (she also didn’t speak English). Needless to say, for those who traveled, there was considerable stress about this show.
Nevertheless, the ancient Roman amphitheater was a breathtaking venue. Located on a hill and with many entrances that kept queuing at a minimum, the location was gorgeously historical and allowed everyone present a great view of the stage. Attendees had to rely on luck and early attendance to get a seat up front, as there were no seat numbers within the sections, but regardless of your location you should’ve been able to see the stage.
The show started at 20:30 as the orchestra took the stage and the band followed to uproarious cheering. Townsend came out and started immediately by thanking everyone, including the road crew, organizers, orchestra, conductor, and of course, everyone who came from all over the world. And all over the world indeed – we met people from America, Ireland, Austria, France, Australia, Norway, and more! A quick aside here too – every single person we met at this show was very kind and everyone was amiable to one another; it’s a wonder to be at a place where everyone is so positive and enthusiastic and bound together in fellowship over the love of something. Townsend himself then said that the event was a dream come true, that some of the songs had never been played before, and were we ready to fuck it up?
Townsend also promised throughout the show that he wouldn’t talk too much shit because it’d be painful to go through later in editing for the Bluray, and he actually more or less kept to that, to the surprise of many. He spoke a bit between tracks in the first set, such as to announce “Deadhead” as a song for his wife, “Canada” to be a song about – you guessed it – Canada, and called “Bad Devil” a “swingin’ dance party,” which was entirely true of the crowd, who were captivated for the entire night. Be it rhythmic head nodding or straight up partying, everyone was fully engaged from start to finish.
I couldn’t actually tell you how and where the by-request set was put together, if there was online voting or something else, but in my experience, by-request sets tend to be a bit disappointing. People want to hear the little-heard songs, but usually the masses end up voting for the hits. In that sense, I’d call this set both a big success and a bit of a failure at the same time. On one hand, they played some really unusual stuff like “Om” from the 1998 “Christeen” EP, “Deep Peace” and “Canada” from 2001’s “Terraria,” and “Gaia” and “A Simple Lullaby” from 2006’s “Synchestra.” On the other hand, you can be pretty much everyone at this show had seen their local tour gigs for the “Transcendence“ tour around the world, so playing four songs from that album was a bit of a let-down. However, I will concede that this was by far the best version of “Higher” I’ve heard – I’ve mentioned on the album review and the tour report that I do not much care for that song, but somehow with the addition of the choir and a bit of a looser performance, the song shone in a way that it hadn’t to me before. One other worthy mention is that the fireworks that you can hear on “A Simple Lullaby” on the album were present here as well, and who doesn’t love live fireworks? Townsend even joked that the fireworks used up all of their budget for the next album.
This leads me to another issue with this show, and easily the biggest problem overall. We could not hear the orchestra or the choir pretty much at all throughout the entire show. The sound quality was unbelievable and the lighting was incredible, but sadly, the sound of the band completely overpowered the orchestra to the point where they could barely be heard. We were seated centrally, about halfway up, and I can count on one hand the number of times that I was even aurally aware of the presence of the orchestra: there was a vague hint of strings in “Stormbending” and another small hint in “Failure,” a bit of extra oomph present in “By Your Command,” and then a bit of the choir (possibly just the female half) in “Higher.” I truly hope that was just an issue of location, and that at very least they’re able to balance the sound out in the Bluray, because that was really a bit of a let-down. As well, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t take better advantage of the orchestra. Most bands I’ve seen that use an orchestra allow different moments to spotlight the band or highlight cool parts of the music with the orchestra, but that did not happen in this show. They were simply the backing music and couldn’t even really be heard. A sad waste from where we were seated, unfortunately.
However, after “Deep Peace,” Townsend thanked everyone profusely and promised to be back in 25-30 minutes. In that time, the orchestra cleared out and they rearranged the band, putting Ryan van Poederooyen‘s drum riser in the center. They also brought out a chair for the special guest, John Randahl Harder, known as the bassist on “Ocean Machine: Biomech,” as well as Squid Vicious on “Punky Brüster: Cooked on Phonics” (1996). Regular DTP bassist Beav got to chill and watch the show from the crowd as a result.
While the by-request set with the orchestra didn’t quite live up to the hype, the “Ocean Machine” set easily surpassed my expectations. Live classics like “Seventh Wave,” “Night,” and “Regulator” shattered every earlier version of them I’ve heard with the sheer audio quality of the venue, while “Life” and “The Death of Music” were so heart-wrenchingly beautiful that I wouldn’t be surprised if there were tears in a few eyes in the crowd. Townsend brought out an acoustic guitar to do the short “Sister” on his own, and getting to hear “Bastard” live was a real joy – it instilled an even deeper appreciation of the song into me. The overall performance of the album was done to perfection, and mixed with the gorgeous lights, it was a truly memorable set and it alone was worth the journey overseas.
I have high hopes that the Bluray of this show will potentially surpass the show itself in regard to sound, though I can’t say that making the trip was in any way not worth it. It was a fantastic opportunity to hear some little-heard and lesser-known songs, and while the by-request set could’ve had fewer “Transcendence” songs, “Ocean Machine” was truly an emotional and wonderful experience. I am happy to encourage anyone who has the means to travel for gigs to do so, as the combination of new places and great music has been worth it every time!
5. By Your Command
9. Bad Devil
11. A Simple Lullaby
12. Deep Peace
Ocean Machine set
13. Seventh Wave
16. Hide Nowhere
18. 3 a.m.
19. Voices in the Fan
24. The Death of Music
25. Things Beyond Things
Written by Bear Wiseman