“It’s a deep record.”
That is the closing statement of Devotion frontman Mark Palm at the close of a short video about the making of Headspace Astronaut, the long-awaited follow up release to Bastard Son of Affluence Blues.
Devotion has had a long, dark journey. Much like outer space, there was no sound for a very long time. But now, the band has come back into orbit. The alternative, guitar driven rock of Devotion has found space and turned inward to explore the inner confines with an other-worldly approach.
If you’re like me, you probably grew attached to the unique voice of Palm in an earlier project, Go It Alone. The Vancouver hardcore band put out several records that were anthemic both in sound and message. That band also evolved over time. Their breakneck speed and harmony, a signature of more than a few hardcore-punk bands over the years, replaced with a much heavier and crushing tone.
It's no wonder that by the time Go It Alone released their final album, Histories, there were more than a few comparisons to Damnation. No problem there, Damnation rules. The sound was a departure, in part, from their earlier work. People grow and so does the art they create.
After the demise of Go It Alone, Palm unleashed Bastard Son of Affluence Blues, the first Devotion full-length recorded in 2008. To put it simply – it rips. A particularly heavy and somewhat dark album. It explored a depth, sonically, that the Go It Alone probe was never meant to facilitate.
Devotion was heavier, thicker. And then, silence.
For reference, between the time that Devotion went into orbit to explore their inner headspace and wrestle with what they found there, the following things happened: I changed majors, graduated from college, got a job, met a girl, got married, stuck around long enough to resent the job, started a blog that has run for over a year-and-a-half with a dozen different contributors leading up to what I’m writing right now.
And that’s just in my life. While I’ve been waiting patiently for the album I thought was coming in 2011. And 2012. And 2013.
But just like the return of a comet, Devotion has come back into orbit and they aren’t alone. They come bearing the gift of a brand new album that will challenge every pre-conception you had for the band, simultaneously affirming every reason you gave yourself to be patient and trust that this album was coming.
Everything about Headspace Astronaut points to careful craftsmanship. Palm and his bandmates created something deep here, just like he stated in the video. All the different guitars, tunings, inspirations and time have produced a sonic gem. Time. So much time.
NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1977. As of September 2013, Voyager 1 was 18.7 billion kilometers from the sun. It is currently in interstellar space, though scientists believe it could be entering the Heliopause within six years from now.
For all the real physical distance that we can experience or quantify, we cannot do so without exploring the limits of our minds and employing our understanding of the information we receive to conceptualize what lies beyond our minds. Headspace Astronaut is your soundtrack for this journey.
Perhaps the best way to acclimate yourself for a long journey is to start with something familiar. Devotion understands the trip they are inviting you to take with them – into the mind – and so they introduce you to this new chapter of Devotion by opening with “Broke Machine.” The song is the closest thing to “old” Devotion you will hear on this entire album. And it is the stepping off point.
In the video produced about this album, Palm lays out a series of guitars that were used to record Headspace Astronaut. Each plays a different role somewhere on the album. One was used for a couple of solos, another stays in standard tuning, another used for particular drop tuning. This kind of meticulous attention to the sonic real estate of Devotion goes largely unnoticed to someone like myself, the casual listener, who understands more about FIFA 16 and Xbox than I will ever know about why it is important to record through a particular pedal, with a particular guitar and so on.
The first step away from the familiar is “Ocean of Grief.” From the tempo of the song to the vocal harmonies, you feel heaviness, but you also feel depth. And you feel comfort, but not your own. Devotion sounds completely at home in this new sonic environment. For you, as your dive into Palm’s “inner space” begins, there is still a clinging to the old.
So, a new twist. The influences of Headspace Astronaut can’t be laid out as easily as past efforts from Palm and friends have been. Simply saying, “This sounds like Damnation and straight edge,” doesn’t cut it. “Cathedral Grove” is a personal favorite it. And it isn’t because I’m getting Go It Alone’s “Nightshift” or Damnation’s “A Better Tomorrow.” No, this is because they draw so heavily on an influence that is so hard to get right – Stone Temple Pilots.
I was a very big Eighteen Visions fan for a very long time. I still love that band and prefer them to most others that have come along since. But, there was a time when their sound shifted rather dramatically. Love it or hate it, it happened. And while there was worship, there was never comfort.
Devotion has found a way to play on a sound familiar and use it to comfort you. They don’t do it to make you passive, they are pulling you deeper in. This journey is far from over. It took them nearly a decade to release Headspace as a follow up to Bastard, you’ll need the full playtime and then over and over and over to really explore what is being laid before you.
For all the homage paid to musicians from bands like Corrosion of Conformity, Pantera, and Jimi Hendrix, there is still a lot of fresh feel on this album. It isn’t highlighted as much as an influence, but that hook in “Cathedral Grove” is unbelievably similar to no less than three Stone Temple Pilot songs. And there are riffs all over the album that call to mind not bands like Down, but more bands like Rage Against the Machine.
By the time this album reaches the middle section with “It Don’t Mean That Much,” we’ve completely left the gravity of what we know behind. Palm hints at a collaborative approach on the songwriting, as each member in the band plays guitar. The song isn’t a complete departure, but it almost seems like this song was written in a different mindset. The “gang vocal” chant of “Hey!” and the decidedly Southern rock groove of this track really stands out as a headbanging good time. When I wrote a note on this track to remember later, I actually typed out “ultra groove.” That track is also the second shortest on the entire album which precedes the atmospheric “Straight to The Bottom.”
There is a heavy amount of the “old” Devotion that pops its head up over and over again, and while this song is much restrained and relies on atmosphere to build, could easily have been the kind of thing that snuck on as the final track of Bastard.
The entire Devotion journey is magnificent, just like starring at a colorized photograph of the Pillars of Creation. You cannot fully appreciate or explain the magnitude of the spatial masterpiece laid out before you, but you know exactly how it makes you feel to try to use your mind to comprehend what your senses are perceiving.
The very 90s alterna-grunge vibes that are easy to try to rely on when explaining the new Devotion record can be explained away. What you are lazy enough to think is just a Down or Pantera riff rip is really something more like COC or RATM. However, “Some Kind of Saint” and “Seeing Through the Eye of My Own Storm” carry some huge 90s sound with them. There is a point in “Seeing…” that sounds like Chris Cornell is throwing vocal harmonies on it. So if that is him or someone channeling that same vibe, well done.
The album closes with the acoustic-opened(!) “Eyes of Eternity.” I did the lazy thing of thinking of the already mentioned artists that appear to have influenced Devotion, but I also added one that I didn’t think of before, Alice In Chains. The way that they play on this album and the atmosphere they generate is unique in a lot of ways, but the similarities are real.
Devotion made us wait a very long time while they explored the depth of the dark recesses of the ever expensive human mind. The wait is worth it, but the depth of this album also requires the listener to explore the depth of their own mind. As the album fades out, the last track fittingly echoes repeatedly the word “eternity.”
by Daniel Coughlin (@xvanwilderx)