Artist Spotlight: Mon dieu, il est Voivod

“There are King Crimson fans that listen to Voivod and think ‘that’s what I’m talkin’ about!’ “ – Dave Grohl

In 1982, MTV showed up in my house. And I started hearing Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and the first few Motley Crue albums, and thought it was fantastic. Then in 1984 I stumbled across an album called Metal Massacre V, which featured a near-Murderers’ Row of soon-to-be-prominent underground metal bands – Overkill, Metal Church, Fates Warning, Hellhammer (the subsequent Celtic Frost), and most importantly for our purposes here today, Voivod.

Storming out of the wilds of Quebec like their Slavic warrior namesakes, they took the world by storm….

….well, alright, I’ll dispense with the hyperbole:

-Jonquiere/Sanguenac, Quebec’s 3rd largest city with a population of 50,000, hardly qualifies as “wilds”_
-surprisingly, “voivod” is an actual word that refers to an actual thing:
-their debut album War and Pain sold 40,000 copies over its first 2 years….which isn’t bad, considering, but hardly earth shattering.

Anyhow, after hearing “Condemned to the Gallows” on MMV, I wanted….no, needed to find out more about this band doing I-don’t-know-what, making this raw, guttural crunching metal music-ish stuff. That led me to their first album, War and Pain

It’s solid mid-80s thrash and the musicianship is rudimentary and not particularly remarkable, but with hindsight you can hear guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour using slightly more dissonant chords and, occasionally, an almost chiming guitar sound, neither of which were typical. Singer (?) Denis “Snake” Belanger has a typical thrash growl/rasp, sounding much like Venom’s Cronos (Venom would also be a great Artist Spotlight, as one of the first “Satanic” bands out there, and are tremendously fun)

Musical limitations aside, Voivod were at least thematically ambitious – drummer Michel “Away” Langevin saw “voivod warriors” mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and wondered what would happen if one of those vampire barbarians woke up in in a post-apocalyptic world. And really, who HASN’T wondered that? Away also has done ALL of Voivod’s art through the band’s career.

On their 2nd, aptly-named album Rrroooaaarrr!!!, not much changed from War and Pain; The Voivod was roaming around creating mayhem, the band became a little tighter and the riffs were heavier and more brutal.

On the other hand, the progress between Rrroooaaarrr!!! and their third album, Killing Technology (concept: Korgull….iiiinnnn spaaaaacccceeee) was tremendous. Piggy’s guitar playing became key, with his dissonant, jazzy/proggy chords giving the band a sound like no other; Snake also matured as a vocalist, going from the typical growl to more of a nasal rasp, and his heavy French Canadian accent further differentiated them.

This is the break point where they went from a fairly run-of-the-mill thrash band into the next level. NOBODY was doing stuff like this…..

….OK, maybe there was a Wisconsin band called Die Kreuzen that Voivod liberally *ahem* borrowed from.

So let’s say no metal band was doing stuff like this. At this point, Voivod said they were more influenced by hardcore punk than metal, but to me it sounds like they were listening to a lot of Die Kreuzen and King Crimson. Which isn’t a crime… it’s more criminal to NOT be listening to those bands.

With their 4th release, Dimension Hatross, Voivod were still mining that sweet spot between thrash and prog. They even released a promo video that got some airplay on Headbanger’s Ball. Again, the band stepped it up – if the first 3 albums were progressions in their musicianship, this one was a jump up in songwriting, with actual hooks and better lyrics; to my ears it also sounds less derivative of their influnces and more sui generis; relatively speaking, this would’ve been their Master of Puppets..

On their next two albums, they broadened their approach….Nothingface and Angel Rat, while still metallic, moved in a more psychedlic, proggy direction, most notably with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” (on which bassist Jean-Michel “Blacky” Theriault shines), and in their video single for “Clouds in my House”…

Image- and sound-wise, you can see them moving away from the metal scene; unfortunately for them, The Seattle Sound swept away all that came before it, no matter if they would have fit in with what the alternative bands of the 90s were doing, or not. Listen to “Clouds in my House” – there’s no reason it couldn’t have been played between Tool and Soundgarden. Equally notable, Nothingface was the band’s major label debut, and the last album in the “Korgull” concept, and Blacky departed after the recording of Angel Rat.

Although AllMusic pooh-poohs their tenth (and final major label) release The Outer Limits, I think it’s their best work. While I can’t argue with anyone who would prefer any of the albums in the run from Killing Technology to Angel Rat, this one veers back to prog/psych influenced metal as opposed to out and out prog/psychedelic, while still featuring the more mature musicianship and songwriting of the later releases.

And so endeth Voivod act 1. Snake departed the band after The Outer Limits, and singer/bassist Eric “E-Force” Forrester (warning – if you thought the band nicknames were stupid before, they get worse, though it’s kinda their thing, and I’ve seen metal bands do dumber stuff) came in to replace him and Blacky, who hadn’t been officially replaced following his departure. They released 2 studio albums with Forrester, Negatron and Phobos, before his acrimonious departure in 2002. Both albums are reasonably well-regarded, with consensus deeming Phobos the better of the two; I had lost interest in the band and wasn’t really following them, so I’ll take the internet’s word for it (though I’ll probably pick up Phobos at some point). The single for “Insect” makes it sound like they went way back to Rrrooaaarrr!!! for the basic sound.

This is getting longish, and while I don’t want to give their latter years the short shrift, I think Voivod has hit that point of “this is what they do” – following Forrester’s departure, original vocalist Snake returned, and bassist Jason “Jasonic” Newsted (I warned you about the nicknames) joined up for the solid eponymous release. I would say it’s definitely solid; slicker songwriting aside, it doesn’t really tread any new ground.

Sadly, in August 2005, Piggy passed away due to colon cancer; the band had enough of his material to finish two more albums, Katorz and Infini, and officially replaced him with Dan “Chewy” Mongrain; there was some bass player churn (Newsted injured his arm, Blacky returned for a couple albums, and was then replaced by Dominique “Rocky” LaRoche), and their last release Target Earth features a revitalized-sounding band.

While they’ve never hit the big time, Voivod has settled into a nice residency playing festivals and touring, and releasing solid-to-great albums, which isn’t a bad place to be for an artist; I don’t believe any of their releases are clunkers, and their is great variety within their catalog; If you want to delve in further:

-prog? Angel Rat and Nothingface are your best bets
-thrash? Killing Technology is a thrash masterpiece, and everything I’ve heard from Phobos sounds like they went back to Rrroooaaarr and redid it with better musicianship
-best overall? I’d recommend Hatross or The Outer Limits