“I think the love of playing music was always a big part of Piggy’s meticulous work,” muses Voivod vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger via email, when asked about his bandmate Denis “Piggy” D’Amour, who passed away in August 2005. “He was always productive even in the last days. Whatever he did I consider it as a gift from God. I don’t know if he knew or felt that something bad was about to happen, but one thing was for sure, he was a pro ‘til the end.”
An understatement, if there ever was one. While undergoing treatment for colon cancer last year and his band forced to take a hiatus from recording, the innovative, highly gifted guitarist not only meticulously recorded the guitar tracks for Voivod’s 11th studio album on his own, but he also put together a massive computer archive of demo tracks to be used however his bandmates wished, material that could be used for subsequent albums. Mere days before he passed away, D’Amour told drummer Michel “Away” Langevin about the recordings, and several months later, after dealing with the tragic loss of their good friend, Langevin, Belanger, and bassist Jason Newsted (ex-Metallica) headed back into the studio to try to piece together an album using the remaining guitar tracks. Fans had every right to be excited about a new Voivod disc, but nobody expected it to be its best album since 1989. In a twist of bittersweet irony, nearly a year after the death of D’Amour, one of the most irreplaceable guitarists in metal history, the music of Voivod sounds more alive than ever.
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With the release of Katorz (a play on the French word for “14”, with this being the band’s 14th release overall), Voivod has managed to fully recapture the feel of the music from its heyday while at the same time continuing where its exuberant 2003 self-titled album left off. The progressive rock nature of Voivod is as prevalent as it’s ever been, but this time around, a cool groove element dominates the album, coexisting neatly alongside the more adventurous aspects without compromising the band’s signature sound. The perfect description of the album comes courtesy of Belanger, whose off-handed phrase “complex simplicity” suits Katorz to a tee.
Although the last Voivod album Glen Robinson produced was the 1989 masterpiece Nothingface, according to Belanger, he never was completely out of the band’s radar over the years; as it turns out, Robinson was the perfect fit for Katorz. “Glen is a good friend. Since Nothingface, we always kept an eye on him, but different schedules and other opportunities made it difficult. I worked with him on Probot. For vocals he has always been my reference, and for Voivod, he always knew what to do. He really wanted to be involved with Katorz, even before Piggy was ill and then especially with all the circumstances that transpired since.”
On the album, D’Amour’s riffs are as searing and oddly-tuned as ever, alternating from the pummeling hard rock of “The X-Stream” to psychedelic-tinged flourishes that permeate the entire record to the bizarre post-punk feel of “Silly Clones” to that trademark, lurching sound of his that always begs the adjective, “Voivodian”. In spite of the fact that the guitar tracks are so impeccably performed, it took some work to get the tone just right, as D’Amour’s recordings needed to be re-amplified to capture the level of power needed for such a record. “Glen used a Krank amp to boost up the guitars. It gave more power with a crisp sound,” Belanger says. “The original recordings were good as they were. In fact it’s the same thing, it just sounds bigger.”
Once the guitars were given more muscle, another hurdle presented itself. For a band used to recording the bass and drum tracks first, the surviving members were forced to record their instrumental tracks around the existing guitar tracks, which made for an immense undertaking, especially in Langevin’s case. “It was a big challenge for Michel when he had to redo the drums tracks,” says Belanger, adding, “He really had to be focused on timing as he was following the guitar tracks. The hardest part of this was more about the emotional dimension.”
Directly or not, the unusual circumstances surrounding the recording process seem to have led to an interesting change in Langevin’s drumming style. Long regarded as one of the most precise drummers in metal and for more then two decades the perfect foil to D’Amour’s idiosyncratic mastery, Langevin conceives beats that are slightly looser than usual on Katorz, boasting a jazz-like swing that allows the music to breathe even more. Yet all the while, the percussion is a quintessential Langevin performance, intense and full-sounding, yet laid-back to the point of bordering on languid. The propulsive intricacy, yet startling economy of opening cut “The Getaway” is all the proof one needs of Langevin’s continued expertise.
Over the years, Voivod has come a long way in the lyric-writing department. Snake’s command of the English language on the band’s early ‘80s albums was inconsistent at best (yielding such surreal lines as, “Go shit! I am not a fish”), but just as the band’s music went through a startling transformation on the earth-shattering triumvirate of Killing Technology (1986), Dimension Hatross (1988), and Nothingface (1989), so did the lyrics, which brilliantly combined sci-fi elements with more personal topics: the alarming cancer rate in their factory hometown of Jonquiere, Quebec (“Pre-Ignition”); Chernobyl and the Challenger explosion on “Killing Technology”. On Katorz, Belanger downplays the fantasy elements in favor of a considerably more direct approach, while retaining his still-distinctive wordplay.
“It’s about the present time and the present situation; as War and Pain was about nuclear conflicts, Katorz is more about the emergency of the environmental issues and the quest for oil and money,” he says. The sudden shift of the Canadian political climate from the progressive-minded Liberal Party to Kyoto-quashing, Bush-kowtowing Conservatives, led by new Prime Minister Steven Harper, is another source of inspiration to Belanger: “It’s quite ironic that as Bush [looses] cred on the war effort, we are now part of this mess. Harper looks like Bush’s puppet. Since Harper is the Conservative Prime Minister, that’s exactly what we’re doing, following the Bush administration. So it certainly influences our regards of the world.”
A good example of Voivod’s more blunt approach to political subjects can be found in the mid-tempo stomper “Odds & Frauds”, in which, over a tremendously contagious, melodic riff by D’Amour, Belanger eschews metaphor completely, letting the bile rise to the surface, spouting, “Your vote is for those who take your money / Your money is for those who make great party / Making cheers and smile for TV / And not even ashamed.” Asked whether the song was partially inspired by the Canadian Liberal sponsorship scandal (in which public funds were misused by the former Liberal government), Belanger replies, “The sponsorship scandal certainly triggered a lot of rage, but it could be related to other classic scams, like [the] ‘Food for oil’ program, Enron, the situation in Argentina where the people woke up one morning with no more money in their bank accounts.”
Social commentary meshes with the surreal on “Mr. Clean”, which is underscored perfectly by D’Amour’s inspired, screeching, atonal solo break. “In ‘Mr. Clean’ I portrayed myself as an outcast who is looking at this new world,” says Belanger. “I feel like today’s youngsters seem to follow what they’ve been told. There’s no rebellion of any kind. They accept their fate constantly, focus on themselves or on futile objects that connect them together to comfort their feelings of insecurity. It’s a scary story, but yeah, we’re pretty much there.”
“After All” ranks as one of Voivod’s finest songs to date. Written well before D’Amour became sick, Belanger contemplates his own mortality while mentioning the 2002 death and subsequent commercialization of Joey Ramone (“Still got holes on my knees / But I won’t buy the figurine”), and quoting Iggy Pop’s 1988 tune “Easy Rider” (“I want to find myself in you / You wanna find yourself too”). “[Ramone’s death] affected me a lot. I took for granted that Joey will live forever. ‘Easy Rider’ was a favorite song of Piggy’s and [mine], we used to crank that song in the bus…it’s weird having all these connections together, ‘After All’.”
Interspersed throughout the album are nifty, moody little between-song segues, droning sounds resembling a theremin on a ‘50s sci-fi soundtrack; in other words, something well-suited for a Voivod record. “That’s Away’s idea,” says Belanger. “I think it’s cool and it gives a sensation of a journey or a voyage. Away and [Montreal composer/producer] Ramachandra Borcar did a good job on these. They were built around Piggy’s acoustic bits we found on his laptop. They were the last guitar bits he recorded.”
Katorz concludes on a stirring note with the ambitious “Polaroids”, a song that may be short in length, but is truly epic in scope. On it, Voivod revisits the churning, mechanical, progressive sounds of the Dimension Hatross/Nothingface era, Langevin and Newsted forming a punishing rhythm section as D’Amour unleashes wave after wave of his slightly off-kilter chords. In what is sure to be a treat for longtime fans, Snake’s lyrics return to the fantasy setting of Morgoth, a concept originally mentioned on their first three albums. The placement of “Polaroids” at the end of the album was intentional, according to Belanger, who hints at a follow-up album that could potentially top this one. “‘Polaroids’ is for me the link that joins both albums together. It is a good indication of what’s to come. [The follow-up is] pretty much in the same direction but, different…I mean, these unreleased songs are from the same period. So it’s the same vibe and soul, but the approach is different and sometimes surprising.”
You can’t just replace a musician as valuable and formidable as D’Amour on the spot, but while Belanger hasn’t ruled out touring in future years, 2006 will still be a busy one for Voivod. Although Newsted will spend much of 2006 preoccupied with his pre-fab reality show band Supernova (“Jason is all about challenge and fun,” states Belanger), he’s still committed to the future of Voivod. Documentarian Sam Dunn, the man responsible for the excellent film Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, is currently putting together a documentary about D’Amour’s life and the making of Katorz. And in a move that will have the loyal Iron Gang ecstatic, the majority of the band’s discography will be remastered and reissued by both The End and Century Media Records, a project that is long overdue.
After enduring the toughest year of their lives, the surviving members of Voivod find themselves in a situation nearly as surreal as their songs: with a computer acting as a conduit for the music of their departed friend, they’ve assembled their best album in a good 17 years, with enough leftover material on a hard drive to last for one, perhaps two more albums. But instead of haunting the band, D’Amour’s recorded archive speaks volumes of the camaraderie, the love he felt towards his old friends, and the passion and dedication his showed toward his art. Twenty years ago, the band sung about killing technology; today, they’re extremely grateful for it.
“[Katorz] is a highlight and a turning point,” says Belanger. “I think it goes much more farther than music. It’s an ultimate step in the unknown, one of the most important and meaningful creations we’ve ever made. Something I will never forget. Besides emotions, musically I think we got to a level of maturity that is incomparable to our previous work. When we created this, we were in one room improvising, and it [was] almost like we were doing telepathy. We’ve been into this nightmare for quite awhile and we put a lot of effort into this… I’m sure Piggy is happy.”
Voivod - Making of Katorz
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