Voivod should have been far more popular than they were in the ‘80s. Hailing from the remote Quebec city of Jonquiere, home of a huge aluminum factory, the band quickly became the pride and joy of Canadian headbangers, and one of the most respected metal bands among their peers. Their first three albums, War and Pain, Rrroooaaarrr!!!, and Killing Technology were some of the most extreme thrash metal records ever recorded during that decade, combining pure speed, science fiction lyrics, and a hint of progressive rock for a sound that was completely unique in the burgeoning thrash scene. In a stunning stylistic shift in 1988, Voivod eased up on the noise and screaming, and concentrated on melody and song structure, and the two albums that followed, 1988’s Dimension Hatross and 1989’s masterpiece Nothingface, established the band as one of the most formidable metal acts in the world. Their superb cover of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd song “Astronomy Domine” (from Nothingface) even became a minor hit on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball. They had a major label deal, they played on a great 1989 tour with Faith No More and Soundgarden, and the possibilities seemed endless.
Then grunge happened, and cutting-edge metal from the late ‘80s quickly became passe. Not only that, but the band’s follow-up to Nothingface, the muddled Angel Rat, failed to find an audience. Voivod were now trying to sound more mainstream, closer to bands like Rush and Pink Floyd, but the album just didn’t work very well, and the masses didn’t care on way or another. Bassist Jean-Yves “Blackie” Theriault left the band soon afterwards, and following another flop of an album in 1993, Denis “Snake” Belanger split as well. Voivod went on to perform as a trio for the rest of the ‘90s, while trying to return to their thrash metal roots, but it looked more than obvious that their best days were behind them.
Well, if old Voivod fans were delighted when Belanger announced he was rejoining the band, they were downright ecstatic when the band welcomed ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted as their newest member. Reinvigorated, the band has recorded a new, eponymously titled album, and it’s great to say that it’s their finest work since 1989.
“It’s a good day to express yourself,” sneers Belanger on the opening track, “Gasmask Revival”, “It’s a nice day to raise hell as well.” He may be talking about becoming socially aware, but it also serves as a mantra for the band, as they deliver some terrific, pummeling music for just over an hour, playing with new life. Belanger sounds as good as ever, Denis “Piggy” D’Amour” is as understated a metal guitarist as you’ll ever come across, and Newsted (nicknamed “Jasonic” in Voivod) is his usual steady self, supplying a muscular bass sound, the likes of which the band has never had before. Drummer Michel “Away” Langevin steals the show, proving he hasn’t slowed down one bit, specializing in powerful polyrhythms, deft time signature changes, and some straight-ahead, driving beats, sounding like a cross between Metallica’s Lars Ulrich circa 1986 and Rush’s great Neil Peart.
Though the album is bookended by two songs that have more of a simple, garage-metal approach, the rest of it gets down to some serious business. “Facing Up” boasts a wickedly elastic-sounding opening riff provided by D’Amour and Newsted, building up to a ferocious double-time bridge, with Langevin steering the band in a different direction at every turn. The searing intensity of “Reactor” and the midtempo “Les Cigares Volantes” show the band is able to sound fresh while resurrecting their prog-metal sound from over a decade ago. Meanwhile, the middle section of four songs, “Real Again?”, “Rebel Robot”, “The Multiverse”, and “I Don’t Wanna Wake Up” is a marvel to hear, as Voivod take you deeper into more surreal, sci-fi territory, while shifting the sound to a more progressive style, with Langevin and Newsted delivering a punishing rhythm section. It all comes to a head on the stunning “The Multiverse”, as melody, smart lyrics, effects-laden guitar, thunderous drumming, and sinewy bass all combine to create a song of astonishing power.
“We Carry On” closes the album, a simple, energetic, Iron Maiden-style number that, again, comes across as both an urge for activism and a reiteration of the band’s own mission statement: “Driven by a need to create/On every mile we ride our fate.” It’s clear that Voivod are back, ready to take their music to a higher level, and what a pleasure it is to have them around again. While a band like Metallica spent over a year in the studio carefully crafting a roughly-produced, inconsistent attempt at regaining their credibility, Voivod, with an ex-Metallica member in tow, have come forward with an accomplished, smart, well-produced album that puts their comrades’ effort to shame. Jason Newsted might not be making as much money as he did with his old band, but judging by this fine album, he has made the right artistic choice.
// Notes from the Road
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