Growing up in the shadows of North America’s biggest aluminum plant in the Northern Quebec town of Jonquiere, young Michel Langevin immersed himself in science fiction and vampire novels as a means of escape, and used that inspiration to hone his artistic skills. An extremely gifted visual artist, he conjured his own character, called the Voivod, a post-apocalyptic vampire who comes to earth from the planet Morgoth to inflict pain on mankind. The band he formed in his teens with his friends Denis Belanger, Denis d’Amour, and Jean-Yves Theriault, named itself after Langevin’s fictitious creation, with each member taking on aliases of their own: Away (Langevin), Snake (Belanger), Piggy (d’Amour), and Blacky (Theriault). Unbeknownst to them at the time, Voivod would go on to be a well-known word, not as the name of a comic book character, but as a symbol of musical virtuosity and creativity in the world of heavy metal, the name of one of the most respected bands in metal history.
Like most great metal bands, Voivod were products of their very unique surroundings. Black Sabbath and Judas Priest both hailed from the factory city of Birmingham, England, and like those seminal bands, Voivod drew its inspiration from the robotic crashes and roars of heavy machinery in Jonquiere. Only, in Voivod’s case, their isolation would also be a major factor in how they sounded. Starting with their debut album in 1984, and through their flawless late ‘80s trifecta of the classic albums Killing Technology, Dimension Hatross, and Nothingface, these boys sounded like they hailed from another planet. When you consider just how far removed Jonquiere is from the rest of North America, well, they might as well have been alien beings. Twenty years after that first album, Voivod’s sound is still very unique, identifiable, and completely inimitable. It’s a sound all their own, one that has aged very, very well, as both their back catalog and their triumphant 2003 comeback album has proven.
That first album from ‘84, the seminal War and Pain, tends to be the overlooked gem in the Voivod discography, as their albums from 1986 to 1991 always garner the most attention from metal devotees. However, one cannot gloss over the importance over War and Pain. Until then, Canada was not exactly a leader in the heavy metal world. Aside from workmanlike power metal bands like Anvil and Exciter, the great progressive power trio Rush, the more middling power trio Triumph, and the fun party metal of Helix, the country had little to offer, metalwise, by the time 1984 rolled around. War and Pain changed all that; here was an album that was not only so extreme it was startling, but it was also one that derived heavily from the various stalwart bands in the underground metal scene at the time, yet remained completely different from anything that came out that year.
Along with labels like Megaforce and Noise, Metal Blade Records were the one of the leading purveyors of underground metal music in the early to mid-‘80s, and today, they are aware of just how crucial a debut War and Pain was, and to celebrate the record’s 20th anniversary this year, they’ve put together a fantastic (not to mention reasonably priced) deluxe edition, jam-packed with so many tantalizing extra features, you could hear the collective drooling of the 30-40-year-old ex-headbangers when the tracklisting was announced. And the fans’ excitement is indeed warranted, because this terrific, three disc box set delivers on all accounts.
The most important part of this reissue is the original album, which is presented in remastered form. The improvement in the sound quality is noticeable, but most importantly, the original feel of the album has not been tinkered with. One of the best things about early ‘80s underground metal was all the little happy accidents that popped up, primarily due to the fact that owners of small studios didn’t know how to record heavy metal at the time. Savatage’s great 1983 debut Sirens is a perfect example of a young band naively trying new things, and Voivod’s War and Pain is another. Recorded in three days in a basement studio located in a remote part of rural Quebec, in the dead of winter, the sound on the album is decidedly claustrophobic, in direct contrast to all the huge-sounding metal records emerging from the UK and Europe at the time. However, as amateurish as the production was, there was one thing that set Voivod apart from other highly influential bands, like Venom, Celtic Frost, and Possessed: their first album, unlike the other bands’ debuts, is tight. Extremely tight.
You hear it instantly on the classic signature song “Voivod”; after an ominous intro of the sound of big, plodding footsteps and rattling chains (Snake says in his notes that it’s the sound of someone walking outside in the snow, slowed way down), the song explodes out of the gate, Away delivering a ferocious thrash metal beat, Blacky holding down the fort with a muscular bassline that echoes Piggy’s main riff. All the while, Snake hollers away in broken English, not to mention some vocal phrasing that is truly otherworldly, with a harsh, sinister, screeching voice (he wouldn’t find his true vocal range for another four years). As great as the entire band sounds on tracks like “Warriors of Ice”, “Iron Gang”, and the progressive thrash brilliance of “War and Pain” and “Nuclear War” (the album’s two finest songs), it’s Piggy who emerges as the band’s most potent weapon. Shredding away on his homemade flying V guitar, with no effects pedals to speak of, his playing style is already clearly defined, as his riffs move with blinding speed, his lead fills seeming quirky, yet economical and melodic. While Away and Snake were a few albums removed from coming fully into their own, Piggy was already there.
The extras are lacking in the sound quality department, but are still great fun. The three tracks from the band’s first ever performance in 1983 is interesting, especially when you hear how solid the band is, while the three demo recordings are highlighted by the rare “Condemned to the Gallows”, which previously appeared on the 1984 Metal Blade compilation Metal Massacre 5 in 1984. The second disc boasts an entire performance by the band in December, 1984, and while the sound is, again, a bit muddy, the intensity of the show is palpable, as the band unleashes nearly 80 minutes of mayhem, including several songs that would appear on their 1985 album Rrroooaaarrr!, as well as chaotic covers of Venom’s “Witching Hour”, and Slayer’s 1984 classic “Chemical Warfare”. The multimedia disc is just as enjoyable, especially for the older fans, with a band biography, tons of photos, lots of sketches by Away, and the original music video for “Voivod”, the clip serving as a real trip down memory lane for anyone who was a Canadian metalhead during the 80s.
War and Pain was not without its faults, the most blatant example being the extremely goofy “Suck Your Bone”, which contains the most unintentionally hilarious line ever, “Go shit! I’m not a fish,” but in actuality, this album is the sound of a band already in mid-stride, and the rate at which they improved as the years went on remains one of the most stunning runs in heavy metal history. This swanky re-release will please old fans to no end, and serve as a revelation to younger listeners, proving that it deserves to be placed among Metallica’s Kill ‘em All and Slayer’s Show No Mercy as one of the finest debut albums in ‘80s underground metal.
// Notes from the Road
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