Voivod

As Voivod cel­e­brate their 35th birth­day and re­lease their 14th al­bum, Prog meets the Cana­dian pro­gres­sive metal leg­ends to look back over their ca­reer.

Prog - - Contents - Words: Chris Mc­Garel

Canada’s prog metal vet­er­ans hit a rich vein of form with new al­bum The Wake.

Over the past 10 years, Voivod have been un­der­go­ing a re­nais­sance. Or, to be more pre­cise, an­other re­nais­sance. Con­stant change is noth­ing new for the shapeshift­ing Que­bec en­tity that have been rein­vent­ing them­selves peren­ni­ally, adapt­ing to ob­sta­cles and mu­tat­ing depend­ing on de­vi­a­tions in their en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions. But this time it’s dif­fer­ent. This time, a wider world is tak­ing no­tice.

Put it down to tena­cious longevity, bat­tling numer­ous per­son­nel changes and per­sonal tragedy while weath­er­ing the storms of tran­sient trends. Maybe it’s last year’s reis­sue cam­paign of deluxe edi­tions of the sem­i­nal first four al­bums. Be­ing cham­pi­oned by no less a fig­ure in the main­stream rock world than Dave Grohl can’t have hurt, ei­ther. Per­haps it’s the sheer love of mak­ing mu­sic, of tire­less tour­ing, trav­el­ling and get­ting their unique style of sci-fi-in­spired prog thrash in front of as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.

It’s all of the above and more.

Three years in the mak­ing, new al­bum The Wake is their best and most pro­gres­sive since the creative zenith of the late 80s and early 90s. It has been re­ceiv­ing near-uni­ver­sal ac­claim. Now, on their 35th an­niver­sary, the time feels ripe for an­other re­birth and a reap­praisal of the ca­reer of one of the lead­ing ar­chi­tects of pro­gres­sive metal.

“I hope so,” ad­mits Michel ‘Away’ Langevin, Voivod’s drum­mer and only con­stant mem­ber. “The last time we had re­views like this were around Noth­ing­face, An­gel Rat and The Outer Lim­its, so it’s quite a thrill. I think it’s go­ing to open the doors for us to play more fes­ti­vals and also we’ll prob­a­bly be able to open for big­ger bands which is al­ways cool.”

In 1990 they were open­ing for Rush, whose leg­endary pro­ducer Terry Brown over­saw 1991’s An­gel Rat. The sup­port acts on the US tour for Noth­ing­face were Soundgar­den and Faith No More. Seem­ingly pre­des­tined to re­main the ul­ti­mate un­der­ground band, Voivod have been dip­ping in and out of the record-buy­ing pub­lic’s radar for 35 years, though a group called the Iron Gang fol­low them with con­vic­tion. Voivod have in­spired hordes of mu­si­cians and are held in near­rev­er­en­tial stature far out of pro­por­tion of their mod­est sales fig­ures.

Langevin re­veals that al­though the tide may be turn­ing in their favour, “it’s not some­thing that we think about that much.

“We’ve been un­der­ground for so many years,” he con­fesses, “that we are re­signed to do the tour­ing we do and have the sales that we have.”

One week af­ter The Wake’s re­lease and in the midst of a Eu­ro­pean jaunt, Langevin is able to gauge re­ac­tions first-hand on a nightly ba­sis. “It’s be­ing re­ceived won­der­fully,” he beams. “We’re pretty ex­cited be­cause it’s al­ways a bit of a stress, how peo­ple are go­ing to re­act. We worked on it for three years so we’re very happy with how the re­views are and also how the peo­ple into Voivod are re­act­ing to

“WE DO HAVE MIXED CROWDS. YES­TER­DAY IN THE FRONT ROW WE HAD A KID, HE WAS 12 YEARS OLD. BE­SIDE HIM WAS A LADY WHO WAS 78 YEARS OLD!”

it. It’s ab­so­lutely great! It’s hard for us to take a step back and judge the work and the art. We were hop­ing peo­ple would no­tice the amount of work we put into it. All the re­views are talk­ing about that and all the peo­ple we meet at the shows are too. It paid off. We’re su­per-ex­cited!”

Last year the band were pre­sented with a gong in the Vi­sion­ary cat­e­gory at the Prog Awards. What did that mean to them?

“Most peo­ple think about Voivod as a metal band,” Langevin says. “To get an award from the prog world meant a lot to me be­cause prog rock was so huge in Que­bec in the 70s – it was in our blood when we started. Even ob­scure krautrock: Faust, Can, Amon Düül II. I met Peter Ham­mill [at the awards], which was quite amaz­ing. I would say that Van der Graaf is still my favourite band of all time. He was talk­ing to me in French, which is great.” Langevin laughs: “I also met

Carl Palmer and Steve Hack­ett so I was like a fan­boy!”

If Voivod are rid­ing a wave at the mo­ment, they’ve earned it the hard way. Af­ter nav­i­gat­ing choppy wa­ters in the 90s when two of the four founder mem­bers left, they re­con­fig­ured as a three-piece un­til they broke up in 2001.

Newly adrift ex-Me­tal­lica bas­sist Ja­son New­sted joined in 2002, giv­ing them street cred and turn­ing the spot­light on them briefly, ex­pos­ing them to a younger, more main­stream metal crowd. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck. Lead­ing light, main writer and vi­sion­ary gui­tarist De­nis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour died at 45 af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with colon cancer.

A unique and ground­break­ing mu­si­cian, Piggy’s loss cre­ated a chasm that seemed al­most un­bridge­able. He had formed the band when look­ing for part­ners in crime to fuse his in­spi­ra­tions, from prog to punk, metal to clas­si­cal.

“He went to school study­ing vi­o­lin and had a bit of a hard time with the school, be­ing told not to play like that, play like this, so even­tu­ally de­cided to drop out and try his luck play­ing mu­sic,” ex­plains Langevin.

“He couldn’t find any­body. He even moved to Toronto at one point to try to find peo­ple but couldn’t, then came back up north to Que­bec where we lived. He found me first, and then we found Blacky [Jean-Yves Théri­ault, bass] and then Snake

[De­nis Bélanger, vo­cals].

“We were 17, he was 21 and we thought he was pretty old,” he laughs, “but he was our men­tor. He had a huge vinyl col­lec­tion and got us into a lot of dif­fer­ent types of mu­sic. We were mainly into metal and punk and the com­mer­cial side of prog rock – Su­per­tramp and Pink Floyd. He was heav­ily into Gen­tle Gi­ant and stuff like that. He re­ally was our teacher.”

D’Amour’s ap­proach to com­po­si­tion was so eso­teric that his in­stantly recog­nis­able sig­na­ture gui­tar voic­ings have their own name: ‘Piggy chords’. It would take an enor­mous ta­lent

(and not a lit­tle of that hith­erto elu­sive luck) to fill the void left by D’Amour’s pass­ing. They found it in fel­low Québé­cois, Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mon­grain from tech metal band Mar­tyr.

Mon­grain is a long-time ad­mirer of the band, ca­pa­ble of recre­at­ing D’Amour’s parts not only with feel and ac­cu­racy but with sen­si­tiv­ity to the legacy. He has been em­braced by the Iron Gang. Mon­grain is a mu­sic the­o­rist with a de­gree in Jazz In­ter­pre­ta­tion from the Univer­sity of Mon­treal, so as a com­poser he can con­tinue the sonic ex­per­i­ments that form this mu­sic’s DNA.

From 2013’s Tar­get Earth, it was ev­i­dent that Voivod were no trib­ute act to them­selves but would keep forg­ing ahead, in­vent­ing new con­coc­tions like a mad pro­fes­sor in a prog lab. Trav­el­ling for­ward in time to 2018 via 2016’s Post So­ci­ety EP, the writ­ing evolves, build­ing in con­fi­dence and hav­ing the courage of its con­vic­tions. Tak­ing chances. Al­ways mov­ing.

One as­pect of that pro­gres­sive men­tal­ity is the in­flu­ence of 20th-cen­tury clas­si­cal mu­sic on sev­eral of the new songs on The Wake. Al­ways Mov­ing, Sonic Mycelium and The End Of Dor­mancy are clearly in­spired by Stravin­sky’s The Rite Of Spring and Holst’s Mars, The Bringer Of War.

“It’s very cin­e­mato­graphic,” says Langevin. “Piggy in­tro­duced us to mod­ern com­posers. Some of it was pulled from sound­tracks like The Shin­ing. Pen­derecki. Bartók was my favourite. Shostakovich. He in­cluded

“THE LAST TIME WE HAD RE­VIEWS LIKE THIS WERE AROUND NOTH­ING­FACE,

AN­GEL RAT AND THE OUTER

LIM­ITS, SO IT’S QUITE A THRILL.”

a lot of that in the mu­sic. I think Chewy is try­ing to keep that essence in­tact. He de­cided to in­vite a string quar­tet and wrote a piece for them and di­rected them in the stu­dio. It fits.”

Chewy has brought with him bas­sist Do­minique ‘Rocky’ Laroche. Friends since their teens, their paths crossed be­fore, un­be­known to them, at a Voivod gig of all places. Langevin says, “Rocky’s first show was Voivod, like Chewy. They didn’t know each other but they were both at the same show. It was the first show for Noth­ing­face.”

The bas­sist is also an ex-stu­dent of mu­sic and brings jazz chops to the ta­ble, some­thing the vet­eran punk and metal drum­mer has had to ac­com­mo­date in his own play­ing.

“Rocky and Chewy have a sort of fu­sion style with a lot of ques­tion and an­swer be­tween the bass and gui­tar. I have to play around that. It’s cool for me,” he says. “With the new for­ma­tion it’s al­most like jazz metal. I think it’s prob­a­bly the di­rec­tion we’re go­ing to head for in terms of in­tri­cacy. It’s go­ing to be quite a chal­lenge to push it for­ward but we’ll try to do so.”

Langevin is clearly ex­cited about the fu­ture. With young blood on board there are new op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and progress. Tech­nol­ogy has opened a door into a new writ­ing and record­ing process.

“We’ve been tour­ing a lot the last cou­ple of years and we found a way to write mu­sic in the bus and back­stage on a com­puter, so that helped a lot.

Now that we’ve found a way of work­ing we might be able to re­lease more al­bums more quickly.”

The fu­ture holds sev­eral new projects which are in the in­cu­ba­tion stages. The next batch of reis­sues from Noth­ing­face to The Outer Lim­its is be­ing plot­ted. A long-mooted doc­u­men­tary film is edg­ing closer to pro­duc­tion. Cana­dian film­maker Sam Dunn, who di­rected Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage and Iron Maiden: Flight 666, is at the helm.

Langevin is plan­ning two more books of his art­work: a fol­low-up to 2009’s Worlds Away and a col­lec­tion of draw­ings. “In every city I try to draw,” he says, “to rep­re­sent my im­pres­sion of the city at the end of the night af­ter the show. My next book is go­ing to be the art I did on the road since we re­formed in 2008. It’s a lot of draw­ings!”

Langevin’s fig­ure of the Voivod adorns the record sleeves in the style of Iron Maiden’s Ed­die. This vam­piric tech-war­lord trav­els the gal­ax­ies, en­coun­ter­ing dystopian so­ci­eties and rav­aged worlds in the midst of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic en­vi­ron­men­tal de­cay. This may sound fa­mil­iar to fans of Magma, who cre­ated a mythos around an ex­o­dus from a dy­ing Earth to colonise the planet Kobaïa. “Chris­tian Van­der is a huge in­flu­ence,” Langevin says. “Not only his drum­ming, but his con­cept and logo.”

Art is a pas­sion Langevin has har­boured since the mid-70s. It pro­vides a creative out­let away from the band while adding an ex­tra di­men­sion to their al­bums. “I will al­ways draw,” he as­serts. “I know we’re go­ing to be record­ing mu­sic for­ever. In terms of tour­ing, it might slow down even­tu­ally, but I will al­ways have my art to rely on. It’s a great life. I don’t take it for granted.

“When­ever I’m not tour­ing or record­ing I do a lot of art for other bands or tat­too de­signs or book cov­ers, which is great be­cause when I was a kid, my first in­spi­ra­tion were the sci-fi books at the li­brary. I would copy the cov­ers.”

As Voivod cel­e­brate their 35th year, they in turn are in­flu­enc­ing a new gen­er­a­tion. “We have mixed crowds,” says Langevin. “Yes­ter­day in the front row we had a kid, he was 12 years old. Be­side him was a lady who was 78 years old! Snake asked them their age. The crowd cheered. It was very cool!”

Of course, there are al­ways the diehards who have been there since the early thrash days and sup­ported the band through myr­iad stylis­tic and line-up changes. You don’t get to be one of the most revered cult bands in the world with­out earn­ing and in­spir­ing that kind of loy­alty.

“Peo­ple into Voivod are re­ally into Voivod,” says Langevin. “They have to ex­press it. It’s such a great feel­ing for us. I ac­tu­ally can’t stop play­ing around the planet and see­ing my friends over and over and new peo­ple. It re­ally keeps me go­ing and it’s one of the rea­sons why I keep play­ing mu­sic. It’s the trav­els. The trav­els are amaz­ing.” Al­ways mov­ing.

Keep watch­ing the skies. You’ll see per­pet­ual change.

Por­traits: Wayne Archibald

BE­LOW: VOIVOD PER­FORM­ING AT THE METRO IN CHICAGO, 1986.

BE­LOW: LANGEVIN PICKS UP THE VI­SION­ARY AWARD FOR VOIVOD AT THE 2017 PROG AWARDS.

LEFT: JA­SON NEW­STED, FOR­MERLY OF ME­TAL­LICA, ON­STAGE WITH VOIVOD AT OZZFEST IN 2003.

ABOVE: VOIVOD’S 1986 RRRÖÖÖAAARRR-ERA LINE-UP, WITH PIGGY (SEC­OND FROM LEFT).

BE­LOW: THE BAND’S NEW AL­BUM THE WAKE.

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