VoiVod are one of the most important bands ever: without them there would be no Tool, no Mastodon, no Opeth. They were the first to transcend thrash for a new take on progressive rock. And remarkably they continue, having survived the death of founder and inspirational guitarist Piggy. This was written for Classic Rock presents Prog, an interview with Snake about the long and influential history of the band.
Admit it. Something about the term ‘Canadian music’ makes your heart sink just a little. It’s like ‘Irish cooking’ and ‘Scottish goalkeeping’, a description of something that is generally woeful. It suggests ‘like American music, but not quite as good’, music that’s a bit worthy but also a bit dull. It’s unfair, sure, but true nonetheless. In terms of actual numbers, Canadian bands who matter lag way behind the US, UK and Europe. But the good news is that the ones who do matter – Rush, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and of course Voivod – really matter a lot.
Voivod are one of the bands who changed metal in the 1980s, ripped up all the blueprints and forged something whose repercussions are still felt today. Emerging from thrash, one of metal’s most fertile eras, their music pushed beyond the modest expectations of fans and critics in the mid 80s to create, if you like, the First Wave Of Progressive Heavy Metal. Not that it was really much of a wave: you had the embryonic Dream Theater, you had the underground stirrings of bands like Atheist, but we’re not really talking about a ‘movement’. Voivod’s fourth and fifth albums Dimension Hatröss and Nothingface were sort of high concept post-thrash, they defied easy categorisation and sounded like nothing else that any of their contemporaries were doing.
“The big change really started to take place around the time of [second album] Rrröööaaarrr, ” frontman Denis ‘Snake’ Bélanger tells us. “Piggy really wanted to push the band forward. He was a lot older than the rest of us and he had been listening to a lot of different music for years. Not just 70s prog rock, he had a really weird collection of records. He was also into contemporary classical music, Stravinsky, Bartok, Paganini. He was into a lot of things. We’d go round to his house and just pull stuff out at random. ‘Soft Machine. What does this sound like?’ After Rrröööaaarrr which I think was our last straight thrash metal album, we started to look at writing more and complex music.”
Piggy painstakingly taught the rest of the band the music he had grown up with (“He could play the whole of Yes’s Relayer album backwards!” remembers Snake).
The changes started to manifest themselves on the band’s transitional third album Killing Technology. They had shifted from being a good if not exactly innovative thrash band in the mould of Kreator, to something new, incorporating complex, jazzy guitar attacks and time signatures that were highly unusual in those straight ahead 4/4 days, as well as elements of hardcore punk and industrial music. They had less in common with their thrash contemporaries and more with hardcore bands like Husker Du and Black Flag who were also breaking out of the confines of their particular genres.
“We were actually sitting around listening to things backwards,” Snake recalls. “Piggy would play something and we’d think that’s cool. He was playing us Yes and Genesis, but lots of really odd obscure stuff like Egg. And while I wasn’t a big prog fan, I was listening to a lot of stuff like the Cure, Psychedelic Furs, The Gun Club, so there were a lot of different approaches coming in at that time.”
With Dimension Hatross, released in 1988, Voivod really got into their stride. The music finally gelled, it sounded at times as if King Crimson had followed up 21st Century Schizoid Man with a pulverising metal album (instead of all that pastoral sensitive Greg Lake stuff). Just when Metallica were pushing thrash closer to the mainstream with …And Justice For All, so Voivod were pushing it right over the edge with Dimension Hatross.
It was a concept album based on an idea by drummer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin, who drew the character on the band’s album sleeves, with lyrics by Snake. The Voivod character, a futuristic post-nuclear vampire cybernetic warrior who bore more than a passing resemblance to Hammerstein from 2000 AD’s ABC Warriors strip, accidentally creates a new universe while smashing particles. He is then caught up in a civil war between the universe’s two factions the Chaosmongers and the Technocratic Manipulators which results in an apocalyptic end to everything. Don’t expect it to be adapted as a west end musical any time soon.
“Michel was a visionary. He was listening to Van Der Graaf Generator at that time and wanted to stretch the kind of lyrics that we were writing. We wanted to mix a lot of influences together and we were really brainstorming about what we would do. We were almost engineering the music as the concept grew. We were adding things all the time. We wanted to make the listener put on headphones and be gone somewhere else for an hour. And I think we achieved that.”
With the follow up Nothingface, generally acclaimed as Voivod’s masterpiece, the concept, the music and the band’s general vibe was as insane/genius as it could ever be.
“Nothingface was actually based on real events,” says Away. “In the town of Jonquière, in northern Quebec, where we grew up, they built the biggest aluminium factory in North America. And of course there has been a high incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease because of the aluminium that people working in the plant and living nearby have absorbed.”
Nothingface uses the material for a cosmic battle between Voivod and the evil forces behind planetary mind rapers.
“It’s about giant factories that look like spiders,”says Away. “They crawl around the planet and dig for aluminium and when there is no more aluminium they fly to another planet. They are like starships, these giant factories. Nothingface is the story about the people living on the planet invaded by spiders. So all those people are losing their legends and their culture because of Alzheimer’s disease.”
And just in case anyone was in any doubt where the band were coming from, the album included a mind melting cover of Syd Barrett era Floyd’s Astronomy Domine.
Both fans and critics of metal often had low ambitions and expectations for the music in those days. Big hair, big egos and tight trousers. The days when Brett Michaels was seen as a real bad ass. Voivod certainly had a hand in changing all that.
Of course, these days the influence of those albums has been well and truly digested and disseminated, you can hear a little or a lot of Voivod in Tool, in Neurosis and particularly in Mastodon. Listening to this year’s phenomenal Crack The Skye, you can unquestionably hear the spirit of Voivod in there. Not imitation, but sincere admiration.
“The first time I toured in Europe was when I was in Today is the Day. We came over with Neurosis and Voivod,” says Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor. “I used to watch Voivod every night. They had such camaraderie in the way that they played, something that I wanted in any band that I formed, something I didn’t have in Today Is The Day because I had joined them very late after they had been together for a long time.”
“It’s something that if you hear it then I’m very proud of it,” says Snake. “I love Mastodon, they are a fantastic band.”
Voivod have always had high profile fans in other bands. Mike Patton is an admirer and was planning a track to an aborted Voivod tribute album, as were Primus. Dave Grohl is an enthusiastic champion – Snake sang on one of the tracks on Grohl’s Probot album while Away designed the sleeve. Sonic Youth, always with impeccable taste, admit a huge debt to and admiration of Voivod.
“Sometimes when I hear the Foo Fighters I go ‘Wow, that’s Piggy’s chord!’ that dissonant chord, y’know,” he says. “I think it proves that we did something new and brought it to others.”
And Norwegian black metallers Darkthrone dedicated Atomic Coming one of the tracks on their 2006 album The Cult Is Alive to Piggy, who had just recently died.
“Hell fuckin’ yeah, Voivod totally rules!” enthused Darkthrone’s Nocturno Culto.
Perhaps that’s Voivod’s curse, to be an influential band that other musicians admire but with limited appeal elsewhere. They’ve had their share of misfortunes: sales of Nothingface were disappointing. The follow up Angel Rat fared even less well and fractures started to appear in the band’s line-up. Bassist Jean-Yves ‘Blacky’ Theriault quit the band after finishing work on Angel Rat. The band stumbled on as a three piece before Snake left, a decision exacerbated by drug problems. Eric ‘E Force’ Forrest then joined as bassist and singer and just as the band were regaining some momentum, disaster struck. In what seemed like an eerie rerun of Cliff Burton’s death, Forrest was seriously injured in a car crash in Germany. Piggy was diagnosed with a brain tumour, though fortunately he recovered after an operation to remove it.
After a hiatus, Snake rejoined the band and they made their self-titled 2003 album. It was OK, but seemed like a step back, just another thrash album.
“I think a lot of fans didn’t get us, they might like one album but not the one that came after, because we tried never to repeat what we had done,” says Snake. “We weren’t a band who found a formula and stuck to it. You take a risk. It’s like a mission. You don’t know, if you make experimental music, that everything will work. You just have to do it and see.”
Piggy died after developing cancer in 2005. But the VoiVod story doesn’t end there. With a new album called Infini just out, all of the surviving Voivod members have contributed to songs that were set in motion by Piggy before his death. Using riffs and solos he recorded, the band have constructed a record that once again edges out into the cosmic badlands. Not exactly Killing Technology 2.0, it’s still dense with ideas and may be a jumping off point for a new era of the band.
“I’m just really excited to be doing this, flying over to Europe to play festivals,” says Snake. “I’m glad that progressive metal is just so good and creative just now. It’s demanding and it’s great that people want something more than Poison.”