Jan 22nd 2013 01:34 pm Voivod inhabits its own planet

Target Earth keeps the Quebec metal band on a singular trajectory while honouring the spirit of its late guitarist

Read more: montrealgazette.com

MONTREAL - Like the Pope or Highlander, there can be only one Voivod. The Quebec metal band is unique, and has been for most of its 30-year existence. It releases its 13th studio album, Target Earth, on Tuesday, Jan. 22, continuing a long tradition of experimental aggression.

Yes, other bands have blended thrash metal’s buzzing fury with prog rock’s intricacy and Newtonian time signatures. But Voivod’s reliance on complex, crystalline chords — the signature style of late guitarist Denis (Piggy) D’Amour — gives many of its songs the erratic dissonance of wind chimes outside of an insane asylum. And the science fiction elements pervading the band’s lyrics and imagery make Voivod all the more difficult to define.

Being unconventional comes at a cost, and Voivod hasn’t obtained the success of thrash-based contemporaries like Slayer or Megadeth. But that comes as no surprise to the group.

“I don’t think Voivod could be a commercial success,” says guitarist Daniel (Chewy) Mongrain. “It’s too unique, too unpredictable.”

Mongrain, also of Quebec death metal band Martyr (currently on hiatus), has a unique perspective on Voivod. Though he only joined the group five years ago — originally as a touring guitarist — he’s a lifelong fan.

“The first song I heard was (1987’s) Ravenous Medicine. I was 11 years old,” says Mongrain. “I became a fan right away. I picked up a guitar because of them.”

Mongrain says he was drawn in by the band’s inventive approach to metal. “(Unusual) song structures, intricate parts, counterpoints, dialogue between instruments, textures, dissonance, tempo changes and odd time signatures,” says Mongrain. “That’s Voivod.”

Voivod began in 1982 in Jonquière, releasing its first album, War and Pain, two years later. Initially, the band’s mix of thrash, punk and Iron Maiden-esque influences fuelled speedy, amped-up tracks that evoked Motörhead overdosing on itself. Its third album, Killing Technology, introduced progressive rock elements, and began more of a focus on science fiction — not the metaphysical meanderings of Dune or 2001, but the grungy, violent apocalypse of a stack of burning Judge Dredd comics, brought to life by the graphic design of drummer Michel (Away) Langevin.

The music came to include influences ranging “from movie soundtracks to Stravinsky,” says Mongrain. “Every album (started having) its own sound, its own approach, but the spirit and esthetic (stayed) Voivod.”

As the band changed, its fans followed. “They were not the kind of band (that did) the same thing all over again,” says Mongrain. “And as a fan, you felt like you (were) evolving at the same time. You (couldn’t) wait for the next one, because you knew it’s going to be new and different and fresh.”

In the ’90s, lineup shifts altered the band’s chemistry. Original bassist Jean-Yves (Blacky) Thériault and vocalist Denis (Snake) Bélanger left, and replacement singer and bassist Eric (E-Force) Forrest quit in 2001 after being seriously injured in a car accident. But its sound continued progressing, becoming more complex and layered without losing any of its raw energy, like a dogfight in an orchestra pit. And the 2002 addition of former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted — along with the return of Bélanger — raised Voivod’s profile.

In 2005, however, the band suffered a devastating tragedy when D’Amour died of cancer. D’Amour’s distinctive sound — full of deliberate disharmonies and schizophrenic progressions — helped define Voivod’s style over the years.

“It was very unique sounding,” says Mongrain. “Every other band was playing power chords, (on the) low register of the instrument, but Piggy played keyboard-style chords up on the neck, very high pitched, and it sounded like chaos. Total post-nuclear vibe.”

The band released two more albums based on material D’Amour had recorded — Katorz in 2006 and 2009’s Infini — before bringing Mongrain on as a full-time member for Target Earth, which also features the return of original bassist Thériault.

The band’s longevity, says Mongrain, comes partly from its approach to songwriting, which helps it stand out. He attributes Voivod’s originality to Quebec’s diverse metal scene, which breeds mutated musical styles like a womb full of lead paint and uranium.

“The mentality (in Quebec) is quite different from Europe, the rest of Canada and the States, and at the same time it’s a combination,” says Mongrain. “Even the language makes us different … because music is a reflection of the language, of phrasing. The way you compose is directly attached to the way you speak. That’s what makes Quebec’s metal different … and I think Voivod was the start of it all in Quebec.”

Becoming an official member of Voivod came with its own set of challenges — especially considering D’Amour’s impact and influence. “Piggy (was) a real music talent,” says Mongrain, “so I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

But the other members immediately accepted Mongrain as one of their own, absorbing him into the creative process. “I felt very welcome,” he says. “Everyone is involved in the creation of the songs. … It’s really teamwork, and that’s the secret of the sound of Voivod.”

With Target Earth, Mongrain hopes to build on Voivod’s legacy while paying tribute to D’Amour. “Piggy is not here anymore, and he was a big part of Voivod. But his spirit is still here; his heritage is here,” says Mongrain.

“I’m honoured to contribute so the band can play live, and the music of Piggy can live on every night we play.”

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