Voivod Brought its Prog-Rock-Inspired Metal to Denver

Voivod performed last night at Summit Music Hall, sharing the bill with Napalm Death, Exhumed, Phobia, Iron Reagan, Black Crown Initiate and Vimana for the Through Space and Grind Tour. Inspired in part by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, punk, '70s prog and post-punk, Voivod created a kind of metal that could be classified as thrash or progressive metal but doesn't sit simply in either category, because Voivod has always been more adventurous than many of its peers. Instead of having songs about demons, devils, zombies and H.P. Lovecraft creations, Voivod opted for a science fiction-inflected aesthetic as a vehicle for social critique. And it never forgot to write exhilaration urgent and imaginative heavy music to match its creative ambitions.

The nascent band had met when the four founding members were in high school, where they bonded over a mutual musical interests.

"We all shared a love for hard rock and progressive rock and some punk rock," recalls founding drummer Michel "Away" Langevin. "But it was mainly when the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and hardcore like Conflict, Discharge and Broken Bones came out that we really decided to form a band and make some kind of thrash metal but informed by other things like Killing Joke and also, again, progressive rock music. Mainly the obscure prog like Van Der Graaf Generator and krautrock like Faust and Can and of course King Crimson."

Initially the concept of the character of the Voivod was a post-nuclear apocalypse vampire, but it evolved by the mid-'80s into a cyborg that had survived multiple nuclear conflicts and ready to do battle with totalitarian forces. This transformation from the fantastical to the dystopian was inspired by the band's interest in science fiction.

"I don't know if it came from Rush — who were heroes, of course — but we always used science fiction as a context to express a point of view," offers Langevin. "We were also influenced by a couple of sci-fi movies like Blade Runner and Mad Max and the soundtracks of sci-fi movies influenced us. In my case it made me discover great composers like Bartók and Penderecki."

The group's creative breakthrough record was its fourth, 1988's Dimension Hatröss. It sounded like less like the music of a mature thrash band than the kind of industrial metal many later bands would try but with less fascinating results. Its drum sound was tribal, much as its second track "Tribal Convictions" embodied so powerfully. It was also the group's most fully realized creation.

"It's actually the only album we did that had a story from beginning to the end," reveals Langevin. "We developed the character of the Voivod over the course of five albums. But Dimension Hatröss is the only album where really every song is a chapter and characters are coming back into the story and each character has a musical theme that we had to rearrange in different songs. So it was a lot of work and we made sure there was some kind of interlude between each song so it felt like a long trip. We also recorded the music live in Berlin and that's where we also discovered the technology that helped us give it a more industrial metal approach."

Though a supremely creepy and visually stunning video for "Psychic Vacuum" got some airplay on MTV's Headbanger's Ball, Voivod was largely a cult band among more open-minded metalheads and punks. For the follow-up album, Voivod had signed with MCA and 1989's Nothingface garnered the band greater airplay and a tour with Rush and a separate tour with Faith No More and Soundgarden. Especially memorable was the group's cover of "Astronomy Domine" by Pink Floyd though not the version from Piper At the Gates of Dawn.

"I think that Blacky and I were really interested in Syd Barrett but Piggy was really into David Gilmour," recalls Langevin. "We were having a discussion about covering Pink Floyd and we compromised where we covered the version from Ummagumma, which is a live version with David Gilmour. I just remember that we were not too sure if we were actually going to do it. When we played the track that's on Nothingface, the only take we did from that session, as a sound test for what we did for the rest of the recording, everyone loved it so we just kept it."

Following the '80s, Voivod entered a period of extended flux with Jean-Yves "Blacky" Thériault and Denis "Snake" Bélanger leaving the band. The former to pursue different styles of music and the latter to deal with his issues with drugs. The group continued throughout the 90s with various line-ups until a more stable reunion with Snake in 2002. The untimely death of the band's legendary guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour in 2005 from colon cancer might have ended the band but the guitarist had left instructions on how to play some guitar ideas that would be used on the group's next two albums: 2006's Katorz and 2009's Infini.

The 2002 reunion also included an old friend stepping in to play bass for several years: Jason Newstead former bassist of Flotsam and Jetsam and Metallica.

"He was a good friend from the '80s," says Langevin. "We asked him to join when we reformed in 2002 and only meant to record together and soon enough we were touring with Sepultura across the USA and then Ozzfest. Then we opened for Ozzy across Canada. So we did three albums together and it was really, really cool. I think, of course, he was really affected by Piggy's departure just like everybody. I think his mission is accomplished now that all three albums he worked on are out."

In 2013 Voivod released its most recent album, the menacing Target Earth, which is a return to a sound more akin to the psychedelic thrash of its late '80s period. And, like its current tour mate Napalm Death, an almost industrial metal and post-punk hybrid. 

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.