Answers that Seem Like Questions:
Voivod’s Unlikely, Eternal, Intergalactic Quest
When Canada’s Voivod first emerged on the (then) nascent proto-thrash/metal/crossover scene of the mid ’80s, nobody knew exactly what to make of the band. Voivod’s first album, War and Pain (1984) was kind of like an ancient time capsule from the future that had drifted into the thrash/metal galaxy via a mysterious portal in the space/time continuum. Remember the alien designed by Swiss painter, H.R. Giger from the movie (you guessed it) Alien? Well, Voivod kind of sounded like the alien looked – a streamlined, chromium hued, reptilian physique that was revoltingly beautiful, both menacing and alluring. Sure, Voivod was (at first) classified as a thrash/metal band. But the band’s otherworldly music was already developing into something that defied the generic strictures of the burgeoning thrash/metal thing.
Now almost 40 years into its career, Voivod has become a heavy metal institution – even though the band still doesn’t fit in. Abounding with jazzy, discordant guitar timbres, vocals that are sung-not-screamed, and an askew rhythmic architecture whose complex spires rise to dizzying, gravity-defying heights, Voivod’s music is a weird amalgam of progressive rock, thrash and hardcore punk that seems both ancient and postmodern.
2019 has been something of an extended victory lap for Voivod. Last year’s critically lauded album, The Wake (Century Media), was featured in umpteen “best-of 2018” lists worldwide, and Voivod’s shows are selling out everywhere. The band seems comfortable with its well-earned, hard-won status as metal elder statesmen.
“Well, right now the chemistry in the band is really fantastic,” says percussionist Michel “Away” Langevin, who, along with vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger, is one of the two remaining O.G. members and is the only player on board Voivod’s sonic spaceship that stayed for the full ride, from point A to the current Point Z squared, becoming the band’s unlikely figurehead in the process. “But I must say that the reception for The Wake really took us by surprise. It was rated nine out of 10 everywhere. People seem to like it. We’re just back from touring Japan and Australia, where we had a blast. And the last European tour in the fall of 2018, right after the album came out, was very well-attended. So now we’re nominated for a Juno Award here in Canada. It’s been wonderful. We’re just surfing on all that right now – having a great time.”
Just two days after this interview, Voivod was named winner of the Juno Award, what is essentially Canada’s Grammy, for “Best Metal/Hard Music Album of the Year.” So, around 40 years in, Voivod is reaping its due – in spades.
In conversation, Langevin is humble, gracious, enthusiastic and very charming. Langevin, who grew up speaking French, speaks English with a beguiling patois. The drummer’s French-accented speech is oftentimes punctuated by “ahs” and “ums” – or by stretching a monosyllabic utterance out to stall for time as he grapples for words. This is by no means to say that Langevin is in any way inarticulate. He speaks English a hell of a lot better than I speak “American,” that’s for sure.
Langevin quite often punctuates his conversation with inflections that make what was intended to be a definitive answer sound more like a question. And perhaps Langevin’s speech patterns provide unintended clues as to why Voivod’s “weird” style seems so, well, organic – and accessible. This “answers that sound like questions” bit is a good way to describe Voivod’s incomparable sound.
Voivod’s musical “answers” sound like questions. And the “questions” posed by the polyrhythmic structures of Voivod’s songs, well, they sound like answers. All of this is to say that Voivod’s prog-leaning sound does not equate as, ugh, “math rock,” nor does it feel like jackoff musical showboating – a complex structure to disguise bad songwriting. Yeah, Voivod’s music is something of an acquired taste that is complicated as hell. But Voivod’s songs really sound like songs.
“I think that, um, I myself got into the habit of playing backward by listening to Van Der Graaf Generator one time when I was a kid,” explains Langevin. “But the main focus for me, really, even if the time signature is complicated, as it often is, is to find a beat that will have a groove that keeps people headbanging. And that’s the main challenge, to do some prog rock material where you keep a groove going that doesn’t really stop people from enjoying what’s going on musically. I think it takes a couple of years of writing that kind of material – well, it took me a couple of years, anyway – before I was fully satisfied with the rhythms. The trick is to find a good balance.
“Songwriting can be a very long process for us because we tend to, ah, try to fine tune every little detail,” Langevin continues. “The music of The Wake took about three years, I think, from start to finish. Chewy [Daniel Mongrain, who has been with the band since 2008], the guitar player, is the main writer. And quite often he’ll come to the rehearsal space with a full-on song to work on. And then, as we add our respective parts, it sort of mutates into real Voivod material. We also come up with a lot of music that comes from improvisations that we do as well. We do improv sessions and we record the whole thing. Then, we’ll pick the best parts and Chewy will arrange them into songs. So there are, uh, a few ways of working. Basically Chewy writes the music and Snake [vocalist Denis Belanger] takes care of the lyrics.”
Lyrically, Voivod has always delivered horrific, sci-fi visions of a high tech Futureworld run amok. With such nightmarish hallucinations-in-verse, the band has yet again traversed the space/time continuum. Much of the Orwellian predictions foretold in Voivod’s early lyrics have actually become reality. And that really is scary – again, kind of like Giger’s Alien.
“In a sense the lyrics seem to be a recurring nightmare for us,” says Langevin. “Back in the ’80s when we came up with our early stuff, um, we talked a lot about nuclear weapons and the destruction of the earth. And that kind of came back to the frontline these days – because that is happening. Back then we talked about Chernobyl and now we talk about Fukushima. Then we talked about the ozone layer, and now we talk about global warming – which is happening.
“In the ’80s, we were just trying to describe a near future where the planet would be in, uh, super bad shape,” Langevin continues. “And of course, it all caught up with us. Now the planet really is in super bad shape. I guess whatever scientific magazines we were reading back then must have been pretty good,” he laughs.
So, of course all this talk of climate change, nuclear annihilation and, uh, War and Pain inevitably leads to questions about the realities of today. Voivod’s lyrics have always been about the state of the planet earth and its place in the cosmos. What once seemed like science fiction is the harsh reality of the present – all of which is impacted by and inextricable from geopolitical struggles. So, is Voivod promoting some kind of worldview/ideology – or are they only producing an oeuvre of accessible, artfully wrought sci-fi music that is scary and cool and entertaining – or both?
“Oh, wow. I don’t know,” says Langevin, laughing. “That’s a tough question to answer, really. Our ideas were always pretty much based on environmental concepts. So we decided to sort of express our point of view through sci-fi folk tales, sort of. So our message is not necessarily as overtly political as those of the bands we grew up with like Conflict or Crass. But our message is definitely about the environment.”
Langevin continues to charmingly, diplomatically explain that Voivod’s roots come from early punk and hardcore, and that although Voivod’s music is more closely affiliated with prog and metal, their ethos is a DIY/punk ethos, a loosely defined-outlook foregrounding agency, self-reliance and awareness. Fair enough.
So, Langevin has more or less helmed the bridge of the SS Voivod for almost 40 years. Voivod is his life and his life’s work. And the SS Voivod has docked in Atlanta a bunch of times over the years, all of which were memorable and crazy nights.
“Oh yeah – I remember Atlanta,” enthuses Langevin. “Our first show there, I think, was where the Masquerade is right now. [Here, Langevin is referring to the Masquerade’s old, North Avenue location. He was unaware that the Masquerade moved a couple of years ago.] There had never been a show there. So we showed up, and there were a bunch of kids building a stage – and they’re all tripping on acid. We were like, ‘what’s going on? This will never be ready!’
“But they actually did it,” Langevin continues. “They actually got the stage built.
“We ended up soundchecking so late, that there was a crowd waiting there. So we had a moshpit in front of us at the soundcheck. The show went super well. It was a totally wild show. It was hilarious – and I’ll always remember it well.”
Memory, kind of like the old final frontier that the SS Voivod has been traveling nary on two score of decades, is a flexible and sometimes asynchronous construct. This is to say that the tapestry of memory is continually rewoven as we recollect, reconstruct and re-reconstruct the ever-unfolding scroll upon which we chronicle our existence. Langevin’s memory of the first Voivod show in Atlanta may well have been mixed and remixed to such an extent that the space/time continuum was traversed yet again. (After our conversation, I Googled Voivod’s touring history to find out that the band’s first Atlanta show was at the 688 club, opening for Celtic Frost. The 688 was pretty much a dank and dirty hole in the wall that in no way resembles the dank and dirty, cavernous space of the Masquerade, Mach I, even through the cloudy lens of recollection. So my hunch here is that Langevin’s memories of Atlanta shows may have gotten knotted together somehow – as memories do. Still, I’m betting that all of Voivod’s Atlanta shows over the years have been wild. After all, Atlanta has always been a rough and ready, metal/hardcore town, at the ready to throw down for super-heavy bands like Voivod.)
Despite the brain-numbing monotonies of touring, the vagaries of, ahem, “fame,” and the wicked machinations of a music industry that is even more treacherous and terrifying than Voivod’s dystopian visions-come-true, Langevin still projects a sense of awe and wonder about his band and its unlikely success. 2019 is, after all, the victory lap year for Voivod.
“Oh, wow,” says Langevin. “When we started, it was a bit hard for us to imagine a long-term career. I mean, we come from northern Quebec and we barely spoke English at all. So having any kind of career or any kind of success seemed like a distant dream. I actually waited until our first album, War and Pain, came out before I could drop out of school (laughing.) I mean, I wasn’t too sure this was going to work. But the album had a very strong impact in the new thrash metal scene that was exploding back then. And that was really the first time I had a feeling we could have an international career.
“But it’s been 36 years now. We formed in January ’83. So I would have never imagined this. It seems to me that we are playing more than ever around the planet these days. We owe it all to our fans, who are very loyal. It’s quite, how can I say, um – well, we are privileged to have such a long career. It’s rare.”