35 Years In, Prog-Thrash Greats Voivod Are Still Reaching for Outer Space
Guitarist Dan Mongrain explains how his classical training helped lead the Quebec legends into new dimensions on their 14th album, 'The Wake'.
Photo courtesy of Century Media
In the early 80s, California was ground zero for thrash metal, but Metallica and Slayer’s cutting edge contemporaries also came from further afield. These included the Teutonic wave of Sodom, Kreator, and Destruction, Switzerland's Celtic Frost,and notably, Quebec’s Voivod, who staked out its iconoclastic territory by fusing the primitive aggression of Venom and Motörhead with the complex, fractured arrangements of British prog bands like King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator. Metal Blade was quick to sign the Canadian quartet, issuing their debut, War and Pain, in 1984.
By 1989, Voivod had reined in their tempos, embraced high fidelity production, and reaped the commercial rewards thereof. Critical acclaim resulted in a major label deal and airtime on MTV, and at, their commercial peak, they were touring as headliners over up-and-comers Faith No More and Soundgarden. But, unfortunately, the bubble burst. The band missed the 1991 alternative zeitgeist like a rocket blasting off course into uncharted void. Metallica excepted, few metal bands survived the grunge explosion, and Voivod had taken a left-field turn into psychedelia with 1991's Angel Rat, an album that puzzled even their core thrash fan base.
Still, diehard fans like me—and young future member Dan Mongrain, who would end up joining the band decades later—followed Voivod through their creative and sometimes baffling forays. When original vocalist Denis “Snake” Bélanger left the group in the mid-90s, Voivod found themselves heading back underground, playing to smaller audiences, and working with indie labels again.
By the dawn of the Millennium, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted left the biggest metal band to join (arguably) the best one. During his six year tenure with the band, he gave Voivod a much-needed shot in the arm, recording three albums with them and getting them on Ozzfest. But tragedy struck when founding guitarist and main songwriter Denis “Piggy” D’Amour succumbed to cancer in 2005. Most considered the band to be over and done when he was put to rest.
2008, Voivod's legacy was cemented. No one sounded like them. There was an important body of work, a worldwide fanbase, and unparalleled respect from rock scene figureheads like Dave Grohl. Festivals kept calling, and, eventually, the surviving members, including original bassist Jean-Yves "Blacky" Thériault, agreed to perform. D'Amour's patented style seemed impossible to replicate, so they needed a truly fantastic guitarist to come close to filling his shoes, and they found one by the name of Dan Mongrain, whose progressive death metal outfit Martyr was already renowned in Montreal.
"When I started, I was pretty nervous," he says. "But as soon as I got the blessing from Piggy's parents and sister, I was like, 'OK, I can go on and nothing really matters.' Nobody can tell me that it's not a place for me to be. Voivod to me was part of my music vocabulary and DNA since I started listening to it, and it's probably the band that I've listened to the most in my entire life, all music genres apart."
Stepping into D'Amour's shoes should have been impossible, but seeing is believing. After helping the hobbled band back on course, Mongrain eventually brought his friend Dominique "Rocky" Laroche in on bass. For the first time ever, Voivod has a songwriting team that can read music and discuss it in scholarly tones.
"Rocky was from the same town as me and we saw our [same] first metal show," he explains "We didn't know each other [then], but we were there when Voivod played in '89 and I was 13 years old and maybe he was 15. We always grew up on Voivod. So we wanted to create something that we would want to hear from a new Voivod record and try to feed our inner fan."
The Wake is nearly an hour of prog and metal that deftly draws blood from the band's prime era. The mutant psych-thrash of Dimension Hatröss dances with the epic, crystalline sensibilities of The Outer Limits. But unlike tasteful archaeological efforts like Black Sabbath's 13 or Judas Priest's Firepower, The Wake reaches forward, keeping Voivod orbiting miles above any retro quagmires.
One of D'Amour's favorite tricks has been quotation from modern classical realms. The intro to 1987 chiller "Forgotten In Space" was lifted from Australian composer Brian May's soundtrack to Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and a sizable chunk of "Pre-Ignition" was plucked wholly out of Stravinksy. On the The Wake's fourth track, "Iconspiracy," there's a recurring section that is hauntingly similar to one of Wendy Carlos' TRON themes.
"When I was studying music in college, I heard Stravinsky for the first time and it came up to my mind, 'Oh, Stravinsky copied Voivod!' Oh no, it's the other way around!" Mongrain recalls. "And then I realized how Piggy was such a genius transposing a whole symphonic orchestra of hundreds of musicians into a three-piece band of bass guitar and drums, and vocals of course. It takes such a genius mind to accomplish that kind of stuff."
Mongrain's own genius conjures classical flair as well, and The Wake is the first Voivod album to feature strings, thanks to his schooling.
"When I heard the ending of [album finale, the 12-minute long Sonic Mycelium], I was like, 'Oh. I hear some strings there. I really hear a string quartet playing there' he says. "And I thought, 'Oh no! More work [laughs].' So I bit my pen and I started to write for a string quartet."
Mongrain ended up conducting, adding symphonic sheen to several songs, but where he really steps out of the shadows is in his guitar leads. "Of course Piggy influenced me a lot in the writing, and chording and structures," he explains. "But as far as guitar solos I was more influenced from Alan Holdsworth and fusion jazz players."
Toward the end of his life, D'Amour had excised most guitar leads from the band's music, focusing on a leaner, almost punk-influenced sound. Mongrain has returned Voivod to form, with clear, spiraling runs around his fretboard.
"Maybe I have a very different approach to soloing than Piggy," he says. "But I wanted to stay true to myself. The solos are my own voice and my signature. I tried to fit it into the Voivod landscape."
It's easily the most dynamic Voivod album to date, as the creeping, subdued sections late in "The End of Dormancy" and the ambient outro of "Orb Confusion" deftly illustrate, and there are large sections of The Wake that could hardly be called metal at all. "For sure it's prog. It's fusion," Mongrain agrees.
The Wake also sets itself apart by featuring the most melodic performance of reinstated vocalist Snake Bélanger's career, as is heard on moments like the chorus of second single, "Always Moving" (Bélanger returned for 2003's self-titled album). "Sometimes the first melody he came up with is the same that you hear on the album," Mongrain says. "He's very talented at finding his way through a very dissonant and chaotic atmosphere. Not a lot of singers can write as much strong melody as he can write or compose or improvise right away over those kinds of chords."
As melodic and well-produced as the album is, distorted riffs and double bass drum patterns do thread and cycle throughout as well. Founding drummer and Voivod conceptual artist Michel "Away" Langevin turns in another tasteful percussion performance, and he did it all in two days.
"Away nailed every part very fast. He's a one-taker," says Mongrain. That opened up time to write an extended eighth tune for the album that's something of an overture, welding riffs from all the preceding songs together into a new piece. Bélanger even weaves in a few vocal lines from "Jack Luminous," the 17-minute epic from Voivod's 1993 opus The Outer Limits.
In the wake of The Wake, Voivod's future is blinding as the sun. The band is clearly having the time of their lives, and has hit a new creative plateau that is unprecedented for a band in their age bracket.
"We worked very well as a team and with respect and with no ego in the way because once an idea's out there, it's not yours anymore," Mongrain says." It lives by itself and you have to feed it the right things."
Follow Nathan Carson on Twitter for more technical ecstasy.