Monday, December 16, 2013

Voivod - Target Earth (2013)

Bands don't often get a second chance at glory.  In fact, most bands don't even get a first shot.  They record material, get signed by a label, get a few accolades (if the music is solid), then fade into relative obscurity.  Very few bands rise above their peers to make their mark.  Voivod did just that in the late 1980's with 3 progressively (pardon the pun) more exciting albums in a row.  First was "Killing Technology", which kept the thrash aesthetic of the previous releases but added more technical, angular riffing.  Next came "Dimension Hatross", which tightened the new approach and expanded upon its predecessor.  Finally, there was "Nothingface", which took the ideas of "Dimension Hatross" and created an atmosphere all its own, combined with an excellent melodic approach that birthed what is arguably the band's best album.  So when original vocalist Denis "Snake" Belanger" left the band after 1993's "The Outer Limits" release, some thought that would be the end of Voivod.  But they emerged as a 3-piece with new bassist/vocalist Eric Forest and re-visited the more aggressive thrash days of yore, while keeping much of the sci-fi element and not forsaking the progressive elements that brought them to the front of the scene.  When "Snake" came back to the band and they put out their eponymous 2003 album 10 years after his departure, it seemed as though they were moving in the right direction.  Tragedy struck the band, however, when original guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour was diagnosed (a 2nd time) with cancer, and after battling with it a few years, finally gave up the ghost in 2005.  He left his band-mates enough guitar tracks and song ideas for 2 albums worth of material, but fans once again feared the reinvigorated band would die.

Enter guitarist Dan "Chewy" Mongrain in 2008 to help the band along during a number of live shows in support of the "Katorz" and up-coming "Infini" album material to pay tribute to the band's fallen comrade.  Something happened during his time with the band, however, and he gelled with them more than I suspect any of them would have guessed.  Dan's style was modeled after Piggy's playing, and his playing fit the band like a glove.  A live album in 2009 solidified Chewy's playing as a component of a once again revitalized Voivod, and now 4 years later we have what should permanently cement Chewy as a full-fledged member of the Voivod family in the album "Target Earth", the band's first release of truly new, collaborative material since 2003's self-titled release.

There was a bit of buzz leading up the album's release, hailing it as a triumphant return to form, a return to the "classic" Voivod sound, and the best thing they'd done in years, etc.  That kind of talk gets thrown around a lot when an old band makes a new album, and it's usually just shop talk.  When the rubber meets the road, however, the old dogs don't often deliver on the promise of "returning to their roots".  Voivod, however, has recorded one of the most fulfilling and listenable albums of their career without sounding as though they're repeating themselves too much.  It's a sort of return to the "golden era" of the band's sound and style, without sounding like a rehash, also without forsaking the other material they've released.  So what you get is a decidedly heavy Voivod album that sounds a whole lot like the triumvirate of "Killing Technology" through "Nothingface" with doses of the thrash from the first 2 albums and later Eric Forest material, as well as some of the more groove-oriented stuff present from "Voivod" forward.  It's an excellent summation of the total Voivod sound.  Need more to whet your appetite?  Read on.

For me personally, as a long-time Voivod fan and proponent that "Nothingface" is the band's strongest work, what had been missing for a long time was the angular, jazz-inspired riffing that used interesting time signatures and unique (for metal, anyway) chording.  That was part of what separated Voivod from the rest of the pack, and helped put them in a league all their own.  After E-Force's tenure with Voivod ended and Snake returned to the fold, I never quite felt that they recaptured that approach.  That doesn't mean they didn't have some good riffs, because they did.  "Voivod" was a strong record, and "Katorz" had some interesting ideas, but the overall feel of Piggy's riffs didn't match the strange sci-fi atmosphere the band had created years before.  And though Jason Newstead provided solid bass work during his time with the group, it didn't match the more nimble and interesting playing of original bassist Jean-Yves "Blacky" Theriault.  So with the band back together in its original form, save for Chewy in place of Piggy, the sound has come much more full circle and recalls a more atmospheric and "spacey" feel that the band had lost somewhat in the last 15+ years.

Unlike the occasionally sparse atmosphere of "Nothingface", "Target Earth", by contrast, is far more dense and immediate.  This record is never suffocating, but the almost constantly pulsing bass and propulsive drumming of Michael "Away" Langevin provide a slightly more evenly paced affair than "Nothingface".  The guitar sound has been brought into modern times as well, recalling and touching on the sound of previous albums, but having a nice weighty tone to it.  Chewy's riffing sounds like a late 1980's Piggy with modern production, which I'm sure is what he was aiming for, and the whole band sounds hungry, as if they know they're not going to be around forever and the amount of time they have left to bring the metal is limited.  In short, Voivod sounds as if they know this is the best set of songs they've recorded in years, and they're strutting their stuff because they know they have a winner on their hands.

As I hinted at in the last paragraph, instrumentation sounds great here.  Chewy's guitar sounds a lot like Piggy did on "Nothingface" but with a bit more beef to it, and Blacky's bass has that nice rumble we've come to expect from him, just with a bit more presence due to the production.  Away sounds as good as ever behind the drums (how is he so nimble at his age?), with lots of powerful double bass drumming, snappy snare hits and fills, and crashing cymbals when need be, but his usual dynamics present when the song needs something a bit more subtle.  And Snake is in near top form here, with a good combination of his more gritty approach utilized on recent records and on the band's early material, and the more melodic singing/droning he developed in the mid-late 80's and beyond.  The production itself is spot-on as well, with good separation of instruments and giving everything just enough room to breathe without sacrificing that dense atmosphere I mentioned earlier.

With everything that they've done right, what's not to like here?  My concerns are mostly minor, honestly, so mileage may vary with others.  The final track, "Defiance" feels like a bit of a throwaway, because it's basically a 1-minute instrumental intro, followed by the start of something that fades out shortly after, resulting in a minute-and-a-half track that closes out the album fairly clumsily.  My only suspicion is that Voivod is "pulling a Marvel", essentially giving us a hint of how the next album is going to start by giving us a taste at the end of the current release.  Be that as it may, it's still a bit distracting after an album of such great material.  The cover art has also been a source of frustration for many fans.  Away has done all the Voivod art over the years, and while it hasn't always been top-shelf ("Phobos" or "Kronik" come to mind), this feels quite amateurish.  My final gripe is far more personal, in that, I wish Snake utilized a bit more of the melodic approach to his vocals than the grittier voice, but the heavier nature of the material on the record suited the grittier approach throughout much of the album, so that's simply a preferential thing for me as a fan of his voice.

All in all, this is a very strong record, and indeed, statement from Voivod that they're not going to just go away now that Piggy is no more.  Piggy's memory lives on in the minds of fans like myself, and Voivod has done him proud by making a record worthy of his legacy.  Chewy should be awful proud of himself for striking that balance between aping Piggy and providing his own take on the Voivod sound.  "Target Earth" is a clear victory for the band, and it's my hope that enough fans took notice of this album that the members of Voivod are invigorated and energized so they can go back and write more material for us.  If "Target Earth" is any indication of the caliber of material we can expect from them in the future, we're in for a treat.  If it wasn't already evident, let me be perfectly clear.  Voivod is back, and are here to stay.


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