Warriors of Ice: A Voivod Primer, Part 1

In lieu of my usual Thrash Thursday fare, I’m going to finally begin the long-talked-about saga of Voivod.  They started out as a thrash metal band, so it technically fits, and besides, it’s my blog.  The Voivod story will definitely spill into at least two parts, and possibly more, because the story becomes a bit complicated as it goes on, and quite frankly, I have other stuff to do.  Now, without further ado…

Voivod originally formed in Jonquiere, Quebec, Canada (about 300 miles north of Montreal) in 1981.  Visionary drummer and artist Michele Langevin spent much of his time as a young boy drawing, as well as reading science fiction and horror magazines and books.  He also lived with a near-constant fear of nuclear war (this was pretty common in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before fear of terrorism became the new thing), and he grew up near a massive aluminum processing/manufacturing plant (the largest in North America), which he could see out his bedroom window, and which often gave him nightmares.  While reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he came upon a word that stuck with him – “voivode”, an old Slavic word which meant “warlord”, and which eventually came to denote a governor of a province (much like an English duke or a prince).  He began to combine this intriguing word with his frozen, mechanical surroundings to create a “post-nuclear vampire” character who ruled over a frozen land that Langevin dubbed Morgoth, where constant war was the norm.  Who could’ve guessed that a child’s fantasy would go on to influence heavy metal for decades to follow?

In 1981, guitarist Denis D’Amour asked Jean-Yves Thériault to play bass with him so they could start a band.  Thériault knew Langevin from high school, and the three attempted to make music together, only to disband soon after, because, in the words of Langevin, “everything went wrong because nobody could play.  [D’Amour] was the only true musician.”  Langevin and Thériault took a year off to learn their instruments, and the band reformed in full in 1982 and brought Denis Bélanger into the fold as vocalist in 1983.  In the spirit of NWOBHM heroes Venom,  the members of the newly dubbed Voivod took on nicknames (the reasons for the nicknames can vary, depending on the source): Bélanger became “Snake”, because he was tall and thin and moved in weird ways while singing; Thériault became “Blacky”, because he often had a bad attitude; D’Amour became “Piggy”, because he was chubby (although I once read an interview with Blacky, in which he said that D’Amour was called Piggy because he “smoked weed like a fucking hog”); and Langevin became Away, because his mind was always somewhere else (in that same interview, Blacky also indicated that Away had a propensity for being late to/not showing up for practice – i.e., he was always away).

The band played ceaselessly, recording live performances to use as demo tapes, and eventually garnering the attention of Brian Slagel of Los Angeles, California-based Metal Blade Records.  Slagel commissioned a song from the band for his upcoming Metal Massacre V compilation, where they would appear alongside such (soon-to-be) legendary bands as Overkill, Metal Church, Hellhammer, and Fates Warning.  Voivod’s song “Condemned to the Gallows” also earned them a one-album deal with Metal Blade, and their debut, War and Pain, was released later that same year (1984).

War and Pain is a nasty, loud, cacophonous beast of an album, just barely holding itself together, and punctuated by the band’s already noticeably off-kilter time changes. Paul Sutter, reviewing the album for influential British metal magazine Kerrang!, called War and Pain “probably the worst record I have ever heard in my entire life…like a moose being squashed by a steamroller (the vocals), whilst putting a strong magnetic current through a dustbin half-full of ball bearings (the band).”  Sutter said that like it was a bad thing.

Away’s original concept of the Voivod and his frozen lands played a small but significant role on the first album – the cover represents Away’s interpretation of the Voivod, and the very loose story on the album tells of the Voivod being awakened/revived after a nuclear war to reclaim its rightful place as ruler of Morgoth.  I call the story “very loose” because the lyrics aren’t exactly understandable or sensible, being in English as they are, while the band’s native language is Québécois French.  This makes for some unintentionally hilarious lyrics, such as “Why don’t you believe on it/ You know what we want/ Go shit! I’m not a fish/ We’re gonna burn your home” (“Suck Your Bone”), but does not necessarily make for the most cohesive story.  Essentially, you get the gist of the story from the album title and cover, from the song titles, and from the apocalyptic sounds coming from the record: the Voivod is back, and he is gonna fuck you up.  At the end of the album, the Voivod is defeated in “Nuclear War”, and you’re finally allowed to breathe.  Then the band’s second album, 1986’s so-very-aptly-titled Rrröööaaarrr, comes in behind you and fucks you up all over again.

The very basic story of Rrröööaaarrr finds the Voivod reawakening after several more nuclear wars, this time as “Korgüll the Exterminator”, an unstoppable killing machine of unimaginable destruction, hell-bent on avenging his previous defeat.  Korgüll is immortalized on both the album’s cover (again painted by Away), as well as on the eponymous opening track.  People who are utterly horrified/not impressed by what they heard on War and Pain are not going to be won over by Rrröööaaarrr.  Where the songs are concerned, there isn’t much difference between the two albums; the real difference here is in the production.  To the point, Rrröööaaarrr sounds like it was recorded directly into an old-school tape recorder stuck inside an empty 50 gallon oil drum.  It’s maybe my least favorite Voivod album, but I still think it’s fucking great.  Standout tracks include “Ripping Headaches”, “Thrashing Rage”, “Slaughter in a Grave”, and the subtle-as-a-hammer-to-the-teeth “Fuck Off and Die”.  The title of the album closer, “To the Death”, has become the rallying cry of Voivod fans since the album’s release (not unlike “Up the Irons!” to an Iron Maiden fan).

By the time the band’s third album, 1987’s Killing Technology arrived, Korgüll had destroyed Morgoth and escaped to outer space in search of new worlds to conquer.  The songs began to get noticeably different here – song lengths and structures became more fluid and open-ended, and the band had gotten much better at playing their instruments.  In fact, it’s safe to say that this is the last Voivod album that could rightly be called “thrash metal” from beginning to end.  The album was recorded in Berlin, and the influence of German thrash metal is undeniably present.  Some of the band’s very best songs come from Killing Technology, including the title track, “Forgotten in Space”, nuclear paranoia-fueled original album closer “This is Not an Exercise” (CD re-issues close with “Cockroaches”, which was originally released on a 12″ picture disc companion single to the album, and also include “Too Scared to Scream” which was the A-side to “Cockroaches”), and the brilliant “Ravenous Medicine” (which is the first Voivod song I ever heard).  The video for “Ravenous Medicine” features a lot of Away’s artwork, which is a nice bonus, plus you get to hear Snake warble “you’re going to the science hospital!”, which is a great fucking line.

In 1988, with outer space all used up, Korgüll created  a new dimension in a laboratory experiment, then traveled there to observe its inhabitants, extract their knowledge, and destroy them all and their dimension.  The evidence of these otherwise undocumented events is the band’s first foray into full-on concept album, Dimension Hatröss, and this album absolutely changed the way I think about music, and to some extent, about life itself.  Musically, Dimension Hatröss finds the band evolved far beyond the sounds that made Paul Sutter wish he was deaf just four short years before.  Of particular note is Piggy’s guitar work – his already-common use of dissonant and minor chords came to full fruition here, and some of my favorite sounds of all time are parts of this album.  In fact, I can’t even choose a favorite song (or songs) from Dimension Hatröss – rather, I have favorite parts of the album, and favorite sounds from the album.  Like any great concept album, musical and lyrical themes reoccur throughout the album, and the end is so sublime and magnificent that I can’t listen to the album just once – one listen demands a second listen, immediately following.  Since I can’t choose a favorite song, I’ll share the two songs for which the band made videos, “Tribal Convictions” and “Psychic Vacuum”.

Seriously, I cannot recommend Dimension Hatröss highly enough.  Get yourself a copy, turn off your phone, pop open a beverage of your choice, and listen to the album from beginning to end, while reading the lyrics, the way albums are meant to be experienced.  It might take a couple of listens to get it, but that’s okay – it’s meant to be listened to again and again (and again, and again, and again…).

The final chapter in the saga of Korgüll the Exterminator (for a while, anyway) came on 1989’s Nothingface, which marked an even more drastic change in the band’s sound.  Nothingface was about as close to a breakthrough as the band would come, until more recently, reaching number 114 on the Billboard 200 charts.  The album was released on Mechanic Records, which was a heavy metal sub-label of MCA Records.  They embarked on a headline club tour of the US in support of the album, bringing a couple of up-and-coming bands called Soundgarden and Faith No More along with them, and finished the tour cycle with some Canadian dates opening for Rush.

Nothingface ties in with the original concept a bit more loosely, but the story is still in place – after using up and destroying Dimension Hatröss, Korgüll destroys its own personality and tries to assimilate the personalities of others, but to no avail, and becomes trapped inside its own mind.  All but two of the songs on Nothingface deal in some way or another with fear, with depression, or with mental processes going wrong, and the time changes in the music ultimately create an atmosphere of confusion in the listener, bringing you somewhat in line with what the Voivod is experiencing.  This album is perhaps best known for the amazing cover of “Astronomy Domine”, a Pink Floyd song from that band’s brilliant first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967).  Away has stated in interviews that they recorded it and included it on the album in order to try and get airplay, although it really does fit nicely within the overall framework of the album.  The plan payed off to some extent – “Astronomy Domine” was featured in pretty regular rotation on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, and to this day, when I talk to people about Voivod (which can happen pretty often), I find people who know the song and/or video from the days when MTV meant something other than white trash twentysomethings getting drunk and fucking each other.

I’m also going to share two songs from Nothingface: the title track and the side one closer “Missing Sequences”, which explores memory loss in a person mining aluminum on an unknown planet.  The latter is one of my very favorite Voivod songs, and if you listen with the right kind of ears, you can hear traces of the influence of fellow Canadians Rush.

Some major changes befell the band when they entered the studio to record the highly anticipated follow-up to Nothingface, but that will be a subject for another time.  For now, I recommend getting your hands on a copy of Dimension HatrössNothingface, and Killing Technology, in that order (the first two can wait until later), and diving deep into the strange, beautiful, and sometimes frightening waters that are Voivod.  And it goes without saying that you should keep on staying heavy.

To the death!

5 thoughts on “Warriors of Ice: A Voivod Primer, Part 1

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  3. Pingback: Stay Heavy Time Capsule, Volume 1 – 1988: Thrash Metal’s Finest Hour? | Stay Heavy

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  5. Pingback: This Goes Way Beyond Expectations: A Thing About Voivod’s New Album, The Wake | Stay Heavy

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