Let’s ruminate on when thrash got subversive: Voivod and Carnivore

By the mid-1980s thrash metal had captured the hearts and minds of the metal community, it had established itself as a legitimate musical variation on heavy guitar music with many of the originators achieving legitimate mainstream success. The lyrics were typically obsessed with justice, comments on the threat of nuclear war and the coming apocalypse, corruption, greed, and war. By 1985 however, with the Cold War gradually running out of steam and the threat of nuclear war diminishing, thrash was forced to reinvent itself as a protagonist that told new stories, rather than the antagonist that attacks the accepted narrative. Sci-fi provide new source material for this counter culture, and new means of expressing the ills of our species at the fag-end of the 20th century. Coroner, Watchtower, Dead Brain Cells, and Voivod took a unique approach to this dystopian thrash, developing a fresh take on this aggressive music that probably saved it from being consigned to the bin of the one trick pony, it also forced mainstream players such as Megadeth and Anthrax to up their game. Around the same time thrash metal was ready for a new form of social commentary: satire.

Carnivore – that short lived but creative burst of thrash energy on the peripheries of late 80s extreme metal – are often remember as one of the great American crossover acts along with D.R.I and Suicidal Tendencies, but their self-titled debut of 1985 is more akin to thrash infused with some heavy metal influences than it is to hardcore punk. The album is made up of punchy but surprisingly melodic thrash numbers, delivered with over the top aggression akin to Venom, but there is a degree of awareness as to the power of humour as a satirical weapon that was not present in the likes of Venom. The lyrics are at once an homage to the themes of late 80s thrash and a satire of them. For instance, rather than openly critiquing the machoism and misogyny, the black and white morality, of the American, they write a song like ‘Male Supremacy’, an overtly celebratory piece that is at once cuttingly satirical and fun.

Much of this music exhibits Peter Steele’s pop sensibilities even at this early stage of his career, and they are worked seamlessly into this aggressive and entertaining music. They may lack the virtuosity of their more metallic contemporaries, but the appeal of this music stems from its primitivism as much as from its unexpectedly nuanced sense of melody. So was Carnivore’s debut representative of a small watershed in underground metal? It’s not so much that metal artists had not displayed a sense of humour before, but rather that these artists were not only parodying the style, but playing it just as well as any of their peers, and also satirising their chosen subject matter, offering new subtlety and meaning beyond other thrash artists at the time who merely offered a commentary of their age. Carnivore certainly were not the only artist to capitalise on this, but it is interesting with the knowledge of the direction that Peter Steele’s music would eventually take that his deadpan humour was very much apparent even at this early stage of his career.

Speaking of other artists who were similarly subversive: Voivod had already been making waves by 1985 with an almost unbearably abrasive take on thrash that revelled in songs of war, weaponry, and the apocalypse, with a very pronounced love of low budget sci-fi imagery and themes. By 1987 however, these young Canadians were ready for a dose of sophistication. 1987’s ‘Killing Technology’ is the very definition of a transitional album. Voivod’s previous two efforts were incompressible noise that became a parody of thrash whether the artists intended them to be or not, the albums that followed were to take dissonant technical thrash to new levels, remarrying this music with its prog rock routes and inspiring a generation of death metal artists to create conceptual worlds beyond the brute. The Voivod of 1984-5 however, barely knew how to play their instruments save guitarist Piggy, who pretty much carried this band through the early days of its career. The result was compensation through noise, and a great deal of maniacal shouting, in a strong French-Canadian accent.

By 1987 their ambition finally stretched far enough to carry Voivod to a new level of creativity. ‘Killing Technology’ was distinct in two ways. The first and most obvious is more expansive songs. The riffs are just as frantic as ever, the music is never allowed to settle around one mood or passage for long, but the overall result, upon repeated listens, forms a conceptual and narrative whole that requires time to fully take shape. Snake’s voice may not yet be able to carry a melody effectively, but he is able to express more with his voice through rhythm and emotion than many cleaner singers manage, controlling it to sound either passionate or robotic depending on what the mood requires. The second important feature that was to define Voivod’s music and prove an invaluable influence on the coming technical death metal movement was the use of dissonance. This may have been an accident of their previous works, but here Voivod embrace an almost intolerably abrasive sound full in the face and somehow manage to construct extremely complex and expressive music from these sharp, alienating chords, this piercing guitar tone, this distorted bass, these frantic drums, and this raspy voice.

From this release on Voivod would be known as THE sci-fi metal group. Their lyrics explored the Frankensteinian themes of humanity’s creations gone awry, the possibility of aliens, individual alienation and insanity in collective societies, and in the case of the song ‘Ravenous Medicine’, the cost of scientific dogma on animals. And it’s not just the lyrics that warranted this reputation. The music owes as much to Discharge and Motorhead as it does to King Crimson and Yes. So dense is this album, that it really does take a few listens to reach the same wavelength as these musicians, on first listen you will be begging for Piggy to tune his guitar, on second listen you will be hoping that Snake takes some cough medicine, but with each spin comes a greater understanding of Voivod’s world. They are not the most technically proficient musicians, nor the most aggressive that extreme metal had to offer at the time, and they certainly were not the most melodic or well put together songs from a purely academic point of view, but the combination of all four of these artists honing their craft together created a unique world beyond what extreme metal thought it was capable of at the time, without being the ‘most’ of any particular musical property.

Too often thrash of the mid 1980s, before death metal had reached fruition, was defined as an antithesis. Whether this be as counter-culture, or as the fastest music, the hardest, the most aggressive, or the most shocking lyrics, an arms race in extremity was taking place in parallel to the real-world arms race it so often commented on. The result, like any artistic movement that is defined by its enemies and targets more than by building something new, was oftentimes two dimensional music, the novelty of which quickly wore off, which made works of lasting merit a rarity. It was only when thrash began to subvert itself that a new voice took shape in the second half of that decade. Carnivore, although not the only example of satire in extreme metal at the time, did so in such a way that their music could be taken as both a comment on the state of this music at the time, and as a satire of the Cold War era at large. The music was one moment aggressive and the next thoughtful and catchy. If more notice had been taken of this approach, mocking this subculture would have become tricky if not impossible. Again, there is no doubt that Voivod had a sense of humour, and critics that take their first two albums seriously have somewhat missed the point, but by ‘Killing Technology’ something much more important had arisen, extreme metal that was its own point, rather than the antithesis to an existing narrative. The music is more complex than Carnivore, the commentary on their times slightly more subtle, and ultimately the message is longer lasting, with a diverse influence on extreme metal and alt-rock of the decade to follow. Voivod at the time were also hailed as the perfect antidote to the camp machoism of metal, which they did through simply by being themselves, creating intelligent music plucked from their own imaginations rather than facing the enemy head on like Carnivore. For this reason Voivod’s approach proved to be the longer lasting and more rewarding direction for this music. Carnivore remains an historical curiosity, and a damn fun and imaginative one at that, but maybe it was unfair of me to pair it with ‘Killing Technology’, an album deserving of its place within the lexicon of releases that carried heavy metal into the next decade as a serious art-form beyond the realms of extremity alone.

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