Voivod’s artisanal prog

The inventor shakes hands with the museum curator

Following its initially burst of popularity in the early 1970s, progressive rock was famously subjected to a spate of overly zealous ire at the hands of punk’s utilitarian efficiency. It therefore always struck me as rather touching that only a few years later one of punk’s shabby offspring decided to re-open the Pandora’s box of circular esoterica that was progressive rock and look inside. In the early 1980s, young metalheads were perhaps unaware of prog’s standing amongst “respectable” music fans. Unaware that asking for prog albums in the local record shop would raise eyebrows to the heavens, and lead them to be ushered into a backroom filled with dusty Emerson, Lake & Palmer albums, specialist pornography, and other miscellany of niche vulgarity too shameful to display front of house. But metalheads are rarely troubled by the performative misgivings of popular wisdom.  

Progressive rock then, would find one important avenue of resurrection from an ancestor of its old enemy, punk rock. One of the earliest and most celebrated adherents of progressive thrash was Canada’s Voivod. This quartet are unique for their dramatic yet utterly transparent evolution. They are “of” the metal community, in that they embodied its early DIY ethos, they developed incrementally from album to album, but there remained an idea that was “Voivod” expressing itself throughout their many stylistic twists and turns.

For this reason, metalheads claim a communal ownership over their body of work, one that the band themselves have embraced. Their growth as artists is synonymous with the maturation of metal as an idea and a community. They did not land from the aether as readymade, high concept sages laying down dense tomes of technically drenched musicality. They bubbled up from the soil.

Voivod started out as a basic thrash band that could barely play their instruments, propped up by a highly accomplished guitarist in the late Piggy. ‘War and Pain’ and ‘Rrröööaaarrr’ are widely regarded as two false starts, made up of sloppy, punk ridden thrash, a messy concoction of Discharge, Motorhead, and Iron Maiden, with heavily accented vocals of idiosyncratic distorted barks and surrealist rants. Piggy does his utmost to bring solidity to this viscous mess via an array of hooks, licks, and frantic soloing. But despite his best efforts, his signature riffing style was not yet developed enough to bring this loose array of cacophonous noise into focus.

Many have tried to salvage the reputation of these albums, reclaiming them as works of outlier crossover thrash, or worse, rebranding them as subversively avant-garde. Whilst it’s true that they slot nicely into the narrative of germinal extreme metal alongside Bathory, Celtic Frost, and Teutonic thrash, they remain unremarkable within this canon. A charming relic, but ultimately redundant.

But it is worth calling attention to the fact that even at this point Voivod were engaged in an enthusiastic project of world building. The jagged artwork of drummer Away was immediately recognisable on these album covers, as was their long time mascot and conceptual vehicle Korgüll. The cross-pollination with the aesthetic of crust punk forbears Amebix is apparent. But more importantly, this was a clear expression of adolescent daydreams made flesh. The ability and resources required to give full voice to these ambitious narratives may have been found wanting. But Voivod were already striking out on their own path. Today it is commonplace for metal bands to craft worlds of fantasy and alternative realities from their own imagination, using them as a vessel to pour all manner of sonic expression into. But in the early 1980s metal was for the most part still borrowing from pre-existing theological, mythological, or historical material to furnish their lyrical themes.  

But following these grassroots beginnings, in the space of three years Voivod would emerge with their most celebrated and ambitious trilogy of albums in ‘Killing Technology’, ‘Dimension Hatröss’, and ‘Nothingface’. These albums slotted neatly into a growing tendency toward progressive music within thrash. As well as Coroner, DBC, and Watchtower, more direct thrashers such as Metallica and Megadeth were indulging in a progressive edge by 1986.

But what makes this triumvirate of Voivod albums special is the fact that they are Voivod albums first, progressive music second. There is a clear and distinct identity sitting atop whatever influence or technique Voivod are exploring, a guiding purpose that kept any overbearing pretention in check. To further unpack this idea, it’s worth examining why a band like Voivod were able to salvage the reputation of progressive rock following its brutal assassination at the hands of punk.

The answer is actually rather obvious. When we look to the original explosion of progressive rock in the UK in the early 1970s, the majority of its adherents were from affluent backgrounds, they had access to formal training (although it should be noted that Rick Wakeman’s parents often went without food to pay for his piano lessons), they were schooled in music theory, steeped in the classical canon, indulged in jazz, folk, and obviously the swirling oeuvre of late 60s counter culture. They were of a class that had sufficient leisure time to become highly proficient on their instruments, but also to study music history, and of course purchase the equipment best suited to whatever musical choose-your-own-adventure took their fancy.

The resulting body of work was an uncanny concoction of influences. Or more precisely, it was postmodern. Elements of the Western Harmonic Tradition would mesh with soul, blues, English folk, classic literature, sci-fi, Cold War hysteria, pastoral England, church music, and sound art. The best in this field – the artists that stood the test of time – marshalled this eclectic brew into unique musical expressions that nevertheless left room for their own voices to shine through; Camel, Genesis, King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator etc. But for the majority, the resulting cacophonies were a forgettable mess.

Voivod approached music from the entirely opposite direction to these mild mannered academics. From amateurish roots, with no formal training, steeped in whatever underground music they had access to, they whipped up a concoction stitched together from the dissonant hardcore punk of Die Kreuzen, the militaristic bombast of Motorhead, the nihilistic urgency of Discharge, and a plethora of early thrash and heavy metal soundbites. Their vision far surpassed their ability to communicate it. Or, to put it another way, they took a modernist approach. This was no formalist juxtaposition of myriad influences from different ages and regions. This was simply a reflection – and not an entirely pessimistic one – of its surroundings. And this is why these albums remain stubbornly  contemporary despite their considerable vintage.

In 1987 thrash had only just begun to explore its true potential. But from the second one hits play on ‘Killing Technology’ one can sense something has shifted since ’Rrröööaaarrr’, something that would set a new, divergent course for the genre as a whole. It bears all the hallmarks of progressive music, angular phrasing, frequent tempo changes, dense compositions. But this was no sudden break with the raw garage thrash of the first two albums. ‘Killing Technology’ is a dirty, abrasive, punky album of gnarled, dissonant riffing, coarse vocalisations, and adrenaline fuelled bursts of speed. Equally, the cover art, again penned by Away, retains the aesthetic charm of an idle scribble on an exercise book doodled at the back of the classroom.

The lurching, spontaneous, freedom of early Voivod was blended with real ambition, complex compositional architecture, and a genuine attempt at world building. This latter point extends not just to their expansion of the Korgüll high concept narrative, but also to the music itself. The guitar tone is thin, harsh, like nails scraping across a blackboard. When articulating outrageously elongated ascending scale runs it is borderline unbearable. But once the mind tunes into the internal logic of Piggy’s distinctive style it becomes addictive, and almost painful to revert to more tonally grounded music.

‘Dimension Hatröss’ would build upon this basic framework. The song writing and musicianship would be tightened up, the vision expanded, a supervenient atmosphere of late Cold War paranoia seeped into the corners, giving the album a sense of lurking menace lacking on the jagged violence of ‘Killing Technology’. Again, this is progressive metal as an exercise in exoterica, in modernism, it comes from within the zeitgeist, rather than floating above it whilst stitching together disconnected cultural artefacts piecemeal into alienating hierarchical manifestos. 

There is an idea that is Voivod, defining these albums over and above any latent antecedents. A subdued, philosophical reflection on the human condition within a technologically driven society. But one subtle and understated enough to hold enduring resonance today. It borrows from prog’s complexity, and its willingness to push musical ideas to their ultimate extreme, in ways at times extremely painful to listen to, but it approaches the listener on their level, inviting them to inhabit these multidimensional narratives rather than posing as superior emanations from some celestial sphere.

It should be noted that Voivod also resurrected another forgotten dimension of classic prog: acute, unbearable abrasion. From within the white heat of the punk/prog wars, many individuals on either side of the divide probably dismissed a lot of music out of hand that they would otherwise have enjoyed. With punks desperately trying to wrest rock music back into the pub, the garage, the street, and progressive rock bombastically striding off into the sunlit uplands of musical sophistry, tribalism trumped taste.

Through all this, one facet that was lost as a result was the fact that a lot of progressive rock was heavy, alienating, energetic, almost primally so. The intro to Yes’s ‘Close to the Edge’, the jagged dissonance of King Crimson, the theatrically dense jazz of Van der Graaf Generator, all dispensed with any hope of ingratiating themselves to the listener, instead challenging them to embrace music as the communication of ideas rather than a mere vehicle for pure hedonism. In this aspect it is kindred to pure punk.

Equally, under the boiling pressure of 80s underground metal, the pent up energy and power its adherents were trying to express would find a welcome outlet in allowing their imaginations to wander into angular chord shapes, forbidden transitions, and illogical melodic developments selected for their narrative potentials over anything remotely pleasant. This aspect of prog’s legacy in metal is often forgotten in a post Queensrÿche/Dream Theater landscape.

This rich brew of artisanal musicianship, fearless curiosity, and imaginative world building would stay with Voivod for the release of ‘Nothingface’ in 1989, their first major label outing and the last entry in this much loved trilogy. The final specs of dust would finally be polished off, the progressive element would be brought to the fore, as would a label-boss-pleasing cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Astronomy Domine’ (we’ll ignore the fact that Pink Floyd, especially Syd Barrett era Floyd, is the entry level whitebread proggers choice). But the continuity is remarkable.

The compositions walk the same line of angular dissonance, the diminished chord Die Kruezen influence is still rampant, as is their particular approach to piecing a narrative together. But the borders of technological mysticism have been swept away in order to descant on psychological immediacy, internal discord, and mental turmoil. But the underlying character is still Voivod. Indeed, upon relistening to this album again it’s striking just how un-metal it is. A brew of hardcore punk, alt rock, and progressive flavours, but the Voivod character almost wills it into a recognisably metal character, with their own distinct brand of complex thrash gluing all these disparate pieces together.

Through the jagged world of metallic dangers and the hostility of space exploration on ‘Killing Technology’, societal hubris and the inhumanity of technologically advanced societies on ‘Dimension Hatröss’, to the warped psychological turmoil on ‘Nothingface’, Voivod retained two things that made this such an interesting and enduring marriage of prog ambition and punk accessibility. One is a clear and distinct concept, both thematically and compositionally. The ideas they wished to convey, and the world they invited the listener to inhabit were larger than any specific influence or tradition they worked with. They therefore retained a strong sense of continuity from album to album despite the obvious stylistic and aesthetic lurches between 1987 and 1989.

The second is that despite the united front Voivod presented as a band, each individual member brought their own unmistakable contribution to the totality. Piggy is perhaps one of the most underrated guitar heroes of metal. His style is instantly recognisable, and had a profound impact on a considerable swathe of death and black metal to follow. He was one of the first metal guitarists to weaponise dissonance, to craft disconnected narratives through riffs that existed in utter spite of orthodoxy. But across this trilogy he also demonstrated an adeptness for traditional harmonic shapes, and straightforward showmanship.

And whilst it’s true that he carried the other members of Voivod in the early days, once Away and Blacky developed themselves as musicians they became one of the most iconic rhythm sections in thrash, unsettling the flow of the music with undulating, disjointed builds and stutters of sonic energy. Equally, whilst Snake is no Rob Halford, his bizarre vocal style, germinating from hardcore punk but delivered with – from the perspective of a native English speaker – off-centre phrasing and cadence, quickly morphed into a robotic croon, weaving its way through the dense synthetic miasma of the music with drab yet oddly catchy melodic hooks. 

It remains a shame that their most obvious legacy more recently has been a slue of novelty metal bands aping the now retro sci-fi thematic material and aesthetic appeal. But Voivod’s ambition, fearless exploration, and unstoppable curiosity is an ethos that influenced the course of most metal to follow, particularly those artists on the headier side. But more importantly, they remain a constant reminder that progressive music is not synonymous with inaccessibility, and should not be limited to a collection of musical techniques, complex scales, and time signatures available only to academics. Their enduring punk mindset salvaged the legacy of music as a project of self expansion, whilst their willingness to push boundaries was kept in check by adherence to a specific and decidedly grass roots orientated vision. 

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