Voivod, 'Target Earth' (Century Media)

8
Target Earth
Critical Mass
Release Date: January 22, 2013
Label: Century Media

by Chuck Eddy

So you know how heavy metal supposedly, suddenly, got all avant-garde and high-IQ in the past few years, enabling its embracement by the hippest of the bearded Brooklyn hip? Well, whoever you're banging your microbrewed brainbox to, odds are Voivod beat them to their best ideas by a quarter-century.

Weirdness came naturally to these four French Canadian street-hockey pucks born around the dawn of the '60s, raised inhaling toxins from the planet's most enormous aluminum plant in Jonquiére, in the nexus of Quebec sovereignty country. In 1969, with Away, Blacky, Piggy, and Snake in grade school &#8212l Front de libération du Québec terrorists bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange; by 1970, in the October Crisis wake of separatist kidnappings and murder, the province was all but under martial law. The boys soaked it all in, and by 1982, had started a band.

At first, Voivod seemed like a joke, apparently not on purpose. They had those silly nicknames, for one thing, and early on, that's all they went by. War and Pain — released in August 1984, a year or so after Metallica's debut, eight months after Slayer's — was called "probably the worst record I have ever heard in my entire life" by Paul Sutter in Kerrang, "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)." Their follow-up, 1986's umlautriffically named Rrr öööaaarrr, was some new species of fallout-shelter caveman splatter, complete with are-they-kidding? song titles on the order of "Ripping Headaches"; people lumped them in with thrash and/or speed metal, but already Voivod sounded like nobody else. They were listening to anarchist Brit hardcore (Rudimentary Peni, Discharge); left-field '70s Euro-prog (Birth Control, Egg, Amon Düül II, Nektar) that had a surprising Quebec following; 20th-century classical stuff; goth stuff and horror soundtracks; biker rock; Sonic Youth and Public Image Ltd.; and industrial firms like Einstürzende Neubauten and Laibach, whose T-shirts certain Voivoders wore at '80s gigs captured on 2005's D-V-O-D-1. They had a ridiculous concept — Voivods are time-hopping Viking vampires, see — but meticulous cover design and calligraphy from not-quite-here drummer Away (hence his name) and vegematic riffs from porcine guitarist Piggy to put it over.

Then, on Killing Technology (from 1987; note the two-faced title) and Dimension Hatröss (1988; note the recurring umlaut), they blasted it all into a deep and dense and ulcerous black hole of quantum sound, hanging ten on the galaxy's outer edge atop a jungle-drum rumble and stretching song matter toward ambient anti-matter via algebraic equations that later critic-approved metalgaze droners from Neurosis and Isis to SunnO))) and Liturgy and Pallbearer still haven't figured out how to calculate. Their convoluted structures, meanwhile, presaged entire metal subgenres largely preceded by the prefix "tech," but mainly populated by dorks opting for boilerplate brutality over having personalities.

On Nothingface (1989), Angel Rat (1991), and Outer Limits (1993), Voivod eased their claustrophobic congestion some, letting in more psych/prog/goth beauty, alternate-reality pop hooks, two late-'60s Pink Floyd covers, one 17-minute epic, and melodic college-radio jangle two decades before Baroness. The years since have been tumultuous: five often grumpy studio albums (plus live and outtake sets) between 1995 and 2009, including two with a vocalist who wasn't Snake, three with a bassist who wasn't Blacky but who used to be in Metallica, and two recorded after colon cancer killed Piggy but featuring guitar parts he'd cranked out before he died. Voivod (2003) is one of the band's catchiest records; Katorz (2006) one of their most rhythmic.

Target Earth, their new one, deserves to be the album whereon social-media-era tastemakers finally anoint them legacy heroes, in the amusingly eons-behind-the-curve tradition of Swans, Nick Cave, and Voivod's own early inspiration Killing Joke. Blacky's back, and if new guitarist Chewy from Quebec tech-deathers Martyr is no Piggy (nobody is), he holds his own — his fills in "Kaleidos" are nutso. As albums by Treponem Pal, Mekong Delta, Angel Witch, and others have demonstrated in the past year, great metal bands have a jellyfish knack for eternal regeneration when lineups change, and Voivod remain as sui generis as, oh, the Fall — their noise still can't be mistaken for anybody else's. The self-production here is a bit murky, maybe, and the drums and vocals have seen sharper days. But these dudes still turn sharp corners. Seven of 10 tracks last 5:45 or longer, but not even the 7:35 "Mechanical Mind" (first released last fall on one-sided, logo-etched seven-inch vinyl) wears out its welcome. It just builds, from wind-chiming start through yawping bad-dream multiverses and impatient time signatures and nyah-nyah-nyahs unto insanity: "Night arrives! / The guilt inside! / The worms of mind! / Scarred me for life!"

There are all sorts of idiosyncrasies tucked into the album's wormholes: Inuit throat singing and an almost lounge-jazzy midsection in the First Nations folklore-derived "Kluskap O'kom"; a Mediterranean intro credited to Greek oudist Perikles Tsoukalas making way for traffic-jam honking and extended staccato rhyming in the black-ice depressive "Empathy for the Enemy"; rain-forest polyrhythms under conspiracy theories of suppressed alien visitation ("skulls with conical shape, a map of outer space") in "Artefact"; intercepted satellite static or aluminum-smelting musique concrète opening several tracks, presumably courtesy of Blacky, who has dabbled in electronic music in recent years. "Corps Etranger," cold and clammy then raging, is recited in French, and seems to concern a parasitic disease — maybe Piggy's cancer.

In the world of extreme-metal experimentation, writing songs you'll remember once the album's over isn't cool; either that, or most bands don't know how. Voivod have for ages — environmental horror and nuclear/biological/chemical warfare and chaos theory and drone weapons of the formerly future frontier have been obsessions since Killing Technology days. Target Earth kicks off with cyber terror: a hacker attacking the power grid. But somehow, Snake's nasally accented repetitions, more robotic than monstrous, manage to consistently communicate shades of emotion — worry, despair, but also a hopeful calm — outside metal's usual purview.

So a dystopian nuke-wasteland dirge like "Warchaic" ultimately finds him looking to rebuild a "brand new world" like a 16th-century New France settler, then up next is the swinging punk protest "Resistance," not entirely un-skeptical yet actively embracing gas-masked street demonstrators toppling champagne-sipping gargoyles from ivory towers — a shout of solidarity with Occupy anarchists or Arab Springsters or Montreal students rioting over tuition hikes or Wal-Mart workers trying to unionize in Jonquiére. Eventually, we conclude with an odd, ominous minute-and-half snippet called "Defiance": black clouds, world in flames. But it doesn't feel like the end. Just the opposite; it feels unfinished. To be continued…maybe forever.

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