So, by now, you’ve probably noticed that, here at Last Rites, we like Voivod. I mean, we really like Voivod. Not in the creepy way, now – get your mind out of the dark place. But we really… like… Voivod.
And one of the myriad things we like about Voivod is that, in the course of fifteen albums in just over forty years now, they’ve been fearless adventurers into the unknown, creating a body of work that crosses boundaries, pushes envelopes, expands ever outward.
But the thing about any body of work like that is, subjectively if not objectively (and how could one objectively approach the discography of Voivod in any manner other than to say “it’s amazing”), unavoidably, there are highs and lows, bests and worsts. Generally, the latter of those is typically attributed to the two-album period (or three- or four-album period, depending on your standards) in the mid-to-late 90s after the first departure of bassist Blacky and the subsequent split with vocalist Snake, both of whom were replaced by Eric “E-Force” Forrest.
It’s an oft-repeated cliche these days that the 90s weren’t kind to most established metal bands, but like many cliches, it’s rooted in truth. By 1993, Voivod’s career had produced 6 straight classics of some level, from the raw and ugly punk-fueled chaos of War And Pain and Rrröööaaarrr to the expansionist thrash of Killing Technology and Dimension Hatröss to the prog masterpiece Nothingface. As the 90s dawned and 80s metal became anathema to the record-buying public, if any band should’ve fit with the alternative scene, it should’ve been these French Canadian weirdos (and also King’s X, but that’s another argument for another day). Still, two great records in 1991’s Angel Rat and 1993’s The Outer Limits came and went without a drastic impact, and after the second one, the band’s major label deal and half their ranks faded away.
It’s another cliche to say that replacing a band member, particularly the singer, is a more than formidable task. Imagine then replacing two band members at once, and one of them is not only the singer, but one as idiosyncratic as Denis Belanger, with his disaffected, almost robotic baritone and unique Francophone enunciations. (That, of course, pays unduly little heed to Blacky’s inimitable “blower” bass tone.) E-Force had big shoes to fill, and he performed admirably under the circumstances, even if the task at hand was gargantuan.
E-Force’s debut came on 1995’s Negatron, and with it came a bit of regression, reaching backwards past the stripped-back Angel Rat and Outer Limits, past Nothingface and Hatröss, somewhere back to the raw-throated thrashing weirdness of Killing Technology and the triply-lettered record before. Taking that harsh ugliness and bringing it forward to a new (and unfortunately, nü) day, Voivod melded their own rough-edged past with the groove-heavy industrialized stomp that defined the popular metal of the 90s. In theory, that amalgam of mechanized groove and Voivod’s dystopian sci-fi angularity should’ve been ready bedfellows, but in practice, the results don’t add up, falling well short of the band’s established (and admittedly high-level) qualitative standard.
Opening number “Insect” squanders a solid, if stupidly simplistic, Piggy riff in service of a Roots-era Sepultura groove that, like the record around it, feels dumbed down for the nü age, the first time anything Voivod-related ever felt dumb. Forrest’s raw-throated snarl is markedly rougher than Snake’s punk-influenced barking, further pushing matters into nü territory. Like almost every track on Negatron, “Insect” has hints of Voivod-ian greatness. Its midsection skips into a skittering nervous uptempo that is more like classic Voivod, especially as E-Force first affects his imitation of Snake’s clean tone. That’s a short-lived upswing, however, and the song’s latter third devolves back into that knuckle-dragging stomp.
Most of Negatron treads similar ground, more forgettable than terrible, and like “Insect” with its brief flirtation with quality, what of Negatron that is memorable is as much memorable for what it should’ve been and isn’t than for anything it is. The spaciness and distant distorted vocals of late-album entry “Cosmic Conspiracy” are Negatron’s highlight (or highest lowlight, if you’re feeling particularly negative), with some of Away’s more interesting drumming and more bits of angular dissonant Piggy riffing. But aside from that, the remainder of Negatron is a mixed bag of mediocrity, under-developed and under-produced, with Away’s drums being particularly roughshod.
“Nanoman” wastes its catchy chorus and a great introductory drum hook on an otherwise forgettable tune built around a nu-industrial chug; the moody industrial soundscapes of the title track are lifeless and forgettable, where they’re intended to be brooding and sinister; “Project X,” “Planet Hell” and “Meteor” come and go with hints of decency, but almost no lasting impression. The experimentation of “D.N.A. (Don’t No Anything)” is as unfortunate as its grammar-nerd-angering title, a mostly dreadful foray into full-on industrial and a collaboration with Jim Thirwell of Foetus that would’ve been better served if included on the later odds-and-ends collection Kronik.
All in, calling Negatron Voivod’s worst album wouldn’t be remiss, as it’s certainly in the conversation, although it’s important to note that Negatron’s failures aren’t through fault of E-Force: The album is unfocused, feels unsure of itself, the product of half a band trying to lick its wounds, regrow, regroup, recover. It’s a necessary step in the process, testing the waters by incorporating the popular sounds of the day, failing to meld them with its own established sound in any significant manner, and left with an album that’s neither good nor undeniably bad, success nor utter disaster, a necessary bump in the road but a road hazard nonetheless.
Negatron’s other (and more obvious) stumble is its near-abysmal cover art, one that would eventually find its way down towards the bottom of Away’s list of artistic achievement, and at the time, arguably the worst of the lot. Soon enough, it would get relieved of that dubious accolade, by the purple moonface of follow-up Phobos. Don’t stare too long at the moon, kids; it’ll burn your eyes. But if nothing else, at least Phobos had the decency to be cohesive, a course correction, a righting of the ship into different uncharted waters, and ones that are far less choppy this time.
After the space-rock intro of “Catalepsy I,” the actual opener “Rise” enters with a cyclical riff that’s hands-down better than everything on Negatron combined, an interlocked groove between Piggy and Away that recalls the off-kilter interplay of the olden days. In one song, Phobos proved that Voivod’s creative tank wasn’t empty, that there was plenty of life left in these space-age oddfellows. Thereafter, the album’s title track opens with a heavily delayed ascending riff, another standout moment, and the vibe built between it and Away’s tribal beat is so great that even E-Force’s mostly faceless bark and the relatively static chorus riff can’t derail it. At seven minutes, it’s a bit overlong, but Piggy’s psychedelic guitar wailing towards the end is worth the wait.
Next track “Bacteria” fits so snugly against “Phobos” that it’s difficult to tell them apart, but that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Along with “The Tower” and the eerie “Neutrino,” they’re the bulk and the heart of an album that’s filled with both. Chiming guitar notes float like stars above the empty spaces in the rhythm in psychedelic homage to classic space-rock; stuttering chords evoke a Neurosis-like single-minded crush; and through it all weaves the thread of Voivod, dissonant riff, vocals both emotive and emotionless, post-apocalyptic oddball angularity. Broken shards of metallic riffing poke through in the heavier moments, but overall, Phobos’ sound is more open, more atmospheric, a far cry from the soulless robotic groove-thrash of Negatron, and all the better for it.
That being said, Phobos is not flawless. The almost post-metal reliance on midtempo drift does tend to make the songs blur together into one long track, and with most of the tracks approaching or exceeding the six-minute mark, it very often overstays its welcome. Its production is still lacking, here a sort of flat and woofy tone, vs. the flat and harsh ones from Negatron. Still, compared to what came before it, Phobos is such a marked improvement that it’s hard not to be excited by Voivod’s return to adventurous form. And as a literal added bonus, if you pick up the expanded version (or y’know, stream it), there are two additional tracks. The mostly okay “M-Body” would prove to be somewhat of a hint, written by then-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted. The other is a strong cover of King Crimson’s seminal “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a made-for-Voivod song if ever there were one. Neither is essential, but neither is a detriment, and the latter is a quality curiosity, if nothing else.
So then, if it’s inevitable that, even in the greatest of catalogs, some entries are stronger and some are lesser, what of these two? Well, they’re often maligned, and with some good reason, but at least in the case of Phobos, it’s an unfair and undue criticism. Neither record should place in any Voivod listener’s top eight, be that listener a die-hard or a neophyte, but even the worst Voivod is better than many band’s better efforts, more distinctive, often more interesting, if not always more engaging. The E-Force era isn’t the classic era of Voivod, as far from it as this band gets, but for the listener dedicated to finding the shiny bits in the mud, there are a handful of moments in both records worth investigating, although far fewer in Negatron’s leaden grooves.
From here, Voivod was moving upward again, although the momentum they gained from it was almost immediately ground to a halt when E-Force was injured in an automobile accident in 1998. Waiting on him to recover, the band floated through the unnecessary outtakes compilation Kronik (which will hopefully forever take Phobos’ mantle of Voivod’s worst album cover, a Microsoft clip-art-looking piece of shit that looks like the front panel to someone’s late-90s CD-R summer mix) and the respectable but still unimpressive live album Voivod Lives. In 2001, Voivod briefly disbanded, but reformed the following year with Snake back in his rightful place behind the mic and Newsted (rechristened “Jasonic”) on bass. Their qualitative stumbles weren’t behind them, and nor were their line-up shifts, but that’s another article for another day…