[Art by Michel “Away” Langevin]
By all reliable accounts, Voivod’s last album, The Wake, was a resounding success. That record continued an upward trajectory begun with the addition of Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain on guitar in 2008 and officially launched with 2013’s Target Earth. Of course, the upwardness of that trajectory is relative, since Voivod has never exactly slipped below the mean. Rather, the arrival of Chewy and Target Earth signified a reinvigoration and reinterpretation of the band’s singular brand of heavy metal prog rock. Then they continued to push and pull at their artistic limits, ultimately crafting maybe not their best album ever, but surely their most fully realized adventure in The Wake. And, as is custom in commercial art, the success of The Wake led to unfair if understandable expectations about its follow-up, album number 15, Synchro Anarchy. So then, of course, almost immediately after its release, critics were popping their haughty knots up out of their hidey holes, eager to warn the world that their beloved warriors of weirdness were suddenly *gasp* playing it safe, had become *shriek* predictable, had *swoon* lost their edge, or had phoned it in (holy shit).
Can you even imagine? Voivod. Phoning it in. Don’t believe it for a second.
Never mind the haters, for sure, but let’s be honest: What Voivod brings to the table today doesn’t have the same earthshaking impact they brought in the early days. But, as long as we’re being honest, let’s be thorough: The difference in impact isn’t because of what Voivod brings but rather where they’re bringing it. The music landscape is obviously vastly different today, much more multitextured and variegated and inhabited by a much wider variety of talents and styles, so it’s much more difficult to stand out or to create something that’s genuinely new or even different. And, since we’re being thorough, let’s be mindful: Voivod had a very active hand in the shaping of the modern music landscape, with countless bands following them into uncharted territories until it seems like they’ve all been charted. And yet!, even now, there’s virtually no other band that sounds like Voivod. Some come close in parts, have things in common with, but none matches.
And Voivod never does what’s expected. Seems Voivodians everywhere were champing at the bit for The Wake II, but there were plenty of Iron Gangsters that knew better, because they remembered being here many times before. Voivod has made so many unexpected shifts, most notably from Killing Technology to Dimension Hatröss and then to Nothingface and then almost shockingly from there to Angel Rat. Even Jeff Wagner wrote about that in his excellent discussion of prog metal, Mean Deviation, noting that the move from almost aggressively inaccessible (for many) to streamlined and catchy seemed like a backwards move but was actually exactly the thing a truly progressive band should be expected to do. Naturally restless thinkers like these like to move away from the patterns they’ve established, away from tendencies, away from trends. After upping the ante for four albums running and setting the stage for another level of bizarre, Voivod instead dialed it all back for Angel Rat, a comparatively simple record that nonetheless represented a bold artistic values set and that ultimately laid the foundation for the band’s current iteration of finely calibrated thrash and prog metal.
Now Synchro Anarchy is not Angel Rat, same as Voivod 2022 is not Voivod 1991, but the structural difference between The Wake and Synchro Anarchy is still similarly striking. The Wake’s story is so wonderfully told through an array of progressive techniques, including creative time and tempo changes, variations in melody, harmony, and musical textures, cinematic orchestral accompaniment, and richly designed compositions incorporating it all into an exhilarating heavy metal adventure that landed atop a lot of lists at the end of 2018. Synchro Anarchy rivals The Wake in terms of quality but for almost none of the same reasons outside of the standard aspects of outstanding riffs, rhythms, and songwriting. Compared to The Wake, Synchro Anarchy is pretty darn straightforward, which is certainly driving the perception for some that it’s playing it safe. Remember, though, this is Voivod (for Korgüll’s sake), and take a closer look at just what’s making up these songs and this record.
Right off the bat, this new album just fucking rocks. If The Wake was the apocalyptic virtual watch event, Synchro Anarchy is the end times after party. Sure it’s dark and twisted as Voivod does but, across all nine songs and 48 minutes, this is a band that’s having fun.
“Paranormalium” opens it up and from Away’s first booming kick, flexing alongside Rocky’s burly bass, the rhythm section pushes tempo that’s mostly upbeat and, even when it’s not, it’s driving an anxious energy, building suspense. Chewy adds his own energy with heavy chord strikes in time with the rhythm section, stabs and jabs the listener at the top of the staff, and then settles into familiar patterns of start/stop riffing and ringing dissonance along with a much less familiar death metal tremolo and some kind of weirdo slinky string bending. Meanwhile, Snake snarls and shouts about disinformation and cognitive dissonance in his inimitable way, mechanized cadence drenched in punk attitude like some stomper booted cyborg.
If just these basic pieces were in place at this level of quality, Synchro Anarchy would be a good album. But it’s a great album because of all the extra that Voivod adds, each member contributing something that pushes this part of a song or another over the top. And, actually, every member gets first kudos in this regard, as the band is credited with production, a major factor in why these songs hit the ears so effectively. Away’s kick and toms are gigantic but still natural sounding and the cymbals ring clear and true; Rocky’s bass is full and strong, filling the lower end of the sound profile; Chewy’s guitar is bright and sharp, right there at the ears and well-balanced with the rest of the band; Snake sounds like he’s right there in the room and has never sounded better when he gets melodic and harmonic.
Chewy’s great across the album, but there’s a couple songs that illustrate his talent in wonderfully different ways. First, there’s songs like “Planet Eaters” that highlight his riffs and especially the way he can arrange those riffs with harmonics and dissonance to add incrementally to what the other players are doing, ultimately strengthening the song. There are riffs on “Planet Eaters” that get sliced up and chunked and dispersed around the soundstage so that it sounds like there’s 3 or 4 Chewies! Add the interplay with Rocky’s parallel prestidigitation and the riffwork takes shape like the wondrous enchanted carving of a blind carpenter. And he does stuff like this a dozen different ways throughout Synchro Anarchy. Then there’s Chewy’s leads and solos, so expansive and free and fluid, like the slow flow funneling of cosmic detritus into a black hole. It’s an approach Chewy’s pretty judicious with, too, so it retains its luster.
The lyrics of a Voivod album are nearly as important as the voice delivering them, and on Synchro Anarchy, Snake’s words are as cryptic and fun and foreboding as ever. This time, there isn’t (or doesn’t appear to be at this point) a particular story being told but, rather, this is a collection of songs about the absurdity of modern mundanity. Look, the last couple years have laid bare an awful lot of bullshit that so many human beings just can’t seem to keep out of places we used to call safe or at least neutral. There’s constant tension, a low level but pervasive anxiety in just about every sphere, and many of us are struggling to make sense of the world and ourselves and each other in this new light even as people around us appear hell bent on blotting out the sun. These songs are about these things. Keep this in mind as you read along and allow the music to transport you through it like an Epcot exhibit and you’ll appreciate the energy to be drawn from Voivod’s approach of working it all out through wonderful musical stories. And Snake’s voice is just perfect for telling them, still such a uniquely effective balance of harshness and warmth and he’s really refined a couple of his strongest features: a layer of oxidation adding a little extra grit to the ripping snarl, and a relatively recent and welcome expansion of an underrated aspect of his repertoire, the stretched out melodic hook, often coupled with layered harmonies.
Then there’s all the little stuff, like kickass backing vocal harmonies and gang shouts, Rocky’s amazing bass solo in “Sleeves Off,” the sparse but well-placed effects like the reverbed noir guitar sound in the verses of “The World Today” (and how about that ringing chorus riff? wow!) and the eerie and disquieting theremin klaxon thing near the end of “Mind Clock.” And, of course, no Voivod album discussion is complete without including Away’s magnificently quirky art. For Synchro Anarchy, he has created a full page panel accompaniment for each song, all of it weird and wonderful.
So look: In the modern context, Synchro Anarchy isn’t what too many metalheads would call groundbreaking but, heck, that might just be because most of the ground’s already been broken by now anyway (a lot of it by Voivod). It’s an amazing album, nonetheless, for what Voivod has done yet again with pieces that nobody else has ever figured out how to fit together, much less make art from. Drawing from early but earnest impressions, Synchro Anarchy feels like it’s going to settle at the bottom of the top shelf of Voivod’s best work, making it a great album by definition. Such quality artistic output at this stage would be an amazing feat for any artist who’s lived for so long at the vanguard. For Voivod? Pretty much same ol’ same ol’.