Friday, August 31, 2018

Forever Moving: Inside the Mind of Voivod with Michel “Away” Langevin (w/ Bonus Album Review)

Left to right: Rocky, Snake, Away and Chewy of Voivod

Voivod have always been a sonic head-scratcher, but even longtime fans who know to expect nothing less than a left-of-center musical exploration from the band will have their minds blown by what theyre going to unleash on September 21.

The Wake, Voivods 14th album and their first full-length to feature bassist Dominic “Rocky” Laroche, is quite possibly the quartets most ambitious effort to date. Nearly 36 years after their formation, Voivod may have just created their definitive masterpiece. (A review of the album follows the interview below.)

I recently re-connected with drummer Michel “Away” Langevin (the subject of one of my most-read posts of 2016) to learn more about The Wake and Voivods enduring place as the most brilliantly odd band in Metal.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Voivod is that no two albums have ever really been the same. Do you go into a recording project with a general creative goal in terms of sound and direction, or is it a matter of this whole thing just naturally evolving year after year?

It’s really natural, actually. We never really sit down and try to overthink where we are heading towards, because we know that in the end, we’re going to be in some parallel universe anyway. We really want to write the music that we want we play, so sometimes it’s not in sync with what’s going on in the mainstream at all. Even if we sometimes try to do something more melodic, it’s still too weird for mainstream radio. We are resigned to really do what we want.

You just mentioned Voivod being “weird.” I think bands have a choice in their careers. They can either go strictly commercial or they can attempt to do something different. Obviously, Voivod have always followed that latter path, and you’ve been at this a very long time. What has been the key to sustaining this band all these years in an industry that isn’t always welcoming of output that doesn’t instantly appeal to the masses?

Sometimes, these are tough choices or crossroads where you really have to persevere. I think a key to longevity is probably to try to be original and unique. In the end, it really pays off. You get respect, and people show up at our shows. Especially lately, we’ve had a momentum, and we also sort of jumped into the classic Thrash Metal resurgence a few years ago. I think the key is really to be yourself. If you try to adapt to what’s going on, by the time you write the song and record it and it comes out, you’re already out of step and a bit late. If I would give any advice, it would be to try to be yourself and also try to be unique. It pays in the long run.

This new album is the first full-length you’ve done with Rocky on bass. How did having him involved from start to finish most impact the album’s sound and the overall structure of the music?

I think the interaction he has with Chewy is sort of a question-and-answer setup all through the songs. It makes me play a bit differently; it’s almost Fusion Metal in a way. I try to keep the Thrash Metal attack with the double kick and all that, but it definitely makes me play in a Progressive Rock way. I kind of go back to the Van der Graaf Generator days or King Crimson. It’s a very cool experience for me.

The bonus disc for The Wake not only has the Post Society EP, but it also has some live tracks from the 70,000 Tons Of Metal Cruise you did this year. What stood out for you from that show that made you think it would be a nice addition to the bonus package?

We did two sets on the boat, but this one was the only one that was documented proficiently by the organization of 70,000 Tons. They allowed us to use it, which I think is a great bonus. Adding the Post Society EP was Century Media’s idea, and I think it’s great.

Definitely – especially with that “Silver Machine” cover.

Yeah, we winged it really rapidly. When we were recording the last part of the Post Society EP, there were lots of news stories about Motorhead canceling shows. We thought it was time to pay homage to Lemmy. Snake and I were really familiar with the song, but Rocky and Chewy were a bit less familiar, so they watched an old YouTube video and winged it. It’s a great song to play live once in a while as well.

It has been 15 years since the self-titled album and the beginning of the Jason Newsted era of Voivod. Looking back now, how do you feel that era ultimately impacted the greater history of the band?

When Jason joined the band, it drew a lot of attention to us. It definitely helped us to get attention outside of the underground Thrash Metal media. When Jason joined Ozzy at the same time, all of a sudden we’re touring with Ozzy and doing the Ozzfest and all that. Jason really did help the band. From then on, it’s been steady in terms of media attention for Voivod. We had a lower profile in the ’90s at one point.

Jason was such a warrior to have done that, because he was playing with us live, then he’d go to the dressing room and go back again on stage and play more than two hours with Ozzy for the whole summer of 2003. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was quite impressive and a lesson in perseverance for sure.

How much of the 2003 material since finds its way into a Voivod set now?

Once in a while, we play material from the Jason or [former bassist/vocalist] Eric Forrest era. Right now, we’re skipping a few albums because we’ve started doing material from Post Society and The Wake. We still try to do a recap of our career; eventually, either ‘Forlorn’ [from 1997’s Phobos] or ‘Global Warning’ [from 2009’s Infini] is going to go back into the setlist. But for now, we’re playing stuff from the first seven albums – until The Outer Limits – and Post Society and The Wake.

The last time we spoke, we talked a little bit about your Cities album, and you were also doing Tau Cross at that time. What does your creative agenda look like at the moment in terms of extracurricular activities away from the band?

We play quite a few shows with Voivod. Right now, I have Tau Cross and Voivod as musical projects. I’m also part of a legendary Quebec band called Aut’Chose. It’s based around a couple of legendary beatniks from Montreal. I play a show with them once in a while. Both Rocky and Chewy are involved in various projects with members of Offenbach, a legendary Quebec band. Rocky is also involved with members of the band Corbeau, another legendary Quebec band from the ’70s and early ’80s. Now, it’s a bit restrictive in terms of side projects because Voivod is so busy. I still do art for other bands, but I’m a bit less available nowadays. I’m also very involved with Tau Cross. We just finished doing the third album for Relapse, and we’re going to record it in December.

Excellent! That’s a cool project.

I love it. It really has all the aspects I love from playing drums, like Thrash Metal, Punk and a bit of Gothic material as well. There’s a lot of tribal beats, very Killing Joke-influenced. I really like being in that band.

Voivod has been active nearly 36 years at this point, which is a great achievement for any band. You’ve been there since Day One and have been the only consistent member throughout the band’s entire history. In your mind, what has been the band’s greatest accomplishment so far?

In my case, the greatest accomplishment is being able to do this for 35 years and counting. Just to still be touring and recording is amazing. The people into Voivod are very loyal; I really owe that to them. It really motivates me into writing a new album so they can hear it and we can go and play it all across the planet and meet our friends again year and year. It’s really my love of playing and recording music that keeps me going. The greatest moments would probably be touring with Rush in 1990 and when the first album came out in ’84 on Metal Blade. That was a great achievement, because we were French Canadian from up north and we had a deal in LA and all that. There a lot of great moments like that…Ozzfest in 2003 and the 35th anniversary show we recently played up north in our hometown at the same place we did our very first show in ’83. It was almost 35 years to the day, too. It was a great celebration; tons of people showed up. We actually documented the show and put parts of it in the first video off The Wake, ‘Obsolete Beings.’

What would you say the band has yet to achieve?

We don’t try to overthink it too much. We try to explore and do something different every time we put something out. There’s a lot of exploration to do, especially with Rocky and Chewy, who are more Fusion-oriented. It’s very interesting because every lineup makes me play a bit differently, so it’s always exciting. Now that we’re back into full Prog mode, there are really endless options for us.

* Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity.  

ALBUM REVIEW - Voivod: The Wake 

In 1993, Voivod – always a band committed to stretching Metal music beyond what most ever thought possible – delivered “Jack Luminous,” a 17-minute opus that represented the culmination of every adventurous left turn they made in their career to that point. The track was the sound of four otherworldly musicians at the absolute peak of their creative powers. Now, 25 years later, the high-water mark of Voivod’s existence has been surpassed.

I’ve chosen not to delve too deeply into describing the absolute treasure that is The Wake in this review for two critical reasons: 1. After 10 listens, I’m only just beginning to digest the thing, and 2. There are far too many moments on this album that should be experienced without spoilers. That said, here are some things you can expect:

  • Snake’s richest and most expressive vocal performance in years.
  • A new level of drumming inventiveness and precision from Away, who has elevated his playing to heights previously unheard on a Voivod release (which is saying a lot).
  • Time signatures from another galaxy.
  • Some of the most awe-inspiring guitar sounds and rhythmic interplay in the Voivod canon (which is really saying a lot).
  • Strings and acoustics.
  • Moments that make most of what they released from 1988 to 1993 – the sweet spot of the Voivod discography – sound like mere sketches for what the band have now achieved with this album.

If your current knowledge of The Wake is limited to the teaser track (and album opener) “Obsolete Beings,” then know that it’s the most conventional piece of music on the album. The Wake is an esoteric ride even by Voivod standards. You owe it to yourself to listen to it all the way through several times without interruption.

Bands typically don’t create their definitive masterpiece more than 30 years into their career (if they even last that long), but Voivod have never been a typical anything. After outclassing the vast majority of their Metal contemporaries for more than three decades, they’ve actually outclassed themselves here. The Wake is the absolute pinnacle of Voivod.  

More on Voivod:

Official Voivod Website

Voivod on Facebook


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Words from the Heart: Bill Ward Brings "Absence of Corners" to Los Angeles

Bill Ward at last Saturday's Absence of Corners poetry reading in Los Angeles (Photo by Tom Wallace)

I feel uplifted tonight.”

That was how legendary drummer Bill Ward described his evening spent in front of a packed house of fans and friends at his first-ever public poetry reading last Saturday. Held at The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles, the special event celebrated Absence Of Corners, the new art/poetry book-and-vinyl set based on Ward’s 2013 art series of the same name.

Released in June and limited to only 200 copies (with the final 50 copies made available at the reading), the beautifully crafted first edition of Absence of Corners features 19 pieces from Ward’s art series, personal poetry inspired by the images and descriptions of each work. The book also comes with a colored 10-inch vinyl recording of Ward reciting his poetry. All 200 copies were signed by the man himself.  

The Absence of Corners book and art series were created by Ward in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based visual art team SceneFour. As described on the project’s website, Ward “utilized a sophisticated formula to create the collection’s visuals, using an array of drumsticks and rhythmic accessories that produce light, much like a painter utilizing brushes and oils. The movements featured within the captured rhythms are then studied and developed into abstract artwork that showcases a dimension not normally seen by the human eye.”

[The project began] as a request for me basically to show up [for] a nighttime session with a full kit of drums,” explained Ward when I spoke with him about the project upon its release in 2013. “It started out as me thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to show up and play drums, and somebody is going to take pictures of me and let me know if they need anything special or different or what have you. I didn’t know that there was more, but it turned out there was quite a lot more. The entire project now has become far more than I had originally realized was going on, in a lot of different ways. It’s been quite an adventure, and a very good one.”

In addition to reading seven poems from the book (“Indestructible Youth,” “Hello, I Don’t Think We’ve Met [Yet],” “High on a Memory,” “Solidarity,” “Perfection as a Distortion,” “We Focus, We Persevere” and “This Evening”), Ward shared some of the emotions he faced and ultimately overcame while creating the series in 2012. As Black Sabbath fans know, that was the year he parted company with the band over contractual issues.

In 2012, I went through such a departure of love and relationship; [it was] something that was really damaging for me and damaging for a lot of people in [those] relationships,” he told the crowd. “A lot of the things which are kind of emerging in the poetry are really in my recovery from the detachment from something that was very sacred to me. My love was torn apart; my heart was ripped to pieces.”

Fortunately, Ward was quick to assure attendees that the pain of his recent past was behind him.   

I feel very much at peace. The things of 2012 are past. I’m in a very enlightened place; I love the people I’ve worked with all my life…I’m through anything that was negative about those times.”

During the Q&A portion of the evening, an audience member asked Ward what advice he’d give someone who was going through a rough time.

If you believe in a higher power or if you believe in God, then I would suggest that you go to God and see if you can find some solutions,” he replied. “If you don’t believe in God, then try to be as honest with yourself as you possibly can…When I’ve chosen the light of God or self-honesty, my own misery has brought me to a solution. My own pain, my own sadness has brought me to a place of surrender, so I’ll surrender to the truth anyway and go, ‘You know what? I need to talk to somebody about this.’ Try not to be alone with your own pain. Try to find someone you can trust your pain with. It’s really important that we communally share what’s going on with each other…Otherwise, we’re going to be walking around in a very sorrowful place.”

Now 70 and recovering from recent heart issues, Ward used the reading as an opportunity to thank his fans and supporters for the love they’ve shown to him and Black Sabbath over the years.

In return, I love you too very much. There is a connection. When I played drums onstage, you know I poured everything out. I went to my primal scream…the bottom of my very self. I know that you were going to the bottom of your very selves as well. It’s like having sex without the sex! (laughs) That’s the only way I can describe it. But I left it all on the stage…I left everything out there, and I wanted to go out with everything that I am and give it to you. And in return, I feel – a lot of the time – your love, your opinions…Even if you say things that I may not agree with, you know what? It’s okay. I’ll support feelings that you don’t necessarily agree with me on, because that’s who you are. I support you as people. I love you. A lot of us…we’ve all got kids now, we’ve got families, we’ve got wives and husbands. It’s just fantastic what’s going on. I’m glad that I can still be alive to be a part of it. It means so much to me.”

On a personal note, it was an absolute joy to catch up with Bill in person after the reading for the first time in four years. He remains my favorite drummer, an insightful and engaging interviewee and an ongoing source of inspiration and encouragement. My thanks to Bill’s amazing team – as well as to Cory, Ravi and the rest of SceneFour, who are among the most creative and music-loving people I know – for their hospitality and work in making the Absence of Corners event such an extraordinary experience for all.

Left to right: Joel Gausten, John Collinson (Santa Sabbath) and Bill Ward (Photo by Walter Earl)

Bill Ward Article Archive

Official Bill Ward Website

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