Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Into the Hypercube: Exploring Voïvod's Lost Machine with Denis "Snake" Bélanger (w/ Bonus Album Review)

Left to right: Away, Snake, Chewy and Rocky of Voïvod (Photo by Wayne Archibald)

In a world of ever-increasing uncertainty, fans of esoteric Metal can rest assured that Voïvod will always deliver something worthy of attention.

Released last November on Century Media Records, Lost Machine – Live presents the legendary Canadian band’s July 13, 2019 performance at the Festival d'été de Québec at the Théâtre Impérial in Québec City during its world tour in support of its most recent (and strongest-in-years) full-length album, The Wake. It is the first Voïvod live record to feature the band’s current lineup of singer Denis “Snake” Bélanger (who’s been back with the group since 2003’s Voïvod after leaving in ’94), original drummer/co-founder Michel “Away” Langevin (the only member to appear on every Voïvod release since the beginning), bassist Dominic "Rocky" Laroche (who admirably maintains the high bar previously set by Jean-Yves “Blacky” Thériault, Eric “E-Force” Forrest and former Metallica/Flotsam and Jetsam/Ozzy player Jason “Jasonic” Newsted) and guitarist Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain (whose time in the group began in 2008, five years after the death of original member Denis “Piggy” D'Amour).

In addition to showcasing material from The Wake, Lost Machine – Live dives into tracks from 1984’s War and Pain, 1987’s Killing Technology, 1988’s Dimension Hatröss, 1989’s Nothingface, 1991’s Angel Rat, 1993’s The Outer Limits and 2016’s Post Society EP. As of this writing, three promotional videos (for “The Lost Machine,” “Overreaction” and “Iconspiracy”) have been released in support of the new live album and can be viewed below. Directed by Felipe Belalcazar (who is also working on a Voïvod documentary), the clips feature footage of Voïvod’s June 30, 2019 show at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal and are highlighted by Jaan Silmberg’s animation of original artwork created by Away on the road.

After having the pleasure of interviewing Away in 2016 and again in 2018, it was a joy to connect with Snake for this latest conversation on the inner workings of one of the most fascinating and inspiring acts to ever grace this website.
Why was now the right time to issue another live album?

Since I got back in the band, there have been a few changes. Obviously, we lost Piggy, and we got Chewy on guitar and Rocky on bass. We’ve been with this lineup for quite a while now, and we’ve been working very hard and touring a lot, especially in 2019. We were busy all year long. There were many places we went, and we were capturing live stuff in some of them – either audio or video or both. This one in particular, in Québec City, was the last show in a long series of shows and tours. We were coming back home after a busy year. Once we got back home, I think we were excited about just doing it one more time that night and then going on vacations and stuff. The capture of the sound was amazing. In these tours that we’ve done, sometimes we had good captures, but sometimes the sound was not quite there depending on the atmosphere. But that night in particular was amazing. When everything flows really well, it’s a magical night. It’s flawless. We were on fire; we had been doing it for so long. Everything was tight; everything was precise. The sound was good, the crowd was good and we were feeling like we were playing a show for the family. It was really kind of intimate and fun. The vibe was excellent, so we decided to keep that as something that really worked out. Then, we decided to release it. Especially with the new team now, we wanted to show what a Voïvod show was all about.

You mentioned there were some things that were filmed, and I’ve seen the promotional clips for the album that have some of that footage. What are the plans for the rest?

I don’t know. Sometimes, we use footage; it depends on if we really want to release it or make a video out of many shots that have been taken. I don’t know what we’re going to do for that show in particular, but it’s always good to have a lot of video stuff that we can play with and for future work, whatever it is.
Since you guys have been at this for so long, what is the level of difficulty – if any – in selecting the tracks you perform in a Voïvod set these days?

We try to mix in a bit of everything. Obviously, we have a lot of albums and songs. We cannot please everyone, but we listen to the kids. Sometimes, on social media, we see that people want to hear some of the songs we have. Obviously, you have to promote the new stuff, so that’s maybe four or five songs. Then, there are the classics from Dimension Hatröss and Killing Technology and some oldies as well from the first album. Sometimes, we switch different stuff with maybe stuff from Angel Rat or Nothingface. But we listen to the fans, and sometimes something pops up that’s really interesting to us, and we’ll say, ‘Oh, that would be cool. Let’s try it.’ On the last tour, we put a song called ‘Fix My Heart’ [from The Outer Limits] back on the list, and people loved it. We had such good comments about it. It’s important to listen to what people want; it’s not something just for yourself.

What do Chewy and Rocky each bring to the band at this point that enables Voïvod to keep going and exploring different things?

Chewy is a really good guitarist. I don’t want to put too much on him, but he’s really good at it. He’s a teacher, and he knows what he’s doing. He’s always learning something new. He’s a little bit of a workaholic. When he decides to do things, he does them. He’s accurate on stuff; he’s brilliant. If he decides he’s going to learn Japanese, you bet your life he’s going to learn Japanese! He focuses on doing things, and that’s why he’s so successful. He’s that type of guy; he’s really rare. And his friend Rocky had been working together with him before Voïvod. Rocky learned a lot from Chewy as well. Rocky puts in the effort. To him, there’s always room to learn something. Both of them are like a machine. Michel and I just stand around looking at them, like, ‘Wow! What the fuck?’ (laughs) And they’re Voïvod fans, first of all. That’s why they play music. They were fans when they were like 14 years old when we were playing in their hometown. For them, being in this band means so much. I think they really put everything in to honor it. They’re going to push a little bit further to make it happen.
How has the situation with COVID-19 impacted Voïvod as far as what you’re able to do together and perhaps your plans if and when things finally even out and somewhat return to normal?

It was a really difficult year for us and every band out there. I think we postponed four tours last year, but of course we have to be careful and be safe. During the confinement and lockdown, we did a stream from home at one point. Then, we did another live stream of a full show in August on my birthday. As soon as we heard we could book a show, it was a maximum capacity of 250; that’s what we were allowed to play. So, we booked two shows at a big place that holds like 1,500. We sold out for 250 people with the distancing and whatever. Finally, just a few weeks before it happened, we had to reconfine back to square one. It’s so frustrating in a sense, but I guess that’s the way it is. It’s been a bit scary; the whole music industry is suffering a lot from it. I’m not just talking about bands – it’s also promoters, venues and everything that goes around it. It’s really hard, and some might not survive if it keeps going like this. Maybe in 2021… I don’t know, maybe it’s a psychological thing, but it’s a step. Maybe – and I fucking hope so – there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m conscious that there are a lot of things that won’t be the same anymore. That scares me a little bit, but I’m staying confident. We have no choice.

I want to go back in history for a moment to the self-titled album from 2003. It’s an interesting record because a lot of things were going on at that point. You had come back to the band, and Jason Newsted was on bass. Most significantly, it was the last album released during Piggy’s lifetime. When you look back at that album and era, how do you think they most impacted the history of Voïvod?

I think every album is a little bit of a chapter in the history of the band. Each album has a certain sound and vibe to it. On that record, I think there was a good vibe. I was coming back in the band, and we were living in Jason’s studio in San Francisco. It was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going for the Big Leagues, guys!’ (laughs) That year, we toured with Ozzy across Canada, and then we jumped on the Ozzfest for three months with bands like Korn and Marilyn Manson. It was a fun year and a fun record. I feel that it was kind of like an explosion of fun. We allowed Jason to [explore] everything that inspired him. Then, me, Piggy and Away worked around his ideas of stuff. Jason was a Voïvod fan, and he was hearing stuff. We let him pretty much do what he really wanted to do. If he came up with good results, we just put the work around it. It’s a really special part of Voïvod history. It’s fun to look backwards and enjoy it. It reminds me of when you look at old pictures; it’s a flashback kind of thing. There were very enjoyable moments.

It’s scary when you enjoy yourself too much. You have to say to yourself, ‘Hold on a second. Something’s going to go bad.’ That’s exactly what happened. Piggy got sick, and you know the rest of the story. But there were pretty good moments on that record.

Voïvod’s roughly 39 years old. There was obviously a break there when you weren’t working with the band, but you and Michel were there at the beginning. It’s very rare to see musicians work together for that long and make things succeed. What makes your relationship with him work creatively to where you’re both still very active in this band and still keeping the spirit of Voïvod alive?

Me and Michel are totally different personalities. Michel is always more serious and more focused on things. I’m pretty much all over the place. (laughs) We succeed in being together just because we want to be a part of this. We’ve been through a lot of troubled waters; it’s been like a rollercoaster – up and down. In the history of the band, there was always something that happened; it wasn’t always a piece of cake. Sometimes, you get pissed off. Sometimes, there’s this and that, and then oops – another door opens and there’s another opportunity. It’s been a crazy ride with him, but I enjoy working with him. He’s a good partner and a good friend.

When Piggy died, I think it welded something between him and me in a sense. When we decided to keep going without Piggy, I think we both had the same intention to keep Voïvod alive no matter what in honor of him. We said to his parents at the funeral that we wanted to do music in order to keep it and the spirit of Piggy alive as long as we could. It certainly bound a lot of things between me and him when the tragedy happened, and that’s why we keep on doing it. We’re not going to give up easily after going through such things. Even the COVID’s not going to kill us!

* Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity.

ALBUM REVIEW - Voïvod: Lost Machine – Live

Cover art by Away 

The people in Québec City have something special.
They make you feel right and comfortable.
And in return, the only option you have is to give the best you can.
It’s that simple.

The above words by Voïvod singer Denis “Snake” Bélanger in the liner notes to the band’s latest release, Lost Machine – Live, are not just platitudes offered by a frontman going through the motions with a decades-old band. In the case of Voïvod, “the best” is not a concept getting increasingly smaller in the rearview mirror with each passing year or album. On the contrary, this group – fueled these days by the strongest assemblage of musicians it’s had since its revered original lineup – is as relevant and intriguing today as it was when it created its ’80s-era masterpieces.

Lost Machine – Live gifts the listener with 70-plus minutes that confirm this fact. Although an enjoyable air of nostalgia is felt when celebrated tracks from the band’s past show up on the recording (especially during masterful renditions of 1988’s “Psychic Vacuum” and 1989’s “Into My Hypercube”), the band doesn’t rely on this vibe to carry the setlist’s weight. Considering how forward-thinking Voïvod’s creative output has been since the very beginning, it comes as no surprise that six of the album’s 13 songs (including an absolutely stunning version of “Iconspiracy”) were culled from either 2016’s Post Society EP or 2018’s The Wake. While many veteran acts have shied away from producing new material in recent years, Voïvod is unleashing worthwhile sounds in the here and now.

Lost Machine – Live’s flawless song selection is matched by absolutely perfect live sound (courtesy of Mike Amstadt) and a mix (thanks to Francis Perron of RadicArt Studio) that is clear enough to allow the band’s trademark musical intricacies (and the colorful idiosyncrasies of Snake’s voice) to shine without sacrificing the raw spirit of a live quartet on fire.

While most of Lost Machine – Live’s between-song banter isn’t in English, the jovial nature of the proceedings translates to anyone who gives the album a listen. (As Snake says before the band launches into “The Prow:” “Time to party, time to dance. Have fun!”) Not surprisingly, this vibe reaches its zenith when Snake leads the crowd in a chant of “Piggy!” before the band concludes with the ferocious “Voïvod” off War and Pain.

If you’re already a Voïvod devotee, Lost Machine – Live is a powerful reminder of everything you love about the band. If you’re new to the Voïvod experience, this live document serves as a stellar introduction to an enthralling sonic phenomenon.

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