Musicians from Mars – a paper on Voivod

One of the things I have meant to do with this site is post some of the conference papers I wrote and delivered in the past – ones that I think may be of interest or use to other folks. Here is one of my many conference papers about Voivod.


Presented at The Heavy Metal & Popular Culture Conference, held April 4-7, 2013, at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, USA.

https://www.bgsu.edu/arts-and-sciences/cultural-and-critical-studies/popular-culture/conferences-and-institutes/heavy-metal-popular-culture-conference.html

‘Musicians from Mars’: Negotiating Music, Genre and Identity in Voivod’s Science-Fictional Metal

INTRODUCTION – Science Fiction and Metal

If I asked you to brainstorm about metal bands that draw on elements of science fiction, we could fairly easily come up with a substantial list. This isn’t really surprising: science fiction and metal have similarities of cultural status and demographic stereotypes. Both have been characterized as ‘popular’ or ‘low’ culture and both are often considered to be the domain of young, white men (irrespective of actual participation). Although work has been and is being done to complicate these assumptions and generalizations, rewriting the narratives and reshaping the spaces of metal and science fiction are, of course, ongoing projects.

Despite these similarities, science fiction represents only a significant minority strand in metal thematics. And within the minority of bands who do delve into science fiction we can find a range of approaches spanning several metal subgenres. There is no coherent subgenre of science fiction metal as such, in part because choosing to engage with science fiction may be bound up with a band’s deliberate attempt to be “different” (though, of course, this kind of self-positioning occurs across many metal practices). I’m particularly interested in this relationship between science fiction and  “difference,” where bringing together science fiction and metal music can signify a position of ‘otherness’ beyond artistic ‘difference’ and express a sense of social alienation from society at large but also from dominant positions in metal culture. I would like to argue that such is the case with science-fictional metal band Voivod – that Voivod’s negotiation of the relationship between science fiction and metal expresses, to some extent, a sense of the difficulties, even alienation, they faced as pioneers of French-Canadian underground and progressive metal.

VOIVOD

As many Voivod biographies attest, the band originated in Quebec in a small city called Jonquiere somewhere around 1982.[i] Several bios also emphasize the harsh environment produced by Jonquiere’s dominant industries: pulp and paper, and aluminum. Interview excerpts, from conversations with the band’s founding drummer Away (Michel Langevin) further emphasize the science-fictional quality of this environment – connecting what he has described as the band’s “industrial and cold and heavy” sounds to the aural emanations of the factory he grew up listening to, and to the nightmares of “monsters and weird things” which this soundtrack would inspire.[ii]

Voivod began releasing music around 1984, and have now put out 13 studio albums, the latest this past January, as well as a few compilations of live, studio-recorded and/or remixed material. They’re often discussed as underground metal pioneers, especially in the Canadian context – for example, Essi Berelian, author of The Rough Guide to Heavy Metal, cites their first album War & Pain as “one of the first extreme metal albums to emerge from Canada” (383). Voivod are also frequently named as pioneers of science fiction metal, and references to science fiction abound in accounts of Voivod’s history, as well as interviews and reviews.[iii] This identification also begins with their 1984 debut War & Pain – the album which introduced the character that is the band’s namesake.

The Voivod character has a long back story, stretching to Away’s childhood (Dome “Story,” 91). According to one account, the Voivod was a “means of escape” for a kid who never felt “at ease with the real world” (Dome 91). In its years as subject matter for Voivod’s records, the character went through a series of never-quite-human incarnations[iv] and the music accompanying its transformations demonstrates a similar slipperiness, shifting from noisy thrash metal to progressive metal and rock, and back toward more extreme metal again, sometimes with industrial influences as well.[v] Voivod combined these narrative concepts and musical mutations with complementary science-fictional artwork produced by Away,[vi] the importance of which is well-documented in the 2009 book Worlds Away: Voivod and the Art of Michel Langevin with text by Martin Popoff.

The Voivod character remained an emblem of sorts and conceptual focus for the band through to the 1989 album Nothingface.[vii] Less aggressive than its precursors, Nothingface brings the psychedelic/progressive side of Voivod’s relationship with science fiction to the fore.[viii] It also marked new peaks in budget and popularity: released by Mechanic, a label affiliated with MCA (Barclay, et al. 161), Nothingface brought Voivod to MTV, the record sold “a quarter of a million copies,” and the band had its choice of tour openers and a chance to open for fellow Canadians Rush (162). Nothingface also gave the band its first (and only, until 2003) appearance on Billboard’s top 200 chart (peaking at 114).

However, by 1991, and follow-up record Angel Rat, Voivod had “abandoned” its namesake character (Carson), and was exploring more “folk tales” than “outer-space adventures” (Garza 76), turning to “classic mythology and fairy tales” instead of “the persistent sci-fi/technology underpinnings of [their] previous work” (Barclay, et al. 162). This thematic path would continue with the next album, The Outer Limits (1993) – the first recorded without original bassist Blacky. The band’s work took its next dramatic shift in the mid-1990s, alongside a decline in popularity. After original vocalist Snake also left the fold, Voivod turned into a three-piece (with new bassist/vocalist Eric Forrest). They adopted a more industrialized and – again –more extreme sound, bringing back the Voivod character for a return to the concept album format with 1997 album Phobos.

Interestingly and significantly, the period that saw Voivod flirting with the possibility of more mainstream success corresponds with a move to downplay conventional science fiction elements in their work – including putting the Voivod character into several years’ hibernation. A similar correlation appears in the early 2000s, when the band reinvented themselves as a four-piece, with the return of Snake and the addition of ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted. It’s as if increased recognition and, perhaps, acceptance, enabled Voivod to test their identification with science fiction, or perhaps to push at the limits of what science fiction is. Since the death of founding guitarist Piggy and his at-first-tentative replacement by Dan “Chewy” Mongrain (another French-Canadian metalhead), and since the return of Blacky, Voivod’s work has seemed to revisit more of their earlier science-fictional markers – a move that by be informed by a wish to maintain a recognizable identity going forward while paying tribute to Piggy’s musical legacy.

LAYING CLAIM TO ALIEN STATUS

In a loosely formed centre-periphery model of global political, linguistic and musical spaces, Voivod have spent most of their history in the spaces ‘between’. Their musical career has followed a trajectory between obscurity and mainstream attention, extreme and more accessible metal. The band’s move to Montreal in the mid-1980s took them to the second most populated metropolis in Canada, but Canada is a small-time “First World” player in global politics, economics and music. And, as French-speaking Canadians (although they perform in English), Voivod are part of a large minority in Canada and a much smaller minority in international music production. 

This isn’t a severely marginalized position: Voivod’s members still share the privileges afforded to white heterosexual men in a relatively wealthy western nation. Yet, scanning through interviews published at various points in the band’s career, it becomes clear that they were often conscious of having a slightly-peripheral status, of an incomplete fit between their own performances and identities and the more predominant patterns surrounding them. This particular sense of alienation may have lessened over the years, as metal has grown more global and more diverse, but in the early 1980s, when Canada barely existed on the metal map, the disjunctions would have been patently obvious. Northern Quebec really must have seemed a different planet from metal hotspots like the U.S., U.K., or even Germany. And language difference was also an issue. Vocalist Snake, looking back on the recording of debut War & Pain, has commented on the struggle of trying to express himself in English, when his English was not yet that good, and when making metal in French didn’t even seem to be an option.

When asked in an interview if it was difficult being a metal band from Quebec, Away has responded, “Yes, definitely. Quebec is a separate part of Canada. We speak French. We are different from all of Canada’s English-speaking people and we are different from Americans. It has taken us a long time to become known and the fact that we are French and live in Quebec has not been to our advantage” (in Connor). They have also positioned themselves as misfits within the Quebec context, with Piggy noting that signing with “American record company (Mechanic/MCA)” in the 1980s and singing in English distanced the band from the cultural and financial support the Quebec government has historically offered to French-Canadian artists (Piggy in Kitts 19).

This sense of Voivod’s more-than-musical-‘difference’ shows up in press coverage as well. For example, in articles in RIP published in 1993 and 1996, both the band and their home spaces were characterized as “out there” and alien to American critic Janiss Garza. This representation continues with recent coverage, as in an article from the Montreal Gazette led by the headline: “Voivod inhabits its own planet” (Kratina). Even the title of their latest album, Target Earth, suggests Voivod’s music and message are reaching ordinary humans from afar – that they are speaking from a position outside.

Significantly, Voivod have informally associated their alienation (from the rest of Quebec and Canada, at least), with an, alien persona. For example, in an interview published in Canadian metal magazine M.E.A.T. (in 1993), Away suggested that being a Canadian band in the international metal scene but with little acceptance and recognition at home, made it seem “like Voivod comes from Mars” (Henderson 13). Sometimes the band adopted an alien identity playfully – for example, when recording a station ID for a campus radio station in 1995, Piggy began: “Hello people from Earth … We’re Voivod here, from Jupiter,” and Away continued: “Hi, this is Voivod, from outer space …” (personal archives). I don’t want to overstate the intentionality behind this positioning, but recurring references to the band’s alien identity, as if they come from some other planet, signal more than their uniqueness as a musical act. Alongside references to national and linguistic difference, this laying claim to science-fictional alien status might be read as an expression of French-Canadian outsiders in a historically British and American-dominated metal scene.

CONCLUSION

As I work toward my conclusion (to this paper if not to my reflections on Voivod’s relationship with science fiction), I’d like to push this reading a little further – to suggest that the band’s embrace of science-fictional imagery and alien personae might be read as a meaningful adoption of cultural inauthenticity. Here I’m building on the work of one of the few science fiction and music specialists, Ken McLeod. In his analyses of the relationship between science fiction, popular music and alienation, McLeod argues that some forms of science-fictional music represent a challenge to popular and scholarly discourses that would equate alienation (in the sense of alienated youth cultures) with cultural authenticity.

“Typically futuristic or alien personification and representation by popular musicians attempt to circumvent this line of thinking. By drawing on the fantastical, at least improbable, possibility of alien existence, such artists actively subvert and negate notions of authenticity. These artists often consciously place their own identities in question through the creation of new mythologies… By employing metaphors of space, alien beings or futurism, metaphors that are by definition unknowable, such artists and works constantly ‘differ’ the notion of ‘authentic’ identity. …” (“Space Oddities,” 338-339, emphasis added).

McLeod is referring here to artists such as David Bowie, and suggests that “Bowie’s alien persona was emblematic of his bisexual alienation from the heterosexual male-dominated world of rock music” while it “shed light on the artificiality of rock in general” (“Music,” 397). He also addresses the use of alien metaphors in Afrofuturist music practices – ranging from Jimi Hendrix to George Clinton to some forms of techno, musical practices. Clinton’s “exotic soundscape,” for example, “simultaneously reflects and empowers the alienation (from mainstream white society) experienced by [his] primarily black audience” (399).  

Obviously Voivod’s alienation from mainstream society at large, or dominant discourses, practices, and identities within the metal scene, is not as visible or nearly as severe as the kinds of alienation McLeod discusses. Accents aside, Voivod can ‘pass’ as fitting within ‘metal norms’. Their adoption of alien personae is also more slippery and less complete. But in its ties to their semi-marginal identities – within Canada, within the popular music industry, even within metal music and culture – their negotiation of music, science fiction and identity sidesteps several issues of authenticity to revel in a self-contructed narrative and mythology of ‘difference’. Persistently embracing not just one, but two, relatively low-status cultural forms and adopting the ‘alien’ motif, Voivod have negotiated a quasi-marginal position and identity through the interrelation of genre discourses, where bringing science fiction into metal provides a means of using genre to work through complex constellations of identity and difference.

Works Cited

Barclay, Michael, Ian A.D. Jack, and Jason Schneider. Have Not Been the Same: the CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995. Toronto: ECW Press, 2001.

Berelian, Essi. The Rough Guide to Heavy Metal. London: Rough Guides, 2005.

Book, John and Greg Prato. Voivod bio, 2004. 8 August 2005 http://voivod.net/info/bios/04_bio.php.

Carson, Nathan. Voivod bio, 2003. 8 August 2005 http://www.voivod.net/info/index.php.

Christe, Ian. Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal. New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003.

Connor, Monte. Voivod Interview. Metal Mania, 1987. 18 July 2006 http://www.voivod.net/info/index.php.

Dome, Malcolm. “The Story Behind Voivod’s Dimension Hatross.” Metal Hammer UK June 2005: 89-91.

Dome, Malcolm. Voivod bio, 1995. 8 August 2005 http://voivod.net/info/bios/95_bio.php.

Fasolino, Greg. Voivod 1989 bio. 8 August 2005 http://voivod.net/info/bios/89_bio.php.

Garza, Janiss. “Space Oddities.” RIP May 1996. 29 June 2006. http://voivod.net/info/interviews/1996_HellFrost_interview.php.

Garza. Janiss. “Voivod: Out There.” RIP July 1993: 74-76, 94.

Henderson, Tim. “Voivod: Canadian Metal on the Rise.” M.E.A.T. June 1993: 13.

Jossa, Yuri. Voivod bio, 1996. 8 August 2005 http://voivod.net/info/bios/96_bio.php.  

Kitts, Jeff. “Voivod.” M.E.A.T. November 1991 or early 1992: 19

Kratina, Al. “Voivod Inhabits Its Own Planet.” Montreal Gazette. 22 January 2013. https://www.pressreader.com/canada/montreal-gazette/20130122/281973195019695.

McLeod, Ken. “Music.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, et al., Routledge, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mcmu/detail.action?docID=425225.

 —. “Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music.” Popular Music 22.3 (2003): 337-355.

Popoff, Martin. Worlds Away: Voivod and the Art of Michel Langevin. Spider Publishing, 2009. Wagner, Jeff. Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal. Bazillion Points Books, 2010.

[i] Canadian metallers Voivod entered the fray around 1982 (Barclay, et al. 159, among other sources).

[ii] In Mean Deviation, Wagner 104-105; also in Have Not Been the Same, Barclay, Jack and Schneider 158, 161.

[iii] For example, Garza (75) and Wagner; see also use of terms like “futuristic” by writers such as Book and Prato, Dome (“Voivod”), Fasolino, and Jossa, as well as “cyberpunk” (see Dome “Voivod”; Garza 75-76; Henderson 13; Jossa ), “post-nuclear” or “post-apocalyptic” (see Carson; Fasolino).

[iv] First as ‘flesh and bone,’ then as completely mechanical, as ‘biomechanical’ and as psychic entity’; also referred to as a (post-)nuclear vampire.

[v] The Voivod is sometimes a guardian, at others a tyrant, a creature that evolved with the band for six albums, was put to rest for the next three, and later reawakened for a seventh chapter. An eighth instalment was written and demoed but never released—yet. Much like the way the Voivod’s story was abandoned and revived, the character has also experienced periods of sleep and rebirth—he first appears in a state of catalepsy to which he frequently returns, awakening periodically to check on the state of the icy planet Morgoth he has been sent to keep in line.

[vi] Music critic Nathan Carson describes Away’s work as “painted graphic images of future warriors and weaponry to adorn the [album] covers” (Carson). Away has continued this practice throughout the band’s career, with later album cover images ranging from war machines to cyborgs, aliens and the interior of spaceships.

[vii] A record touching on technology’s promises and threats (Christe 199)

[viii] With a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine,” but also drawing comparisons to King Crimson and Rush (Berelian 383). Many critics cite the album as the band’s “creative peak” (Berelian 383; cf. Barclay, et al. 161).


I have not updated the paper above – this is the same version I presented in 2013. I would like to add a few thank yous, however:

  • To http://voivod.net: A great archive of Voivod-related material for many years.
  • To Johnny Schwing and Albert Mansour, for keeping all those old issues of M.E.A.T. magazine and sharing them with me.
  • To Voivod and to Michel Langevin, in particular, for the interview time you have spared for me over the years.

And congratulations to Voivod for winning a Juno Award in 2019.

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