Voivod formed in 1982, and after only five years, the Quebec thrash-gone-prog quartet was pretty much impossible to mistake for any other band. Their now-classic late-Eighties albums — including 1988’s Dimension Hatröss, which ranked at number 78 on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Metal Albums list — were like portals into a fully formed alternate universe: elaborate feats of escapism realized via frontman Denis “Snake” Bélanger’s heavily accented tales of thought control and interstellar intrigue, drummer Michel “Away” Langevin’s chugging beats and vivid dystopic artwork, and guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour’s wildly inventive art-metal riffage.
In the Nineties, the band started to dial back its over-the-top, concept-driven weirdness. While their output since then has been generally solid (1993’s Outer Limits is an underrated gem), it’s sometimes seemed a little conservative next to the epic scope and unbridled eccentricity of the Hatröss era. On Target Earth — the band’s strong 2013 LP and first without D’Amour, who died of colon cancer in 2005 — Voivod once again embraced their sci-fi side. The Wake, the band’s 14th LP, offers definitive proof that the old, weird Voivod is back: It’s arguably their most hyper-detailed, gloriously geeky album since the Eighties.
Snake and Away are their usual inimitable selves here, but the MVP is guitarist Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain, who joined the band in 2008. A little more than a decade younger than the other members, he grew up steeped in Voivod’s music, and particularly what he has referred to as the “eerie, chaotic, post-nuclear vibe” of D’Amour’s guitarwork. On Target Earth, he acted more as a steward of the legacy, but here, he’s fully unbridled, driving the music with the same mad imagination that Piggy once did.
“The End of Dormancy” is an instant Voivod classic that sums up the The Wake‘s skillful blend of the technical and anthemic. The lyrics tell the story of an underwater alien craft that powers up after millions of years and wreaks havoc, and the lone survivor of the human offensive against it. Chewy’s dazzling progression of riffs — first burly and trudging, then tense and marchlike — accompanies the tale. Meanwhile, Snake plays multiple characters, from the commander on the loudspeaker (“All units, ready to counter-attack”) to the man who makes it back, only to find himself embroiled in X-Files–like conspiracy (“This is what happens when you know too much!”). Like the best moments from Voivod’s high-tech heyday, the song combines adolescent fantasy with grown-up musical sophistication.
The rest of the record covers a huge amount of stylistic ground, reminding the listener that Voivod always treated metal more as a jumping-off point than a comfortable niche. “Orb Confusion” touches on hard-grooving postpunk, complete with slicing, dissonant riffs and rangy distorted bass from Dominic “Rocky” Laroche (who joined in 2014 and makes his full-length studio debut on The Wake), while “Event Horizon” is pure brain-bending prog. “Always Moving” juggles frantic asymmetrical riffage with murky acoustic psych and a sunny synth-guitar solo that finds Chewy channeling his inner Pat Metheny. A few songs even feature tastefully integrated strings.
“Sonic Mycelium,” the album’s 12-minute-plus closer feels ambitious even for Voivod. The track plays like a hallucinogenic recap of the entire record, splicing and reconfiguring riffs and lyrics from the seven preceding songs. It’s an ingenious closer and an affirmation of just how committed this incarnation of the group is to recapturing the immersive wonder of Voivod’s earlier work. Like The Wake as a whole, it’s the sound of a veteran band indulging its most bizarre instincts and in the process reconnecting with everything that originally earned them such a loyal and obsessive fan base. Piggy would no doubt approve.