Musicians are responding to the coronavirus pandemic in a variety of ways. Some are livestreaming shows from empty venues, some are playing for fans from the comfort of their homes, some are creating surprisingly poignant soundtracks for cat videos, and others — like Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier — are passing the time by covering overlooked classics by cult-favorite prog-metal acts.
“Just in time for lockdown … One of my favorite records of all time is Quebec thrash-metal band Voivod’s 1991 release Angel Rat,” Saunier wrote on Bandcamp, unveiling his new full-album cover of that LP. “Because of the extreme beauty and of its construction, I’ve been thinking since it came out that somebody should try a simple acoustic cover of the entire album. Now that the themes in the lyrics seem even more touchingly relevant in March 2020 than they were in 1991, I decided that the person to try it was me!”
That the drummer of one of contemporary rock’s wildest and most delightful bands is a big Voivod fan should come as no surprise. Not only has he shouted them out in interviews — once naming “Jack Luminous,” the centerpiece of the Quebecois veterans‘ 1993 album, The Outer Limits, as his favorite song ever — but he’s always championed a vast array of music, from John Cage to the Rolling Stones.
At the time it came out, Angel Rat was a polarizing statement. On their first five albums, Voivod evolved from a ferocious thrash band obsessed with breakneck speed to an oddball prog-metal outfit whose sound was as offbeat and engaging as the elaborate sci-fi narratives that accompanied it. But Angel Rat, with its streamlined song structures and cleaner production — courtesy of longtime Rush collaborator Terry Brown — boldly embraced a more radio-friendly sound.
“We were totally out of sync with everything else going on at that time, be it the death metal in Tampa [Florida], black metal in Norway, or grunge,” Voivod drummer Michel “Away” Langevin said in a 2015 interview. “For us, it was commercial — it’s some people’s favorite album. We were lost in our own dimension. We try not to overthink it, we just go for it.”
Langevin’s words ring true: Angel Rat might be a more listenable album than its predecessors, but ultimately it’s no less weird or singular than what came before. If anything, hearing guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour’s eerie, transporting riffs and vocalist Denis “Snake” Bélanger’s dystopian narratives — “Over the greying landscape/Under a deadened sky/Sitting on a mountain/I will stand aside” — in the context of these relatively straightforward songs makes them stand out even more.
Saunier’s versions — unadorned readings, with just an acoustic guitar and his tender vocals — drive home the trippy poignancy of a song like “The Prow” (“I’m starboard to nowhere/On the Milky Way/Howling wind, salty air/Tearing at the sails”) and the Philip K. Dick–ian existentialism of “Golem” (“I ask my positron self/Why am I born apart?”). Like all great covers, these versions both stand on their own and invite the listener to relive the genius of the originals — or to visit Voivod’s outer limits for the first time.