Voivod were (still are, actually) the strangest and the most special of all the great bands from the thrash boom of the 80s. Non-linear doesn’t begin to describe their sound; Piggy, to a great extent, eschewed the conventional power chord/downpicking thrash formula, playing around with a lot of dissonant chords and somehow contrived to make them sound cohesive and fiercely musical. And completely not-of-this-world. Their triarchy of classics, ‘Killing Technology’, ‘Dimension Hatross’, and ‘Nothingface’ embraced ‘off-kilter’ as a lifestyle, through music, lyrical subject matter, and an adventurous, intrepid approach to songwriting, in the process greatly inspiring and downright influencing the sound of many modern greats like Immolation, Gorguts, Deathspell Omega, heck even Mayhem. They all share a common kinship with Voivod.
In 1991, they put out an album called ‘Angel Rat’, a stab at streamlining their music after the headiness of ‘Nothingface’. With typical Voivod-ian results. When Celtic Frost did ‘Cold Lake’, it sounded plain boring because the band, for all their original extremity and inventiveness, was firmly rooted in established rock and metal practices, and their attempt at being a little more normal got easily lost in the crowd. But a band like Voivod is not human to begin with; it is an artificial construct, carrying the seed of consciousness, sent from a distant star system to inhabit earth for a while, to inspect its curious denizens, to infiltrate their minds and distort their prosaic thought patterns so they are greater attuned to the atonal riches of the cosmos.
‘Angel Rat’ is the sound of this massive alien intelligence getting carried away with the simplistic dabblings of puny, over-reaching earthlings (Metallica, Megadeth, etc) , a sound distilled through the lenses of cyberpunk and science fiction. Only, now they have traded singing about rictus-erasing valve plugs for Lorelei, a ship’s prow carved from magical treewood that guides the vessel’s course and protects its crew from all dangers. Fair exchange, I say.
The nearest post-event comparison I can make is with Devin Townsend/Ocean Machine’s ‘Biomech’ album. Both records share an immensely welcoming vibe that makes you instantly visualize vast swathes of the ocean in all its moods, tranquil and tempestuous. The production has a very understated yet perpetual white noise underneath layers of warm chords, unconventional but with distinctly pop sensibilities.
And pop it does. Palpable “joy” suffuses this album like the first blush of spring. It’s the sound of a band trying to free itself of all genre constraints and giving expression to the moment, probably with a grin on their mugs. Hope never seems too forlorn a proposition even when the band slips into one of their darker moods, such as the funeral organs on ‘The Prow’. The somber and the insecure on the title song and ‘Golem’, respectively, both lead into choruses dripping with infectious optimism. Why mull over storms past when there’s candy and blossoms to look forward to?
Angel Rat isn’t mainstream in the commercially acceptable manner of a Metallica or Megadeth. These are genuine sing-along melodies, but far more intricate than what those notables were doing at the time, just darned left-field. Other than the thrashy opener ‘Panorama’, a throw away to their younger days, Voivod bring the kitchen sink and dump it at the listener’s feet. Organs, mouth organs, horns – everything is fair game, and it is all done with immaculate taste and placement. In a lot of ways, ‘Angel Rat’ is more Television and Joy Division than Kill Em All, punk seen through goggles from Alpha Centauri.
Of course it never stood a chance against the heavyweights. Of course it was bound to be rejected even by the band’s faithful. Twenty-two years, however, have been infinitely kind to the album. It inhabits a special, utterly unique niche in time; it couldn’t possibly be a product of today’s musical climate. It isn’t aggressive, mean-spirited, or dripping with more testosterone than a 16 year old. But it is some of the band’s most sublime work, and at its best, it verges on the cathartic.