1991.12 Guitar World Interview
Guitar World, December 1991
By Glenn Thrush
In 1986 the brainy French Canadian thrash outfit VoiVod released Killing Technology. The theme expressed in that album’s title was trumpeted with particularly bleak intensity on the angry ditty, “Ravenous Medicine.” A scant two years after Killing’s release, VoiVod guitarist D’Amour strolled jauntily into a Montreal hospital to be examined for what he thought was a simple head cold. Several weeks and a thousand agonies later, D’Amour, known to the metal world as “Piggy”, was informed that he had a tumor pressing against his optic nerve, and that the only way he could rid himself of his unwelcome guest was to undergo laser surgery.
Unfortunately, Piggy learned, the process stood a good chance of robbing him of his sight. Enter the miracle of that old VoiVod pet peeve, modern medicine. D’Amour was saved by a previously untried chemotherapy that dissolved the tumor and had him wailing again on his custom-made Liberatore double-neck within a few weeks. D’Amour had recovered, but his band would never again be the same.
In the next few years, VoiVod, whose first three albums contained some of the most propulsive speed metal ever recorded, mutated as rapidly as the erswhile thing behind Piggy’s eye. D’Amour’s hammerstrike style blossomed with open-stringed arpeggios, as he harvested the dissonance and economy of his idols, David Gilmour and Steve Howe. Meanwhile, singer Denis Belanger’s formerly impenetrable Quebecois-accented cyborg drone became increasingly more comprehensible. The musical evolution coincided with a tightening of the band’s vision of the world as as data-glutted, dehumanized ghetto of a planet trapped and tortured by its own technology-a view propagated by sci-fi scribe William Gibson in his early Eighties cyberpunk manifesto, NEUROMANCER. 1989’s Nothingface was as much a bad trip as it was a great album. While more than one critic dubbed it a masterpiece, typical reactions were more visceral. One devotee told of listening to it for three days straight without leaving his room. “It just swallowed me up,”he said. “It was as if it had creeped into my spinal fluid and grabbed my brain.”
Now comes the band’s new AngelRat. Crafted by longtime Rush producer Terry Brown, it is perhaps VoiVod’s most tightly knit and sonically focused album to date. But nine years and five albums after storming out of their native Quebec, the quartet has embarked on yet another program of make-or-break change. Firstly, bassist Jean-Yves Theriault left the band last summer to pursue more lucrative alternative music projects in Montreal. Next, the three remaining members decided to discard their monosyllabic stage names, Piggy, Away, and Snake. Most significantly, however, VoiVod has opted to eliminate the VoiVod itself-the meatfaced, post-nuclear vampire/cyborg/mutant hacker and apocalyptic warrior that has served as the band’s symbol and unifying force since they began concocting their dizzying hybrid of progressive think-thrash in 1982.
“There will be more songs about the VoiVod. He’s resting now,” laughs Michel Langevin, who dreamed up VoiVod after reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a teenager. “He was our patron saint, you know,” he adds. That the members of VoiVod needed a patron saint to begin with is unsurprising considering where they grew up: 300 miles north of Montreal, in a town dominated by an enormous factory that extracts aluminum from raw ore. It is a place that very much resembles the post-industrial anti-utopia often described in Away Langevin’s grim lyrics. And the pervasive foreboding associated with the factory-dominated town also resonates through D’Amour’s unique axe style. “My playing is all about mood and atmosphere.” says D’Amour, who writes most of the band’s music. “I don’t think about what I play. I just sit down and play what I feel. I rely on-how do you say-a vibe.” On AngelRat, he maintains a consistently menacing quality in his playing, alternating between industrial, low E-string runs and ringing arpeggios on the high E. On the mind-bending Golem, about a cyborg with a Woody Allen inferiority complex-D’Amour pounds the listener with a simple fifth chord riff before jolting them into cyberspace with an open chorded chromatic bridge. It’s a classic D’Amour manuever: Getting them thrashed up and then ejecting them onto a stream of two and three note paterns that send the overwhelmed listener spinning away in angry whirls.
For AngelRat, D’Amour has compacted his style to allow for shorter songs. The change, he says, resulted not from record company pressures, but from the rigors of playing live. “Playing all those complex guitar parts in front of an audience-are you kidding me? I used to spend all my time looking at my hands on the frets and my feet on the pedals. I wouldn’t even notice there was an audience until the fourth or fifth song.”
VoiVod’s unique vision of the world also stems from the band’s having been reared in Francophone Quebec, a country-within-a country. Any French Canadian act that tries to make a name for itself outside of French Quebec risks the chance of walking smack into the crossfire of the province’s de facto cultural war with the rest of English speaking North America-and VoiVod has the powerder burns to prove it. “We were the first Quebecquois group to get a record contract and an international tour while singing in English. People don’t realize how big a thing that is,” says Piggy, who admits that the band is reluctant to scatter more than a few words of their native tongue on an album. “We’ve been shunned and ignored back home. There’s a whole big political thing in Quebec about singing in English-if you do it, you become an outcast. But if you decide to sing in French, you immediately limit yourself to the native audience, which is very constraining. Its a big pain in the ass.” Though they speak excellent idiomatic, if accented, English, the band members are acutely self-conscious about their ability to communicate in that language. Piggy is especially paranoid in this regard, punctuating nearly every sentence with a tentative “Eeeef I might say.” This is in all probability the result of habitually being told to reach out only to your own kind-and being hassled by Franco-phobes in English speaking cities like Toronto and Calgary. The cultural war also determined the way Piggy learned how to play.
Although he studied violin in music college and has perfect pitch (he calls it an absolute ear) he mastered his technique in the isolation of his room, figuring out Yes, Rush, and Alvin Lee tunes note for note and poring through guitar magazines. Not surprisingly, his current approach to both songwriting and playing is a study in solitaire. While Langevin and Belanger collaborate on lyrics and hatch the mythological and folkloric themes that dominate the band’s current repertorie, Piggy pops in only to get the gist of what the songs are all about. Then he drifts off alone with a guitar and works out a score to support the theme. “They’ll write their lyrics and then I’ll come in with my guitar and play some riffs I’ve thought up,” explains Piggy. “Then we’ll decide which riffs go with which songs and anything else I have to do to capture the themes.” And the themes keep changing, evolving as rapidly as D’Amour’s playing: From musings on Conan in 1986’s “Korgull the Exterminator,” to Nothingface’s thematic homage to William Gibson’s image of cities as clusters of human data and sky as a static-clogged computer screen.
Now we have AngelRat, a loose collection of fairy tales about sailors who fall in love with their carved mastheads and children who dive off cliffs straining to fly. More fables are on the way. On a park bench, Snake Belanger and Away Langevin sit hashing out a shared reminiscence that will probably make its way to vinyl. “I remember the first man on the moon,” recalls Langevin. “I was on a camping trip with my Uncle and we had a small black and white tv. And we look and there’t this guy walking on the moon. I looked up in the sky and tried very hard to see the little dot moving around on the moon.” Growing excited, Belanger leaps into the conversation. “For a minute I thought I could see the little flag that they planted,” he blurts. “Just looking with my naked eye.” If he had looked closer, he probably would have seen that the flag said, VoiVod wuz here!
Pickups: Dimarzio Distortion
Frets: Jumbo Fretboard
Twang Bar: Ibanez
Pick: Jim Dunlop
Strings: Ernie Ball .008
Misc.modifications: The whole guitar has been made for me by Liberatore Custom Guitars, 10 Ontario West, Suite A02, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2X 1Y6. (514-287-9315)
Make: Marshall 9000 preamp and 2 JCM 800 heads
Modifications: Active effect loop on the JCM 800 heads
Speakers: Marshall slanted cabinets
Other Guitars: Gibson Les Paul custom, 1969 Liberatore Double-Neck
Five fave solos by other guitarists:
1. Alvin Lee-“Good Morning Little School Girl”
2. Steve Howe-“Sound Chaser”
3. Alex Lifeson-“The Necromancer”
4. Angus Young-everything
5. Jan Ackerman-“Hocus Pocus”