By David E. Gehlke
It would have been understandable for VOIVOD to permanently call it a day in 2009 after the release of "Infini" — the last studio album to feature guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour, who passed away from colon cancer in 2005. The guitarist gave his bandmates access to a laptop with piles of riffs and arrangements before his death, laying the groundwork for 2006's "Katorz" and "Infini". Once all those ideas saw the light of day, the thought of replacing D'Amour — one of metal's most unique guitarists — seemed impossible.
But an appearance at the 2008 Heavy Montreal festival featuring MARTYR guitarist Daniel "Chewy" Mongrain immediately breathed new life into VOIVOD. A trained musician with a deep respect for D'Amour's playing, Mongrain capably handled the obtuse, alien and varied VOIVOD catalog, leading to a string of shows across the globe. VOIVOD took the new material plunge with Mongrain for 2013's "Target Earth", but 2018's "The Wake" helped the long-running French-Canadian sci-fi metallers earn an entirely new batch of fans and even netted them a Juno award in their home country.
2022 brings VOIVOD's 14th studio album, "Synchro Anarchy". It cuts across the frozen, exploratory terrain of the band's classic "Dimension Hatröss" and "Nothingface" while remaining immersed in the free-form, near-jazz areas that have come to embody Mongrain's tenure with the band. Phoning from his native Montreal, founding member, drummer and visual artist Michel "Away" Langevin waxed on making "Synchro Anarchy", the various permutations of the band's logo and what's left to do in a career that is approaching 40 years.
Blabbermouth: How did the pandemic impact the creation of "Synchro Anarchy"?
Michel: "Like everybody, it affected us a lot. When we came back from touring with GWAR in Europe at the end of 2019, we took a break for the holidays. In early 2020, we started jamming again — recording improvisations, riffs and vocal ideas. It was in mid-March of 2020 when the lockdowns happened and everything stopped. For a while, we concentrated on looking into what we had in the bank, which were recorded shows from the tour for 'The Wake'. We had a couple of live releases, 'The End Of Dormancy' EP from the  Jazz Fest in Montreal, and the 'Lost Machine' live album from the Québec City Summer Fest [in 2019]. As soon as we could in August 2020, we started doing online shows. In the meantime, we were trying to build the album with snippets of songs while socially distanced, sharing files online. I was programming drums on my computer. It slowed down the process a lot. But it sort of gave us the formula to move forward that we can apply to future albums. We used technology full-time. Also, the fact we're trying to stick together bits of songs, I think it gives the album a feeling of 'Nothingface' and 'Dimension Hatröss' when we were turning on a dime from one idea to the next. In a way, the album is different because of that, but I must say, we couldn't wait to get into the studio so I could track the drums on a real drumkit and we could morph the songs into real VOIVOD-ian material. We were using technology to keep going, but it slowed down the process a lot. Now that we have that formula, maybe the next releases will be less far apart."
Blabbermouth: You were always a band who got together in a room and jammed. Was it that way for the new album?
Michel: "Yes. We were able to record improvisations in early 2020 that we could use. Chewy was sending me stuff he had re-arranged on guitar from these sessions and I was programming drums so we could build something. Eventually, I started programming drums and sending them to Chewy so he could have fun with it. I put in some punk beats with a lot of toms; it was a challenge for me in a sense. I had to make sure that I would be able to play it once we got into the studio. It was a great experience. Since we couldn't tour for the first half of 2021, we kept doing these 'Hypercube' sessions where we played 'Nothingface' and 'Dimension Hatröss'. This was a lot of work that also kept us from going full-on with the new album. Finally, in June of last year, we were able to go to RadicArt Studio to record. But then we were confronted with a deadline where we had to deliver the masters by the end of September, which was a bit crazy. Also, as soon as we were able to finally get together properly, it was also the time when the festivals started in the province of Québec with protocols. We played festivals on the weekend and recorded during the week, like the good old days when DEEP PURPLE and BLACK SABBATH were doing it. It was a pretty crazy summer. We were all pretty exhausted by the end of it, but we gave ourselves the pressure of delivering something as good as 'The Wake' or better. That was our main goal, so we worked extra hard."
Blabbermouth: What are these jam sessions like?
Michel: "It's always been important in VOIVOD to record improvisations because it's stuff you can't make up if you want to sit down and write something; it doesn't come out that way. We do a lot of that. Also, Rocky [bassist Dominic Laroche] and Chewy have a setup to record on the road, on the bus or in hotel rooms. They have bits of ideas, but as much as we're trying to build something cohesive with all of that, it's really when we got together in June of last year at the studio that it morphed into real VOIVOD-ian material. Most of the lyrics were not written before getting into the studio and also, the music was just templates, basically. We were recording and writing at the same time. We tried to be a bit more proactive for the next album. I'm probably going to start writing drums for the demos fairly soon. We ended up working many, many hours a day for four months while playing the festivals in Québec. We'll have another approach for the next album, I think."
Blabbermouth: So the response to "The Wake" gave you some extra motivation for "Synchro Anarchy"?
Michel: "Yes! Definitely. As soon as the album came out at the end of 2018 when we started a Euro tour, it had a big buzz. All the clubs were packed all through the tour. We went around the world a couple of times. We won a Juno in Canada for it. It was so well-received. It gave us a lot of confidence because 'The Wake', with Chewy and Rocky, we jumped into this fusion-metal thing. It's an intricate album and the fact it was so well-received gave us the idea we were following the right path. We're trying to expand it."
Blabbermouth: Working with Chewy versus Piggy: How are they alike and different?
Michel: "To me, they are very much alike in a sense they are great composers and arrangers and have a sense of suspense in their music where it's almost classical or cinematographic. They have the same driving role in the band: the main composer and arranger. They are the ones taking all the snippets and making it into great, epic pieces."
Blabbermouth: Did playing "Dimension Hatröss" and "Nothingface" in full bleed into the songwriting for the new album?
Michel: "I would think so. I didn't think about it at first, but yes. Also, [producer] Francis [Perron], who does the recordings for us, we did the 'Hypercube' sessions at his studio. It also helped us develop the sounds for the new album — something quick, a bit dry, but with effects here and there. You can hear everything. As much as we are individually fine-tuning our own sound, he's also improving a lot as an engineer. He's buying a lot of gear for his studio. We form a very good team; we're trying to fine-tune our project and slowly achieve what we have in mind."
Blabbermouth: Do you consider "Nothingface" to be the cornerstone VOIVOD album? It was when you were moving away from thrash and paved the way for "Angel Rat" and "The Outer Limits".
Michel: "I see it as the turning point also because all of a sudden, we were on a major label [MCA/Mechanic] with a lot of support. We were able to tour with SOUNDGARDEN, FAITH NO MORE and RUSH. The PINK FLOYD cover of 'Astronomy Domine', got played on MTV and here on MuchMusic in Canada. It was a big step up. In a way, 'Killing Technology' was also a big step forward, but 'Nothingface' is really where a lot of people became aware of the band."
Blabbermouth: You can hear traces of those albums in new songs like "Planet Eaters" and "Mind Clock", too.
Michel: "It's pretty fun for me because I'm the one who was there all the way through. I can hear all the eras of VOIVOD in the new music we're playing with a new jazzy twist. I feel really at ease. It's a challenge, but I've learned as much as prog and metal were my roots; I learned a lot from SOFT MACHINE, KING CRIMSON, VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR, MAGMA, or Terry Bozzio from [Frank] Zappa. I feel comfortable with the new fusion metal we're playing. There is a lot of psychedelia involved in the album that's like 'The Outer Limits'. Chewy wanted it to be more thrash metal than 'The Wake', so I can hear 'Phobos' in there as well."
Blabbermouth: Lyrically, what was Snake [vocalist Denis Bélanger] going for this time? Did recent events influence his lyrics?
Michel: "Oh yeah. I first asked him, 'What are you going to talk about?' [Laughs] He said, 'I'm not going to talk about COVID,' but I can feel it in the lyrics. In March 2020, everything stopped with the lockdown and curfews, so we couldn't meet at the jam space. So Snake built a studio in his house to meet and start working. As soon as he finished isolating one room in his house, there were new restrictions, so we couldn't meet. He did part of the work in isolation. I can definitely hear it in the lyrics. It's a pretty dark album, even though it's very energetic and there's an urgency to it. Overall, there's a sense of alienation and being caught up by science-fiction or impending doom."
Blabbermouth: Who is responsible for the album title?
Michel: "It's a funny thing, actually. When we were doing the improvisations in early 2020, we had finished rehearsing and I was taking my running shoes off, then I had an idea where I would skip a beat, one beat every 16 beats on a rhythm pattern. I stood up and said, 'I have an idea!' I walked toward the drums, but my shoes were untied. I stepped on one shoelace. I tripped and I almost fell into the drumkit. It's funny because my idea was to skip a beat, but I skipped a step. [Laughs] I played the beat and Chewy recorded it. He gave it the working title of 'Away's Shoelace Incident' just so we could remember the beat. He arranged the song around it and Snake started to write the lyrics. He shortened the title to 'Shoelace'. The whole thing gave him the idea that in life when you stop to tie your shoe and a car whizzes by, one second later, it will be over. I noticed it in his lyrics: 'Synchro Anarchy'. I said, 'Man, this would be a great title for the song instead of 'Shoelace'.' At the very end of the process, because of the way we had to build the album like a puzzle and the atmosphere of the whole planet, we thought it would be a great title for the album."
Blabbermouth: There's yet another new VOIVOD logo adorning the 'Synchro Anarchy' album cover. You have a few classic logos — especially 'Killing Technology'. What inspired you to create a new one?
Michel: 'I don't know what possesses me to do that. I always wanted to make a derivative of the classic logo, but the classic logo is what many people ask me to rip off for other projects. The 'Killing Technology' logo is definitely the most popular, but I've been trying to adapt the logo to the music as well and the changes in the direction over the years, the decades. I don't know…I've been told many times that I should stick to one logo. [Laughs] It's my fifth lineup. Sometimes I can relate a logo to a specific lineup like the Jason [Newsted, bass] years where I used the same logo. It's simpleton to me in a way. For the 'Lost Machine' live album, I decided to do a more spikey logo and thrash metal. I'm probably going to develop this logo for future projects. Back then, the logo was also evolving with the Korgüll [The Exterminator] character. It was all connected. It just became a habit for me to do a new logo every album or every couple of albums."
Blabbermouth: You're the only VOIVOD member to appear on every album. After Piggy passed away and you got through the albums with his material, it looked like the band was done, but then Chewy entered the picture. Has the last decade or so gone beyond your imagination?
Michel: "Oh yeah. It was supposed to be a one-off show in 2008 for the Heavy Montreal festival. We were afraid it would be sacrilege to go on without Piggy, so we reformed for one show. But the word spread and the kids were freaking out in the front row because they never thought they would see VOIVOD. It was an amazing experience. Then, we were invited to play in Tokyo with TESTAMENT and the Masters Of Rock in Calgary with JUDAS PRIEST and Ozzy [Osbourne]. It never stopped after that. We've been touring a lot since then. Now, with 'The Wake', we gained a lot of momentum. Now, we're just riding the wave, but we don't take it for granted. We work super-hard."
Blabbermouth: Do you have a greater appreciation for the 1990s when [vocalist/bassist] Eric Forrest was in the band?
Michel: "There are a couple of periods that were more difficult for the band. We definitely had a lower profile. Touring conditions were not as great. We ended up in a crash in Germany. This has been quite a roller-coaster for 39 years now, but when you don't give up, amazing things can happen."
Blabbermouth: You're coming up on 40 years. What's on your to-do list for VOIVOD?
Michel: "It would be great to do a concert with a symphony orchestra. There are a lot of corners on the planet that we haven't been to that we are willing to go to, but right now, it's challenging. It's a logistical nightmare because of visas and omicron. We just do it step by step, but definitely playing a concert with a whole orchestra would be amazing. The thing we did at the Montreal Jazz Festival was great. The string quartet for 'The Wake' sessions was really amazing. Chewy is really good at writing charts, also. That's a goal. I don't see it happening for a couple of years, though."