January 12, 2012
'A wonderful, silly, serious and rather brilliant mix of punk, prog and thrash' … Voivod, whose 1984 demo tape To the Death is finally getting an official release.
For Voivod 's drummer Michel Langevin – known as Away, supposedly owing to a now impossible-to-perceive "aloof nature" – real life began when he was 17, in August 1980, with the North American release of the first Iron Maiden LP. Away had been born in Jonquière, a freezing, industrial logging town in Francophone Quebec, and his first experience of music had been listening to Beatles records with a childhood friend in the 70s. Later he discovered Rush , the Sex Pistols, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson and Gentle Giant, but as the decade turned, Away began to desire something heavier.
"NWOBHM [the New Wave of British Heavy Metal ] changed everything for me," he says. "Over the next couple of years my friends and I would hitchhike to Montreal to see shows and buy vinyl."
That's quite a round-trip.
"Yes" he says. "About 600 miles. But we had no choice. We went to the record store with not much money, so I would buy Iron Maiden and someone else would buy Motörhead."
The teenagers travelled hundreds of miles to see Motörhead play, to catch Girlschool, and Iron Maiden. The only metal band that ever came to Jonquière was Anvil , who played two sets a night for a week in a tiny bar in town. Away and his friends went every night.
Then, in 1982, Away formed Voivod with singer Denis "Snake" Bélanger, bass-player Jean-Yves "Blacky" Thériault and guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour. They began to leaven their largely metal diet with everything from punk bands such as Discharge to Joy Division, while the first song they ever played together was Judas Priest's The Ripper . "Snake sang it like he was Johnny Rotten," Away laughs. "That seemed amazing to us. Then we started writing our own songs, but, as we were French, the lyrics were all pretty funny."
In the summer of 1983 the band played their first gig at their own high school, covering songs by metal also-rans such as Tank and Raven, while also squaring up to the super-intense, black metal sound of Venom. A few months later the band sequestered themselves in their rehearsal room and recorded a demo tape that would change their lives for ever and launch them on a career as one of metal's most beloved thrash bands.
To the Death 84, which is now getting an official release, remains truly remarkable in a number of ways. For one, it sounds ridiculously crisp and powerful despite being recorded live to a bog-standard tape player through two mics strapped together in an X-formation in an attempt to get some stereo panning. For another, the music, a mixture of the band's own songs and some covers , all vibrates with a poetic, relentless energy, in a wonderful, silly, serious and rather brilliant mix of the punk, prog and thrash they had all absorbed.
Voivod recorded the album on to a specially acquired chrome cassette from which they dubbed one copy, then never played again. That dubbed copy was then dubbed on to many more cassettes, which were sent to every contact they could find on the back of their LPs. The tape was traded furiously on the metal underground scene; one landed on the desk of Brian Slagel, whose label Metal Blade had discovered Slayer and Metallica. Slagel signed the band and they recorded their debut LP proper, War and Pain, when they were still in school. Voivod have released a further 11 albums – including 1986's magnificently titled Rrröööaaarrr – in the last 27 years, two since the death of Denis D'Amour in 2005. Another is due for later this year, but that first burst of creativity remains hugely special for Away.
"We were only teenagers," he says, "so there's a naivety, but it's very well focused. You can actually hear music changing. I certainly felt like I was witnessing an important point in metal history."
To the Death 84 will be released on Alternative Tentacles on February 20.