Tuesday 8 March 2022

Voivod - Synchro Anarchy (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Feb 2022
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Back in 1988, Voivod released an album called Dimension Hatröss that was as ahead of its time as any of the celebrated proto-extreme bands but in a different direction to what early Voivod fans might have expected. I remember it shocking me, who had spun War and Pain over and over back in 1984. They followed up with Nothingface, an album that sounds today rather like a combination of Primus, Meshuggah and Pink Floyd, but which was released long before the advent of djent and that subset of metal. Voivod had become a prog metal pioneer and, while many bands copied parts of what they did, they still sound utterly unique. If I'd heard Synchro Anarchy entirely blind, I'd still have told you it was by Voivod within a few seconds.

And that's both the best thing and the worst thing about this album.

It sounds great to me, full of melodies created out of dissonance, ominous builds and that typical off kilter feeling that pervades every Voivod album. It never seems like they're playing what they should be playing, but it feels right anyway, rather like John Cage's prepared piano work, in which he sticks nuts and bolts and what have you under the strings of a piano so that playing it starts to resemble an entire gamelan orchestra. It isn't what was originally intended from the instrument, but it sounds unique and vibrant, just like a Voivod album.

The catch is that it's pretty much exactly what I expect from them and, while that might be great to say about Status Quo, it's not good to say about a pioneering prog metal band like Voivod. They are supposed to continually innovate and progress and shock us. As much as I enjoyed this, there's no innovation or progression to be found beyond what they were doing back in the nineties and so it didn't remotely shock me. If anything, it felt comfortable in a nostalgic way, like a reunion with a sound I haven't heard in a long while but always enjoyed.

Is it a deliberate throwback album? Suddenly, I realise that I'm notably out of date with them and I have no idea how to answer that question. I was there early, with War and Pain, but may not have heard anything more recent than The Outer Limits in 1993. That may seem like last week, but time shenanigans mean that it's almost three decades ago. They've released seven studio albums since and I have no idea where they took the band. Clearly I should catch up, especially as it might seem from this album like they took them in something of a circle to those pioneering albums from the late eighties.

What remains notable is that it's hard to determine influences. Holographic Thinking starts with a clear Black Sabbath riff, albeit with a completely different tone. There's some early Pink Floyd in the instrumental sections of songs like The World Today and the title track. Mind Clock speeds up in delightful fashion, hearkening not only back to the Discharge and Motörhead nods that were all over their debut album but to the golden age of thrash which they found themselves an awkward participant in. Mostly, though, this sounds exactly like Voivod.

Quest for Nothing in particular is quintessential Voivod and nothing else here is far from it. Rapid fire staccato drums alternate with sustained power chords in dissonant fashion, then it grows with complex-sounding guitarwork that probably isn't that complex, an obvious rumbling bass and the unique snarling rasp of Snake over it all. And, as dirty as its overall sound is, everything is actually as clean as a whistle. It's all in the tone, which they defined long ago and still own.

I'd call Quest for Nothing the best song here, especially given where it goes in the second half, the vocal shift into a sort of middle eastern punk and the galloping drums easily the most progressive section on this album, the exception that proves the rule. However, I must call out the guitar solo on Sleeeves Off as my very favourite part, because it's outrageous in how metallic it is in texture. It isn't particularly long but it sounds like Chewy carved it out of the air, which around Voivod has to be metallic because they're probably recording on another planet.

And so, I'm not sure what to think about this. I enjoyed it. The songs are strong and unmistakeably Voivod. The band are tight and clearly enjoying themselves. It's hard to identify a flaw, except the abiding feeling that this isn't a challenge for them. Could they have wandered into the studio and jammed for forty-eight minutes? Maybe not, but it doesn't feel like this was carefully crafted over a long period of time. It feels like what they do when they're awake, kind of like how Kevin Smith is able to just riff on Star Wars for an hour at a time whenever anyone brings up those two words in succession. It's just who he is. He doesn't have to try. And, I can't help but feel, neither do Voivod in 2022.

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