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You'd have to have engaged on a long-distance space mission, beyond communications range, over this past year or so to have avoided the veritable shit-storm of hype Voivod has gotten since announcing their new guitarist Daniel Mongrain (who had previously been filling in for them at live gigs), announcing their new album, and then releasing a number of live video clips and inevitably samples, met by many eager fans with a swath of enthusiasm. I doubt the Canadians had experienced such a wave of good vibrations (in terms of their musical output, at least) since the mid 90s, and all indicators were stacking up to their 13th full length Target Earth as a rousing success before the album dropped. As usual, when a band hints of returning to a beloved era of productivity to reinvigorate itself, there's this incredibly vocal (online) minority which suddenly comes to life, praising the latest opus as the greatest work of their career, denouncing everything the band has done since the 80s (even if, ironically, many of the people doing so were not even alive or listening to the band then), bada bing bada boom, queue the gross hyperbole and exaggerations for six weeks until the next object of internet lust arrives at the precipice...
Now, granted, that's fucking life, and I'd have better luck pissing into the exhaust of a jet engine than trying to shut myself away from it all. In truth, as a long term raving Voivod lunatic myself, there are few other bands in the world which deserve such a break, and I only pray that this time the world at large can wake up to what it's been missing as early as the 80s. I am, frankly, ECSTATIC that so many people are enjoying the music of this stunning band, and that they've managed to produce their first work without the beloved Denis D'Amour (aka Piggy), while honoring those musical techniques and songwriting aesthetics that counted him among the most unique guitarists in thrash (or any metal, really). But this comes with some degree of caution. Contrary to a lot of comments I've read, Target Earth is not a 'comeback' album. Dark Roots of Earth was not a comeback album. Ironbound was not a goddamn comeback album. The existence of this album does not suddenly counteract or overwrite its predecessors, opening a black hole to swallow them unto oblivion. Does Target Earth retrofit more of Voivod's later 80s thrash qualities than the 6-7 works leading up to it? Undoubtedly, and it does so without entirely Xeroxing itself from their Golden Age of 1987-1993. But is it perfect? Is it the best album evar (until six weeks from now). Absolutely, resoundingly not.
It IS a pretty damn satisfying new link in the Canadians' chain, but that's coming from someone who has found nearly every Voivod studio album (excepting Negatron) to range from greatness to perfection. I enjoyed the softening of the band's spacey core through Nothingface and Angel Rat. The nightmarish evolution of Phobos. The simplified, stratified rock out of the eponymous 2003 effort, which approached the band's punkish roots from a different angle, and was later honed through the superior Katorz. Hell, I still listen to those albums when highway cruising and love to imagine myself speeding along a wormhole. I had no problem with any of that material, and even with the posthumous Piggy riffing of Infini, it felt like a fresh rendering of Katorz concepts backwards into an even more science fictional mold. With Target Earth, I've definitely been feeling a heavy Dimension Hatross vibe, threaded with some warmer and more harmonious elements from the band's 1989-1991 material. Not so much of a reinvention or 'step forward', apart from the obvious confirmation of personnel, but more as if the band took a time machine back to 1988 and then, from that album, opened a dimensional portal somewhere other than Nothingface.
The very idea of that gets me giddy, for sure, but ultimately this material seems slightly inconsistent, and short of a new masterpiece. But that's not to deny the labor of love here, or the array of strengths Target Earth has its disposal. The question on everyone's mind: how does Daniel Mongrain fit into this picture? After all, he's got such rare shoes to fill, but he's fully on board here, first with the appropriate nickname 'Chewy', and then a selection of riffs and techniques that fit D'Amour's style pretty snugly. Plus, he's obviously a pretty huge metal nerd and has stamped his territory not only with Martyr, but with a number of Canadian's most popular extreme metal acts (Cryptopsy, Gorguts), even in just a live capacity. I doubt there was a better choice possible, in fact, with the caveat that the tunes here really only give us faint traces of what he'll bring to the table in the future, assuming Voivod moves forward. Most of the chord configurations, grooves and Rush-like mechanical progressions could more or less be conjoined with half the tracks of Hatross and I'd be hard pressed to tell the difference, but I think his own personality comes through in the zippier leads, or a few of the crisper, almost speed/thrash metal licks that provide a busy contrast to the usual expectations.
But, despite the excellence of tracks like "Kluskap O'Kom", "Mechanical Mind" and "Resistance", it is not Mongrain who I was most impressed with through this hour of material, but rather Blacky and Snake. The former is in fine form, returning us to the buzzing grooves that were so prevalent and important on the 1988 and 1989 masterworks; a departure from Newsted's strong arming lines on records like Katorz (which I enjoyed for its own reasons), but then what else would we expect? Jean-Yves Thériault has long been a rock for this band, whenever he's appeared, and there's no reason to have doubted that his long awaited, 'official' return to this fold would pan out. Not to mention, he's already got experience playing alongside Mongrain (as a guest on Martyr's Feeding the Abscess), so the pairing is natural. If any one musician here is expanding upon past performances, though, it's Denis Bélanger, who seems to have burst from some ambiguous haze of the past three records, and offers a sharper and more seasoned inflection with some warmer tones and melodies than just the typical post-punk petulance. All the swirling psychedelic and progressive rock influences circa Angel Rat or Nothingface are still there, but there's just something more matured and refined about his delivery, without abandoning the anger and energy requisite to remaining a record rooted in thrash.
I suppose I should talk at length about Away's drumming, but truthfully it was the least standout element of the album for me, probably because he just does his usual pretty damn good job of peppy rock rhythms and lavishly anchors the more proggy, jamming, mathematical tempos. It's simply never at the fore of Target Earth's curiosities. As for his cover art, a bit of a letdown. I do dig this more cartoony logo, but the artwork looks very digital comic, simply not as detailed or mysterious as Dimension Hatross or Killing Technology. In spirit, it's got the spikes, the alien raygun, and a few floaty drone bots, but even the central figure looks a little disinterested in what's going on. The lyrics are decently written, somewhere between the campier sci fi approach of The Outer Limits and the more social and environmentally centered philosophical and political rantings and ravings of the s/t or Katorz (like the gasmask-punk of "Resistance"). Nothing so unified, cryptic or compelling as Nothingface, and I for one would have appreciated this retrogression of aesthetics to include the lyrics themselves, but these are at least pretty relevant to our beloved human condition, not short on effort, and substantial in their imagery. I dug the duality of the title track, which I expected to be about an alien invasion but really seemed to be about the potential danger of megalomaniac computer hackers.
In terms of songwriting, I felt as if there were a handful here with something quite compelling beneath them, and then the rest were more or less filling out the track list with a modicum of style and a few interesting gimmicks. "Kluskap O'Kom" is addictive, with a great, haunting chord pattern, nice escalated mutes that make you feel like you're on the edge of something alien, larger than life, and then the great use of the backing, percussive gang shouts that don't sound similar to any they've used in the past. Not to mention, they pack better riffs into this 4 and a half minute piece than most of the longer tracks that dominate the record. "Mechanical Mind" is also killer, from the quirky opening ambient/noise elements to the total Dimension Hatross styled structure. "Resistance" rocks your fucking gasmask off, and "Empathy for the Enemy" builds an excellent, atmospheric gap between "Kluskap" and "Mechanical" (for a straight shot of about 17 minutes of almost pure brilliance). Elsewhere, I wasn't too impressed. "Warchaic" has a nice melody and rhythm, but the riffs are largely just paraphrased from earlier Voivod tunes; even the later vocal harmonies seem like an attempt to just reinvent the patterns on "Astronomy Domine".
Then there are those like "Target Earth", with a nice little thrash hook in the verse rhythm but not much else happening, and no good chorus to speak of. The song in French, "Corps Étranger" has these two killer riffs, but never really reaches the climax I was anticipating, and the outro "Defiance" is not a healthy way to pad out an album for 90 seconds. A few of the transitions on the album feel rather slammed together, which is distracting, but only an occasional issue. Target Earth probably has one of the cleanest productions in the band's entire discography, with an appreciable balance of atmospherics and pure riffing, and each instrument occupying its own, audible place in the mix. I might miss some of the bulkier guitars of the last few albums, but those were likely the result of how they had to record the music without Piggy available. Voivod did a pretty impressive job producing it themselves, and I was happy to see they got another Canadian thrash veteran, Pierre Rémillard (of Obliveon) to record the music. Fuck, had they reserved a few guest spots for 'Lips', Dave Carlo, Lord Worm and Gordon 'Piledriver' Kirchin, and maybe replaced "Defiance" with a Sacrifice cover, this album could have been credited Canada vs. the Daleks and no one would have been the wiser. Maple leafs and death rays aplomb.
Surprisingly, though Target Earth is without question a more intricate, coherent and balanced experience than its predecessor Infini, I found myself enjoying it just a fraction less. So you'll have to forgive me if I'm not about to jump on the wagon of 'best album of the year' accolades when there is so much yet to come. It has proven to me that Voivod can continue to exist post-Piggy, and not only exist, but thrive. It's got a handful of tunes I'd certainly place on the career highlight reel, and it's well worth every cent I paid for it. But I don't really view it as this triumphant 'comeback', the Canadians riding through the streets of Montreal on chariots with robot horses pulling them and plastic-gowned future Québécoise with Rutger Hauer haircuts showering Voivod with holographic confetti. Target Earth is more about perseverance in the face of the impossible, and about old dogs hitting rewind before applying new tricks. I ask myself: how often has Voivod ever failed me? Not bloody often, and certainly not this time. So dust off the maser cannons, drag out the anti-aircraft missile arrays, test the silo doors, and keep your radars fixed on the sky. We are not alone, and I don't think they're friendly.