30 years of grappling with Voivod’s disasterpiece Angel Rat
French Canadian progressive metal quartet Voivod was flying high in 1990. Their first major label album Nothingface was a critical success, and sold a quarter million copies.
The video for their brilliant cover of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” was playing on Mtv’s Headbanger’s Ball. They supported their heroes Rush on four Canadian arena dates, and headlined American theaters over opening acts Faith No More and Soundgarden. Every artistic risk Voivod had made over its stellar five-album run had paid off. They weren’t rich or famous, but all the lights on the road were green.
Guided by their visionary guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour, the band had grown with each release, rocketing out of Northern Quebec onto the international stage as an iconoclastic thrash metal band that took inspiration from progressive rock acts like Van Der Graaf Generator, and modern classical composers Stravinsky and Bartok.
Leaping from the vicious space-thrash on Killing Technology into the parallel microgalaxy of Dimension Hatross, to the sleek cyberpunk of Nothingface was the sort of musical progression one expected from The Beatles and Pink Floyd—not four metal heads with heavy French accents.
Ever confident and adventurous, the band molted once more. They composed an album of new material that was haunting, psychedelic and bold. Voivod had watched the popularity of Soundgarden erupt, and saw crowds swaying in time to slower, heavier grooves. A bigger budget allowed Voivod to hire producer Terry Brown, who had recorded Rush from Fly By Night through Signals. There was every reason to believe Voivod had their finger on the pulse, or wherever the pulse might be a few years hence.
All did not go according to plan. Founding bassist Jean-Yvez “Blacky” Theriault had contributed more music to the Angel Rat album than to any other. But his vision didn’t align with the band, or their new producer. He left the group he’d co-founded before the album was mixed.
Various explanations for Blacky’s departure spread. Guitar World reported that he had left “to pursue more lucrative alternative music projects.” At the time, Piggy told Metal Forces magazine that Blacky “…was experimenting with samplers and synthesizers and gradually this became more exciting than playing bass in Voivod.” .
AUDIO: Voivod Angel Rat Demos
It’s true that Blacky went on to score electronic soundtracks for a contemporary dance company in Montreal called The Holy Body Tattoo. But that’s by no means the sole reason he left the band.
In a 1999 interview with Voivod.net, Blacky himself explained that, “…[Angel Rat’s] problem was the constant influence of people outside of the band. The label wanted a hit, the producer wanted a hit, and of course we did as well. It’s too bad that we couldn’t really control the album really well, because there was a lot of potential in the material. To me, the pre-production demos, which I still have a tape of, sounded ten times better than the album itself.
“The only thing that could have saved that album,” he said, “was to have a different producer for the final mix and for some of the vocals. But after a meeting with the band, they wanted to carry on with Terry, which ultimately led me to leave the band.”
And while the other three members of Voivod were unified in trusting their fate to the powers that be, the album’s release was delayed six months while the label created its own mix.
Piggy confirmed shortly afterward, “Yes, that did happen, but we had no part of it, we were not invited to the studio and I’m afraid it’s not totally to our liking, because they’ve changed too many things. They put some female vocals on ‘Clouds In My House’, they included synths where essentially guitars should have been, and they’ve even taken out whole lead guitar parts. To me, they’ve spoilt the initial mix by altering it and I have no interest in it because of that, I don’t care who did it or anything. The original was good enough I think!”
In a 2003 Blabbermouth interview drummer Michel “Away” Langevin said that Angel Rat, “…came out a little too soft because of the production. But we tried. Terry Brown was a gentleman and it ended up that his sound was not appropriate for Voivod, but hey, it was done and there was no more money to put into the project for a remix or anything like that. I think the smartest move would have been to tour for that album and make a better one after that, but Blacky didn’t feel that way.”
Reeling from the loss of a founding member, Voivod did not tour to promote Angel Rat. They regained some footing with the release of The Outer Limits album, and finally hit the road with a fill-in bassist in 1993. But the musical landscape had shifted so significantly during those two years that invaluable momentum was lost. Angel Rat sold half as many copies as its predecessor.
Wrong as we were, tens of thousands of diehard Voivod fans believed the band had made a career move on par with Celtic Frost’s doomed commercial flub Cold Lake. The fact that Angel Rat so closely followed the releases of such commercial juggernauts as Metallica’s Black Album and Nirvana’s Nevermind did it no favors.
Angel Rat may never have been quite as ambitious a project as Brian Wilson envisioned for the Beach Boys’ SMiLE album. But the record Voivod finally released in November 1991 bears some spiritual similarities to Wilson’s compromised Smiley Smile. Still, plenty of people declare Angel Rat to be their favorite Voivod album—and that’s wonderful. David Lynch made my favorite film version of Dune—but it’s still a pity that he wasn’t given final cut, and that we will never see the unadulterated masterpiece he intended.
Something was amiss, but no adult can listen to Angel Rat and surmise that it’s a calculated sellout with mass appeal. Angel Rat is singularly weird, unlike any other album I’ve ever heard. And that is where its charms begin to reveal themselves. Even a Voivod album with slower, shorter songs is a strange aural experience. The fact that the band has blazed a long trail of innovation in studios and on stage ever since is proof enough that Angel Rat was one more experimental mile marker along an endless, fearless path.
In defense of the new artistic direction, Piggy told Guitar World that the time had come to remove some of the musical intricacies. “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.”
Musically, the band brought in a heavy dose of Bauhaus to its progressive metal sound, and simplified the riffs and structures. A great deal of melodic dissonance remains, though. Voivod still wrote music that sounded utterly alien in any pop environment. The cover featured more of Away’s moody computer art, with a host of strange new characters, and a carriage drawn by a giant tarantula over jagged swirls of blue and purple.
The first five Voivod albums all told stories about the titular Voivod character, a post-nuclear vampire conceived by Away. For Angel Rat, the mascot was “given a rest.” Stepping away from violent, morbid science fiction themes, Langevin collaborated with vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger on a series of twisted folk tales, inspired by interconnected stories from cultures around the world.
The swirling 26-second “Shortwave Intro” of Angel Rat reinforces the idea that we’re back on earth. Then the band launches into the high energy “Panorama.” This is one of only a few ‘Rat songs that Voivod performed live on subsequent tours. Blacky complained of heavy-handed edits. On the leaked Angel Rat demos, the original version of “Panorama” is only twelve seconds longer.
Next is the lone single, “Clouds In My House.” One assumes from the music that those clouds are billowing hash smoke. The studio version of this psychedelic rocker is actually seventeen seconds longer than the demo, speaking to the fact that the songs did develop somewhat in the studio, and not always to a detriment.
VIDEO: Voivod “Clouds At My House”
The band recorded a music video for “Clouds In My House” that stretched their limited budget well. On a sound stage, the band performed the track with a body double standing in for Blacky, some special effects graphics courtesy of Away, and wardrobe seemingly on loan from Adam Ant’s pirate era. It’s an interesting attempt at creating a visual connection with a presumed alterna-metal audience that was co-opted by grunge marketing before it could grow from seed to soil. The lighting in the video is good, and the band are styled and groomed, but fashion has never been in the DNA of the Canadian prog musician.
An up-tempo number called “The Prow” follows. Beginning and ending with the sound of wind, sea, and storm, this tune tells the story of a ship’s magical maidenhead, carved from wood, destined to explore undersea vistas. “The Prow” has continued to find its way onto Voivod set lists as recently as September 2021.
“Best Regards” is another awkward riff masquerading as conventional. The chorus carries the song, with its bittersweet send-off to a world doomed by climate change and other man-made catastrophes. Pretty forward thinking stuff for 1991.
“Twin Dummy” is a creepy, riff-based rocker about a marionette that’s run away from the circus. There’s a great layered bridge in the mid-section that shows off what sort of studio trickery the band and Brown could conjure together when they weren’t at loggerheads.
Angel Rat’s title track is one of its very best songs. The most melodic and understated, this gem becomes a metaphor for the entire album, with its twisted take on the Icarus myth. In Voivod’s version, a magical beast leads the band to the cliff’s edge, imploring them to “…never look down.” The whole album may have disappeared into that foggy abyss, but this song’s mournful strains still echo up from the valley of death.
“Golem” gained nearly twenty seconds in the studio compared to its demo version. Its middle eight section becomes a showcase for Piggy’s lovely layers of guitar melody. If only time and budget had allowed every part of these songs to enjoy so much consideration.
Despite a few jazz chords from Piggy, “The Outcast” may be the most accessible song on the album. There’s even a bit of harmonica at the beginning. This is just the sort of three-minute workout the label was likely hoping for. Why it wasn’t released as the first single remains a mystery. Snake sings, “everything is gonna work out.” The demo version of this song was instrumental, though, and the prescience of that juxtaposition is eerie.
Long my favorite song on Angel Rat, “Nuage Fractal” launches into the stratosphere with a heavily effected slide guitar run over looping arpeggios. Lyrical inspiration came from James Gleick’s popular 1987 book Chaos: Making A New Science. All of us nerds were reading it at that time, and tripping out about butterflies and hurricanes and the strange naturalistic beauty of computer graphic fractal imaging.
The oft-misspelled “Freedoom” begins with a lilting clean melody over a shuffling drumbeat. Snake sings in his gentle wavering manner about chaos and “the nature of things.” He even mentions his quest reaching “nearly nirvana” which is an accidental irony considering the band Nirvana inadvertently ruined Voivod’s chances of crossing over into the mainstream. This song continues to pick up musical steam as it goes, with steady double bass bolstering the delay-soaked guitar lines.
The final track, “None Of The Above” tacks nearly thirty seconds onto the length of the demo version. The socially conscious lyric imagines a horrific reality show with multiple-choice options for various catastrophes, including world annihilation, flames, “polluted oceans” and plague. Welcome to 2021!
On its own merit, Angel Rat is one of a kind. While no Voivod album could ever be accessible enough for mass consumption, even as a hardcore fan I can’t quite hold it in the esteem that I do half a dozen of their better records. But that’s simply not the band’s fault. If a pinheaded baby is born from a difficult pregnancy, do you love the child any less?
Or to put it another way, the Voivod machine was rocketing down the freeway. Blacky leaving was a blowout at top speed. Producer Terry Brown swooped in, slapped a donut spare tire on the car, wiped his hands on a rag and walked away.
This analogy continues with Voivod’s excellent follow-up The Outer Limits, which is the sound of a machine running smoothly on three wheels, rather than four. Still, it proves just how excellent a sound the band could get in the studio when NOT working with Terry Brown.
Away has called the production of Angel Rat “soft.” Blacky earned his reputation for cynicism by calling it “Angel Fart.” The sound is not lo-fi by any stretch, but compared to the precision of Nothingface, or the vastness of The Outer Limits, it’s positively murky. Rock reviewer Adam Tepedelen referred to Jesus Lizard’s aimless 1994 album Down as “their Angel Rat.” The few of us that got the reference knew exactly what he meant.
In 2019, news that Voivod’s major label album trilogy master tapes had been victims of the 2008 Universal warehouse fire spread. As these discs have been out of print in America since their original release dates, there was considerable cause for alarm. Thankfully, after severely pestering Universal, Blacky discovered that the tapes were being kept in a facility in Pennsylvania. He’s since recovered them for safer keeping.
My fond hope is that those tapes could be used to create a Super Deluxe box set that includes the original demos, a remaster of the band’s official album mix, the label’s unreleased commercial album mix, and new stereo and 5.1 remixes from someone like Steven Wilson, or Nothingface producer Glen Robinson.
You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Greg Saunier of Deerhoof spent the early days of his pandemic recording acoustic versions of the entire Angel Rat album. You can hear them on his Bandcamp page.
Thousands of Voivod fans wrote the band off in 1991 over a difficult album made during a dramatic sea change in the music industry. Thankfully the band had the resolve to continue for decades more. Voivod won a Juno Award in 2018. They are recognized by their peers, highly respected in the industry, and continue to tour the world. Blacky even returned for a five-year stint to help right the course of the band while it was reeling from Piggy’s untimely death.
I was one of those fans who walked out of the store disappointed and empty handed in 1991. Since then, I’ve revisited Angel Rat many times: first on cassette, then on CD. Eventually I spent far too much on the rare import LP to complete my collection. That pinheaded baby just celebrated its thirtieth birthday, and I love it more than ever.
VIDEO: Voivod on MuchMusic 1991