It’d be very, very easy to lose Voivod’s Katorz in the whirlwind of emotion surrounding its release. Not only is this the latest album by a longstanding and widely-respected band, but the untimely demise of legendary guitarist Dennis “Piggy” D’Amour calls the mighty Canadian act’s future into question. Tempting though it is to evaluate Katorz as the possible swansong for these metal expansionists, I am going to attempt an experiment in new criticism instead. After all, I’d think that the band would prefer their newest material to be viewed for what it is: a metal album, rather than a statement about their fallen comrade or their plans for the coming years.
Despite their reputation for spacey prog tendencies and rhythmic play, Voivod elects to kick off Katorz with a relatively straightforward thrasher. “The Getaway” barrels out of the gates with a riff that very nearly recalls good ol’ Megadeth before settling in for a pummeling punk chorus driven by Mike “Away” Langevin’s pounding drums. There’s far more direct, to-the-point rock on this release than some Voivod fans might expect or even like, but the band seems more comfortable in their skin than they have for a decade or more. When Piggy does decide to unleash the trademark dissonance, he seems almost relaxed in doing so, sounding like a surf-rock guitarist with cybernetic implants and a chip on his shoulder (see “Dognation,” “Silly Clones” or “The X-Stream,” which even sees quirky frontman Denis “Snake” Bélanger howl a very rock’n’roll “All night looooooooong!”). His leads are minimalist but not overly so; the shades of fellow paradigm-pushers Pink Floyd flit into view now and again, still lingering after Voivod’s long-ago cover of “Astronomy Domine.” Snake Bélanger, for his part, is as on-point and depreciatory as ever. Though his raw, nasal voice sounds deadly serious at times, his wry humor is clearly intact; “Mr. Clean” is a sneering take on the political paranoia common to modern American metal bands, in which Snake rattles off lengthy lists of social elements that will be “wiped off” in the name of democracy. The track features a churning, addictive groove propelled by infamous jack-of-all-trades bassist Jason Newsted and some more of Piggy’s noisy guitar histrionics, and it’s the closest thing to a standout track on Katorz.
Which, unfortunately, is the album’s biggest problem. Though the level of quality is fairly constant throughout (aside from the weak “After All”), there aren’t any real rock-your-socks crushers on this album. Although that isn’t necessarily a sin unto itself, one would expect a few truly killer tracks from a band with Voivod’s metal gravitas. The upshot is that Katorz is a drier, more cerebral listen than it might otherwise have been…but knowing the band, that might’ve been how they wanted it.
Ultimately, though, these guys have an album they can certainly be proud of. This is what Voivod sounds like when they pull themselves back from cramped tech-metal obscurism and lengthy spats of spaced abstraction and just have some fucking fun, and it’s certainly one of the more entertaining albums I’ve heard this summer. The band’s long-time fans may or may not be thrilled, but they should at least be satisfied.