Friday, September 14, 2012

Voivod - Nothingface (1989)

Something I rarely seen spoken of Nothingface is just how prescient it was, not in terms of its outlandish musical aesthetic, but as a work of science fiction. Though its setting and subject matter could hardly be considered novelties by the late 80s, mirroring everything from Asimov to Borges, I like to imagine the Wachowski brothers had worn out a few copies of this album when coming up with the 'awakening' sequences for Neo in the Machines' human battery incubators. The overwhelming level of synesthesia created through the narrator's stream of consciousness reads like an earlier draft of Greg Bear's 2010 novel Hull Zero Three. Nothingface doesn't just tell the listener, it 'shows', in the accumulation of first person imagery and the cloudy dystopian nature of the music.

It's the most cryptic of Voivod's records, in that the audience is thrown so deep into its universe, the chilling images coming on in such rapid succession, that it plays out like psychological warfare; like Anthony Burgess' Alex undergoing a Ludovico Technique not of reconditioning violence, but force-fed domestic bliss. In stark opposition to the central character of Dimension Hatröss, we're dealing not with an outsider looking in, but an insider finally escaping a dream-haze, glimpsing for the first time the cold shell of a world that surrounds and supports its slumber. Nothingface was certainly impressive in theme, exponentially more compelling and intelligent than the vast majority of crap choking up the airwaves, even in harder metal; and yet it's not so brainy that a barely literate fan couldn't tune into its eclectic threads and ride the revelations. Once more, the Canadians had gifted us with a concept that can be unraveled in multiple lairs, grandiloquent metaphor that can resonate far beyond the bounds of the actual narrative. For example, how many of you office employees and salary men/women could relate to "Into My Hypercube"?

Nothingface is also one of the first authentic cases of 'post-metal' in memory, in terms that it so far removes itself from the precepts of the genre that it's difficult to even compare with its own predecessors. Perhaps a more appropriate tag might be 'post-thrash', steeped in progression and psychedelia like a tea leaf in heated water. Clearly there are still a few surgical muted, aggressive intricacies to the guitars in "Nothingface" itself, "Sub-Effect", "X-Ray Mirror", or the stomping staccato chord barrage in "Missing Sequences" that plays out like a muscular Rush. Denis D'Amour has refined many of the dissonant and jazz-based, atonal chords he experimented with on the prior albums, but here they've been grafted into a mechanistic haze that becomes the rule and not the exception. The distortion is also dialed back an increment, to match the cleaner, clinical atmosphere of the story's setting. Beyond the fact that there is still an investiture of anger and confusion inherent to the music, understandable in the narrator's situation, one could honestly get away with not calling this 'metal' or 'thrash' so much as its harder and more nihilistic predecessor Dimension Hatröss. 

Ultimately, though, whether one defines this as interstellar ukulele robofolk or Asimovian progressive metal, the album is fucking outstanding, with not a single second of compositional choice detracting from its depth of message and character. I doubt I've ever heard much bass playing that can compare to Blacky's work here: nebula-surfing grooves ("Missing Sequences"), apocryphal future funk-punk ("The Unknown Knows"), or android assembling schematics ("Into my Hypercube"). Maybe he's not the fastest, or the most technical performer, but in terms of the lines he writes, Geddy Lee, Les Claypool and Flea can all eat their fucking hearts out; and the decision making on when to apply a little distortion or not is spotless. Piggy also earned enough of a creative paycheck here to retire (though I'm glad he didn't). Despite the fluidity of his four string counterpart, he truly takes the helm on the album, steering us into a dream state of eloquent oblivion with hundreds of brilliantly conceived chords and picking sequences. Seriously, there is not a single phase of Nothingface upon which something interesting is not happening, no corner you'll turn where a wonderful hook or bass line won't attract your attention, whether the album's intensity is expanding or retracting.

Michel Langevin's drums are likewise reflexive and perfected, manifesting all manner of cadences, jazz techniques, double-bass rolls and killer fills which you can hear rumbling through your gut as clearly as anything else on the album. His performance is actually more important than on any prior effort, not that he wasn't giving it his all then, but because his interactions with Piggy here provide that callous, mechanical substrate of the setting's fallen society, so crucial to its effectiveness. Perhaps the only member who has not technically upped the ante here is vocalist Snake, but I don't think his evolution was quite as necessary. In fact, since he's polished his inflection of most of the haughty shouts and grime from the earlier efforts, we're getting that pure, crass, punk delivery with almost no exception save for a few harsher barks (as in "The Unknown Knows"). Still, it adheres so wonderfully to the groove of the bass and the collision of the varied riffing sequences, and the more tranquil passages ("Missing Sequences" intro, for example) that I wouldn't have changed a damn note.

I do regret that the album was most known at large for the cover of Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine". A brilliant choice, mind you, and the Canadians' mutation with heavier guitars, harder percussion, and textured cosmic serpent vocal harmonies is the best rendition I've ever heard (possibly even superior to the original); but I'd have liked the album to break out for one of their own pieces, which in my estimation are every inch as brilliant as their progressive forebears. It was a little disheartening to have someone approach me in high school and ask if I'd heard this 'cool new band Voivod with the Pink Floyd cover!, which generally resulted in a response of 'have you heard all the other great music, you know that they've been releasing for fucking YEARS now?' dumping a classroom trash can over their heads and kicking it repeatedly. Yes, I was one of those assholes who couldn't stand peoples' sheepish predilection to allow MTV to do their thinking for them. I went to find the music, I didn't always wait for it to find me. Especially after the previous year's Dimension Hatröss, to which I had practically built a shrine and handed out leaflets of information, with null response.

But, hey, that's not the band's fault, and the tune fits in fluently to the remainder of the album's narrative, not just being wedged in at the end. Funnily enough, though Nothingface was the band's best selling album, and even had the Canadians headlining a tour with Faith No More and Soundgarden of all fucking bands (back before they both exploded, obviously, and were themselves putting out some of their finest work), its impact beyond the loyal niche of progressive and thrash metal fans was negligible at best. Voivod's ensuing efforts Angel Rat and The Outer Limits, while both excellent, never hit the same buzzing stride, and the flame of science fiction-themed metal temporarily quelled, or handed off to extreme metal outlets like the Floridian Nocturnus, who were no more successful despite their own earnest efforts. People didn't want to dream in technicolor and static, or explore the Outer Rim: they wanted doc martins, Perry Farrell and Eddie Vedder, and had begun to converted their morning coffee to a cappuccino.

Alas, Nothingface is still considered by many to be the Canadians' finest hour, and its a sentiment that I find difficult to argue. Certainly Killing Technology and Dimension Hatröss appeal more to the thrasher within me, and my taste in apocalyptic, frightening savagery. The latter of those is probably my favorite to this day, but this 1989 gem is nonetheless immortally haunting and awe-inspiring, and it stuck its nose out the furthest from the safety net of its predecessors' extremity. Forty-five moments of perfection translated through a cautionary escape into the perils of the mundane, the inherent entropy in ultimate order, and the potential threats of eternal, unchecked apathy in civilization; all cloaked in musical expression so thoughtful, creative and forward thinking that almost a quarter-century later, few can even comprehend it, much less match it.

Verdict: Epic Winface [10/10] (loop rewind)

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