Released just a few months after Metallica‘s self-titled record, Angel Rat finds Voivod among the earliest adopters of the slower, stripped-down approach that most thrash bands took in the 1990s. The album could almost qualify for our ’90s Metal Weirdness column, except for the fact that Voivod have always been weird (and would get even weirder as the decade continued). Unlike most of their peers at the time, though, Voivod wholeheartedly embraced their prog rock roots, enlisting legendary Rush producer Terry Brown to helm the Angel Rat sessions.
Opening cut “Panorama” exemplifies the new approach, built upon riffs that are decidedly more rock ‘n roll, yet with the band’s unique brand of dissonance still intact. This leads into “Clouds In My House,” which was the single/video from the album. “Clouds” is one of the better results of Voivod‘s new direction, with spacey chord progressions married to frontman Snake’s psychedelic, abstract lyrics. It’s hardly “metal,” but it works damn well.
Guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour may have been liberated from the contorted riffage of Nothingface and Dimension Hatross, but his playing is as adventurous as ever, diving headfirst into jazzy chord voicings and using effects pedals to create unique atmospheres. Bassist Jean-Yves “Blacky” Thériault is prominently featured throughout, with several songs having bass intros or solo spots. It’s also worth noting that, with Brown at the mixing board, Blacky’s tone sounds remarkably like Geddy Lee at times. In fact, the Voivod/Brown pairing may have been a better idea on paper than in reality, as some of the production choices have not aged well.
The rock riffs continue with “The Prow,” which has almost a 60’s surf vibe to it, mostly due to Away’s drum beats. The deceptively simple “Freedoom” is one of Voivod‘s more progressive compositions, beginning with a tranquil, major-key introduction before subtly heading into darker territories. Denis “Snake” Belanger (vocals) is at his most philosophical here, and his repeated bellow of “I won’t last forever” is both heart-wrenching and prophetic. Also worth noting is that Angel Rat is that Voivod abandoned their trademark sci-fi lyrics on this record, instead taking influence from various folk tales and legends.
Granted, not every song is a winner here. On a record with a bunch of similarly mid-paced songs, “Twin Dummy” is probably the weakest one, with an especially grating bridge section. “Nuage Fractal” tips the hat to Dead Kennedys‘ “Holiday In Cambodia,” but doesn’t have much else going for it. The harmonica parts on “The Outcast” are horrifically dated and cheesy, leaving a black mark on an otherwise decent song. And while it’s hardly bad, closer “None Of The Above” brings Voivod‘s classic era to an underwhelming end. Like many albums of the time, Angel Rat makes a strong case for writing 8 songs instead of 12.
Angel Rat not only failed to connect with the larger audience MCA Records was probably hoping for, but also managed to alienate many of the band’s existing fans, who cried “sellout” in the absence of Nothingface-style heaviness. Blacky would exit the band prior to the record’s release, and after the slightly harder-edged The Outer Limits (1993), Snake would depart as well. Voivod would spend the rest of the decade in freefall, exploring some interesting but ultimately unsatisfying directions during bassist/vocalist Eric Forrest’s tenure. Unfortunately, Piggy would succumb to cancer in 2005, but both Snake and Blacky eventually returned to restore Voivod‘s former glory somewhat.
Angel Rat‘s legacy is comparable to that of Motorhead‘s lost classic Another Perfect Day, in that it took people years to realize how good it really was. As Voivod‘s fans gradually realized that melody and songcraft are not necessarily bad things, many have reconsidered their stance, and some even hold this album up alongside the Killing Technology/Hatross/Nothingface trinity. “The Prow” and “Panorama” are still in Voivod‘s live setlist as of 2016, and if the band’s recent Chicago show is any indication, people are happy to hear them. Released during a brief period where underground metal bands suddenly found themselves flirting with mainstream exposure, Angel Rat manages to be both progressive and accessible.