Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Worlds Away: Voivod and the Art of Michel Langevin (Spider Publishing)

The fabled Michel “Away” Langevin art book has arrived. The iconic illustrator and Voivod drummer/conceptualist has long promised a collection of his visual work, but the delays in completing the project are completely understandable—Voivod’s career has been stranger than fiction these last five years. I'm happy to report that Spider Publishing and Martin Popoff have done an excellent job with this satisfying slab of a book.

“When I think of metal album covers I think of Voivod and Michel’s art,” says Dave Grohl. Dave and I have something in common. I've always considered heavy metal as music from another plane—a bleak, brutal alternate reality I like to visit, then clamber back to my comfortable, boring life. Langevin’s art (along with Giger, Dan Seagrave and perhaps a couple others) was a wormhole to lead you down into that dangerous, deafening dimension. I can honestly say I bought War and Pain on the strength of its cover art, though I'll admit that Voivod's status as one of Canada’s first thrash metal bands and their legendary bad review in Kerrang! also piqued my interest prior to the album showing up at A&B Sound. With its red-and-black palette, rough approximation of perspective, and visible canvas texture, War and Pain's album art exuded an otherness that was borne out by the crusty punk-metal lunacy of the music itself. Subsequent albums perfected the sound-vision symbiosis. The pulverizing momentum of RRRÖÖÖAAARRR was captured by the Voivod-as-Tarkus-tank cover image. The demented mutant Voivod in space depicted on Killing Technology represented the science-gone-mad theme of the album. Voivod were thrash metal’s premier conceptualists, a perception immensely bolstered by Langevin’s art.

The book traces Away’s style from his earliest Metal Hurlant-inspired alien doodles to his first real painting (a bleak landscape that could have worked as an early Ulver cover), through all his Voivod designs, to his more recent commissions (Probot, for example). Martin Popoff, a painter himself, devotes chapters to each Voivod album. As it turns out, Langevin's style and techniques expanded as he tackled each album cover—the oil and acrylic paintings of first three albums, the airbrushed Dimension Hatröss and the Amiga-powered computer art of Nothingface. The book features of hundreds of sketches, doodles and paintings, all lovingly reproduced. The album covers look particularly vibrant.

The book’s aesthetics would have benefitted from a more sympathetic typeface. Langevin isn't really a Times New Roman kinda guy. Mimicking the look of Langevin’s beloved OMNI magazine might have been a nice touch. The lack of captions (other than labelling certain illustrations by year) is sometimes irritating, especially when the text refers to a work that sends you rifling back through the pages in search of it. As well, Popoff lets his voice slip at points where Q & A sessions suddenly break out in the midst of a third-person narrative. As is common with rock books, a thorough copyedit would have caught a couple clangers.

However, it’s Popoff’s archive of interview tapes that makes Worlds Away much more than a catalogue of one man's drawings. This is no less than the definitive story of Voivod, told through Langevin’s art and his bandmates’ words. Snake, Piggy, Blacky, Eric Forrest and Jason Newsted are all accounted for, giving forth on Langevin’s talents as well as Voivod’s fluctuating fortunes over the past 25 years. If the narrative stumbles and digresses a little, at least I can’t dispute that I learned a lot about one of my favourite bands. It’s an inspiring story, and Popoff doesn’t blow his chance at telling it through the work and words of Langevin, an inspiring artist in his own right.

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