Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. This week, resident prog expert Jeff Wagner isn’t afraid to rep for Voivod’s Phobos.
So, I went to Decibelords Albert and Andrew with a pitch for a Justify Your Shitty Taste on Voivod’s Angel Rat. Figuring it was the most controversial and derided album in Voivod’s discography—and figuring I’ve been known as an Angel Rat apologist—it seemed like a cinch. But no, they came back asking for a JYST on Phobos instead.
But, really, Phobos? Was it really a critically-bashed, fan base-shrinking flop? Was it universally hated? Was it really the Voivodian equivalent of St. Anger or Cold Lake? No. No, I don’t think it’s that the album was a major disappointment or an artistic failure.
Here’s what it was: totally ignored.
When Voivod’s ninth album was released in 1997, few people were paying attention to the band anymore. Major label deals were a thing of Voivod’s past, and just about all the band’s contemporaries were either long-dissolved, on hiatus, or licking the sonic butt of Machine Head and Pantera. Tough times all around. Vocalist Snake had already been out of the band for a few years and original bassist Blacky even longer than that. Voivod’s 1995 trio-formation comeback, Negatron, while not exactly trendy tough-guy aggro-metal, and not exactly licking anything, did at least get chummy with a few riffs that may have skirted close to the first couple Machine Head albums. Negatron had a rickety, artificial-sounding production, too. But it was clearly still Voivod, and it set the stage for the revamped band to record their trio-era masterpiece.
Phobos begins, as most Voivod albums should and do, with the sound of the vastness of space, or of a spaceship engine revving up (“Catalepsy I”). Off to a good start. First proper song “Rise” pretty much tells you all you need to know about Phobos, because if there’s one thing this album owns, it’s TOTAL FOCUS. Songs are long and linear, but full of events; the overall vibe is vast and monolithic; time changes happen with less frequency than many of the band’s previous songs; the recording is the polar opposite of Negatron: earthy, spacious, warm, natural. And if old fans had a problem with bassist/vocalist Eric Forrest on Negatron, here on Phobos he sounds Voivod-appropriate, a reasonable facsimile of Snake aided by a variety of effects and treatments that make him sound less human and more robotic—as it should be with this band, and especially with material this spaced-out.
So, “Rise” offers all of the above, setting the stage for this grand epic, immediately separating Phobos from its more aggressive predecessor. It’s bigger; it’s more massive; it’s more… Voivod. The rest of the songs come in slow-building, hulking slabs—not unlike a sidereal alter-ego of Neurosis or the way some of us wish Fear Factory sounded—with cosmic effects threaded throughout and mid-album segue “Temps Mort” featuring drummer Away on accordion. (Away also handles electronics, as does James Cavalluzzo—anybody remember Malhavoc? anybody?—and Ivan Doroschuk—you probably remember Men Without Hats). Now go ahead, once you’ve obtained your very own copy of Phobos—super-cheap on Amazon!—and click around song by song. Tell me the title track isn’t Voivod at its most leadenly heavy; try and deny the lost-in-space outlandishness of “The Tower”; dare to not call the back-to-back “Quantum” and “Neutrino” inspired, authoritative ‘Vod. And if you can only react with the tired response “It’s no Nothingface,” then you’ve been caught in the trap of expecting an inherently progressive band to remain static. And I’ll refund your $2.98.
Throughout Phobos, Piggy’s jagged, reverb-drenched guitar chords construct suffocating density. In fact, his guitar sound would never be quite this ferociously spacey again. And much to the consternation of some fans (the few who actually bothered to listen in 1997), Piggy replaces his signature lead guitar lines with washes of dread-inducing space-noise—a decision wholly appropriate for the eerie cosmic journey of Phobos.
Most versions of Phobos (I have four) made a clear distinction between the first 11 tracks and the two tacked-on extras. The cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” is entirely worthy, even nailing the difficult, staccato-overload middle section (Entombed also covered this song in 1997, and apparently found that part too difficult to bother with). It’s fine, but b-side material for sure. As for “M-Body,” it’s got historical value as the first Voivod song to feature collaboration with their future bassist Jason Newsted—he co-wrote music and lyrics—but that doesn’t save it from ranking as an industrial-metal throwaway and one of Voivod’s least impressive songs.
Voivod did the right thing and acknowledged/validated the Phobos era recently at the Maryland Deathfest in Baltimore, including this album’s “Forlorn” in a career-spanning set. Watching three of four members dominate the song, members who had nothing to do with the studio creation, and having it come across as well as it did, is all the satisfaction I need that Phobos has now taken a rightful and proud place in the band’s large catalog.
Phobos is definitely worth a second look, but it’s hardly the controversial Voivod album I’ll usually step up and fly the freak flag for, simply because I don’t consider it a failure in any way. It’s not my fault people decided to ignore it en masse upon release. I wore a purple Angel Rat shirt to this year’s Maryland Deathfest because I figured if you’re gonna get beat up at a death metal festival for wearing the shirt of a maligned pussy/wimp/sellout album, make it one you’re ready to die for. And Phobos, while supremely worthy, is not good enough to die for. And even if Phobos is one of the worst Voivod albums, if this really is the most terrible thing they’ve ever recorded, it only proves that Voivod’s worst is better than many other bands’ best.
“21st Century Schizoid Man”