Jason Newsted's story unspools like Rock Star in reverse. He was plucked from cult thrashers Flotsam and Jetsam in 1986 to play bass for Metallica, metal's biggest band; then he gave it all up to return to the underground a decade and a half later. He joined Voivod, the seminal Canadian prog-metal band whose entire 11-album output has sold fewer copies than Metallica's last studio effort moved in its first month.
Essentially, Newsted traded cash for carpal tunnel syndrome.
"It's still difficult, every day," Newsted says of the rigors of his new gig with Voivod. "I warm up for a long time before I perform in front of people -- a minimum of an hour of serious scales and burning-muscle kind of stuff -- to get through all the cramps and that kind of thing before I go on with them."
On the surface, trading arenas for achy joints looks like a blown play. Newsted thinks otherwise. "This was the first time in a long, long time that I got to control what people hear from me," he says.
In Metallica, Newsted played what he was told. He was seldom allowed to contribute his own music to the band's albums, and when he began putting together his own side projects, with fellow rockers like Sepultura's Andreas Kisser and Exodus's Tom Hunting, the Metallica camp refused to let Newsted go public with any of the material. In Voivod, Newsted finally has the creative liberty he's long pursued, and his contributions make the group's eponymous album, released in March, one of Voivod's finest.
Voivod is a reunion disc of sorts -- the first album made with Denis "Snake" Belanger since the vocalist quit the group in 1994. It ends the band's drift into abstruse prog rock (which peaked with '92's Angel Rat and '94's The Outer Limits) as well as the more rote, pedestrian metal it produced in the ensuing years. Voivod boasts a dense, direct charge that's free of experimental overkill. The added girth supplied by Newsted is felt from the get-go; when Belanger's Johnny Rotten snarl crashes into Denis "Piggy" d'Amour's angular guitar playing and Michel "Away" Langevin's frantic drumming, it congeals into Voivod's most immediate album.
"We cut a lot of extras," Langevin explains in a friendly voice that's swathed in a thick French-Canadian accent. "When we play our music, we tend to jump all over a lot -- I'm all over the kit, Piggy's all over the neck -- and we tend to play really, really fast. Jason helped us to sit down a little on the beats, concentrate on the riff, and make sure it was very solid. The groove was important. For the first time in many years, it feels like a full band."
Voivod weathered a difficult stretch after Belanger's departure. The band recruited bassist-vocalist Eric Forest for a trio of unspectacular albums; then, five years ago, a bus accident in Europe nearly sealed the group's fate.
"We pretty much went downhill when we crashed in Germany in '98, and we never fully recovered from that because of lawsuits, we had to wait for Eric to recover, and all that stuff," Langevin explains. "At the end of 2000, the band was totally broke, and the morale was at zero, so I decided to split the band. Only a few months later, early in 2001, I phoned Piggy, and we really realized that Voivod is what we want to do in life. We thought about Snake immediately, gave him a call, and he was really excited."
The next person they called was Newsted, whom d'Amour and Langevin had worked with in the early '90s as part of a short-lived side project dubbed Tarrant. Newsted was initially enlisted by Voivod as a producer and guest musician, but after a three-day jam with the band at his home studio in San Francisco, he was invited aboard. Newsted agreed to produce Voivod's new album and release it on his own Chophouse Records. From the outset, he insisted that the band eliminate the unnecessary noodling in the studio that had sabotaged Voivod's work in the past.
"If you take too long on music, with computers and all the crap that happens these days, you just have too much time to suck all the human factor out of it, and that's something that I wanted to avoid very much," Newsted says. "We put the band together, wrote the songs, recorded the record, mixed, and mastered it in about 55 days. In this day and age, that's miraculous. It probably took Linkin Park 55 days to get their drum and guitar sounds down."
The brisk, abbreviated pace meant abandoning a Voivod hallmark: the concept album. In the past, the band's Orwellian sci-fi themes tended to render the music like an aural comic book. Voivod is grounded in the here-and-now: It advocates social protest on the bellicose "Gasmask Revival" and questions religion on "Facing Up." A few sprawling epics persist -- notably the colossal, claustrophobic "Multiverse" and the tangled "Les Cigares Volants" -- but mostly, Voivod is the band's most digestible effort.
And heightened palatability has its benefits -- as does the star power of Newsted (pictured front). Voivod is packing houses on its current co-headlining tour with fellow thrash vets Sepultura, and the band is a featured act on the second stage at this summer's Ozzfest. Newsted will pull double duty on the metalfest: He recently joined Ozzy Osbourne's band, replacing Robert Trujillo, who left Ozzy to take over Newsted's old spot in Metallica.
"It'll be challenging tonight, it'll be challenging tomorrow night, and it'll be challenging on Ozzfest. That's the way it is. And that's how it should be," Newsted says. "Voivod has never been a band that goes through the motions. That's not possible in this kind of a band. You cannot fake it. That's all there is to it."