It is a tragic, heartbreaking irony that VOIVOD's best album in a long, long time is most likely the band's final one as well. "Katorz", the Canadian group's 14th offering, was not even made in the conventional manner: the band took demos for the disc made by late, beloved guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour and completed the album after his death last year from cancer. The results place D'Amour's inventive and unique guitarwork front and center throughout the record, but it also seems as if the rest of the group — vocalist Denis "Snake" Belanger, drummer Michel "Away" Langevin and bassist Jason "Jasonic" Newsted — have stepped up, giving "Katorz" an energy that their last studio effort, 2003's "Voivod", couldn't quite muster.
Fans of the band's earlier, noisier thrash albums take note: you won't find much to like here, as VOIVOD evolved out of that sound as far back as 1989's "Nothingface". But "Katorz" does channel that album's progression toward a catchier style of futuristic heavy rock, incorporating some of the commercial aspects of 1991's "Angel Rat" and '93's "The Outer Limits" as well. D'Amour's barrage of riffs here are among the meatiest and thickest the guitarist had written in a long while, and it's sad to ponder that the portly axeman might have risen to the occasion even more than usual when faced with his own mortality.
In any case, D'Amour's work drives "Katorz" from one propulsive tune to another, with the opening trio of "The Getaway", "Dognation" and "Mr. Clean" among the hardest-hitting and most infectious tunes VOIVOD has recorded in years. "Silly Clones" lets Langevin and Newsted take center stage as the solid rhythm section that these two seasoned musicians are, although D'Amour is never too far in the background. Belanger, meanwhile, delivers some of the most impassioned performances of his career on "Clones", the aforementioned "The Getaway" and "Odds And Frauds", with the lyrics this time around a bit more biting and clever, without losing VOIVOD's trademark sci-fi surrealism.
As with many current albums, "Katorz" seems to lose steam as it barrels toward the finish line with the meandering "No Angel", although "The X-Stream" and "Polaroids" nearly regain the bounce and energy of the album's earlier songs. Yet the group's trademark sound remains intact throughout and the emphasis on Piggy's contributions is a fitting and loving tribute to this long-underrated guitarist's considerable talents. It may be difficult not to sentimentalize "Katorz" because of the loss of this gifted musician (not to mention gentle, funny and likable human being), but it's so often true that we don't know what we had until it's gone. Like any longstanding rock group, VOIVOD has had its ups and downs in terms of both output and success. If "Katorz" is the band's last work — and it's a credit to modern recording technology that we have it at all — then it's a fitting testament to a fallen metal soldier and a worthy goodbye for one of heavy music's most original and distinctive bands.