This rollicking look at the intersection of heavy metal music and Canadian identity reveals some interesting connections, and raises some important questions, too.
Is there anything more metal than Canada?
The question begs a double-take: Canada? Metal? But aren’t Canadians… you know, obsequiously nice? Not exactly your primeval Viking warrior horde, eh? EH? And what is metal about EH? Shouldn’t it be ARR? And then there’s that whole Justin Bieber thing. What is so metal about Canada?
Well hear me out. I’m gonna go out on a limb here, perched precariously above the lava flows of Hell, and make a case that metal offers the true florescence of Canadian identity.
Canadian's Youthful Beginnings
In Canada, our school system introduces children to metal at a very young age. Most of us had our first exposure to it at those mandatory school winter skating lessons, in local community hockey arenas with metal ballads blaring as we tumbled around, bruising knees and bleeding on the ice (it’s no fluke that Canadian metal band Anvil is the one that recorded the classic track, "Blood on the Ice").
What is it about hockey arenas and heavy metal music, anyway? Well, if you haven’t fallen flat on the ice with Helix blaring "Rock you!" as other kids zip past laughing, you haven’t had a proper Canadian childhood.
It even prepared us for the age of pop culture. How many remember FTW when it wasn’t a snappy social media zinger, but referred to the inspiring cry, ‘Follow The Wheel!’, that 1986 classic by Quebec-based metal band Sword?
The Political Side of Canadian Metal
Music has always had a role to play in Canadian politics. Take Canada’s most populous province, Ontario. Or ‘Upper Canada’, as it was known once upon a time. Indeed, despite former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s infamous predilection for reggae music (he turned his final city council meeting into an impromptu live reggae dance party -- see the bonus video at the end of this article) the province is in fact an icy fortress of metal of Valhallic proportions.
From the Swallows in the '60s (which eventually became the better known Steppenwolf, auguring in the age of metal) to all-female metal band Kittie in the '90s (challenging the masculinist norms of the genre), Ontario has a rich metal history. And plenty of it is political. Arguably the best thing to emerge from the most recent provincial election was this bizarre video which pokes fun at several provincial political tropes and scandals, produced by the frontman of Canadian metal band Helix and set to their track Champagne Communist.
Of course, politics is a battleground and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is as usual the odd one out, serenading audiences with Beatles ballads on the piano (with the aid of Yo Yo Ma, no less -- ibid on the bonus video). But what else would you expect from a Conservative?
Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, up-and-coming New Democrat superstar Andrew Cash is best known to many of his constituents as a musician as well: half of punk band L’Etranger (his partner in that band, Charlie Angus, is also now a federal Member of Parliament) as well as having a notable solo career, collaborating with artists such as his brother Peter (former member of the Skydiggers), Hawksley Workman, and more.
So yes, Canadian politics and music seem to go together like…well, ice and hockey.
But where is the metal in all this?
Well, let’s ask the government. A few years ago, the website Global Metal Apocalypse contacted the Canadian government to ask what it thought about the heavy metal music scene. Global Metal Apocalypse received the following reply from the Department of Canadian Heritage:
The Government of Canada encourages the creation, production and distribution of a variety of genres of music, including rock and metal, as this important cultural industry is essential to our communities, our identity, and our economy. Music in Canada generates nearly $3 billion every year in economic activity from sound recordings, concerts, commercial radio and performing rights.
Not exactly the most metal of statements, but the Canadian government’s on the right track in supporting metal. Metal fans are, if anything, defined by their sense of loyalty. In 2007 Ashley Petkovski published an article in the Ryerson Review of Journalism arguing that Canada’s metal music magazines – with such representatives as Unrestrained!, Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles (BW&BK), M.E.A.T., and more – have played a key role in helping to “keep the Canadian music magazine industry afloat”, especially at a time when print magazines of other genres were folding.
And there is even a Heavy Metal Music Association of Canada, dedicating to furthering the cause of metal in the great north since 2005.
Okay, enough of the politics. How else is Canada metal?
Ice Elves and Viking Trolls
There is, first of all, very little that’s more metal than living in an icy wasteland (which, for two-thirds to nine-tenths of the year, depending on where you live, Canada is). And Canada’s top metal bands know it. The use of Canada’s Lovecraftian northern geography as a natural backdrop has been avidly tapped into by its metal bands. As far back as the '80s, metal bands were exploiting this for their early videos, such as the 1985 track Shadows in the Night by White Wolf, featuring a unique melange of boreal forests, campfire sing-alongs, French trapper zombies, and generalized demonology.
Fast-forwarding to the present, earlier this year East Coast metal band Category VI – all the way out on the uber-metal island of Newfoundland – filmed this brilliant video for their track Reborn, wherein they nonchalantly play music in icy harbour winds in the dead of winter (after all, frostbite is the original rotting flesh).
In fact, Ontario-based metal band Protest the Hero, one of the few bands from central Canada to regularly make it out to the far East Coast, have become such fans of Newfoundland that they made their latest song and video, "Mist", about the island and its people. Metal as the new source for Canadian unity?
And while we’re on the topic, it’s worthwhile noting that whatever their differences, metal is something every province shares. The big provinces are awash in molten steel but even the smaller ones represent. Prince Edward Island had Haywire (formed in a Tim Hortons in Charlottetown), Disaster Area launched from Nova Scotia (before moving to the US to become Battery, the renowned Metallica cover band), and New Brunswick spawned Thrawsunblat (which sounds appropriately Viking, despite in fact being an anagram of ‘narwhal butts’). These are, of course, merely the tip of the iceberg of doom.
Canada even spawns regional metal genres. The Prairie Echoes website proudly hails the unique style of what it calls ‘Prairie Metal’. Bryn Levy, a journalist in Saskatoon, described it thus:
As I've come to discover, 'Metal' is a broad genre. The bands that make up the Prairie Metal scene all bring a different take on the heavy to the table. If there's one thing they all have in common, it's that they aren't doing it for money, or for the fame. In a region with around 5-and-a-half million people spread over about 2 million square kilometers, there isn't much of either to be had. They're doing it because they have no choice in the matter. My theory on why these nutcases will risk life and limb on icy highways to have their eardrums smashed? It's because this music captures the place it comes from.
Geography and Nation
Levy’s comments flag another key issue: the impact of Canada’s expansive geography on the development and spread of its metal scene. The size of the country renders national tours, or even regional ones, a daunting prospect. Unlike the much more densely populated US, Canada’s large cities are few and far between, with large swathes of space separating them (and, in the case of British Columbia, the Rocky Mountains). Sean Kelly’s excellent chronicle of Canadian heavy metal music, Metal on Ice: Tales from Canada’s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Heroes, published late last year, chronicles many of the bands’ harrowing tour stories. As he quotes Rob Urbinati of Sacrifice: “You don’t realize how big this country is until you drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”
The stories make worthwhile reading. The Killer Dwarfs may have a reputation for wild and reckless antics, but even they shudder at the memory of black ice under a tour van high up in the Rockies: “Death lay on both sides of this lonely, dark, ice-covered mountain road,” recalls Mick Hall, of the night he awoke to discover the van sliding down an embankment. Or as Harem Scarem’s Harry Hess recalls: “We used to drive through the mountains in a frigging Winnebago or a van in a snowstorm. You’d look down and the cliffs are like forty, fifty feet down. There are no guardrails. Like, how many bands risked their lives to play in a shit club for fifty bucks? It’s insane.”
Quebec-based deathcore band Beneath the Massacre tried to do their bit for Canadian unity by going on national tour in 2005, but succeeded only in crashing their tour van just outside of Thunder Bay (the experience of “roll-overs at 100km/h…was not cool at all,” their subsequent press release wryly noted). Still, they survived and went on to be nominated Best Underground Band at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards in 2009. All’s well that ends well, as they say.
At least one tragedy did transpire from these conditions: in 1992 Helix guitarist and songwriter Paul Hackman was killed when the band’s tour van – turned back at the US border while trying to take a shortcut home – went over an embankment; the driver had fallen asleep after driving all night.