What Does Heavy Metal Say About Canadian Identity?

This rollicking look at the intersection of heavy metal music and Canadian identity reveals some interesting connections, and raises some important questions, too.

You Name It

Returning to geography, it turns out even the names of Canadian cities are metal: as reflected in their eponymous adoption by metal bands that can’t think of anything more creative. Canada’s largest city,Toronto, was the name of a female-fronted metal band active in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that was key in the development of that scene (and yes, only a band from Toronto would choose to call themselves Toronto). From now on, every time you see the word Toronto, imagine hearing it uttered in a guttural growl. It works far better that way.

Some of Canada’s metal bands draw their names from more obscure aspects of Canadian heritage. Vancouver, BC-based Sons of Freedom took their name from a Doukhobor activist group. The Doukhobors were a religious sect of quasi-anarchist Ukrainian and Russian immigrants from the turn of the century whose more radical followers bombed government post offices and ran about naked in the streets, when they weren’t pioneering the wheat industry in Canada’s not-so-wild west (the nudity was part of their interpretation of Christianity – they even carried off bombings in the nude).

The Sons of Freedom’s debut album featured the infamous slogan ‘Let them howl!’, which has become a ubiquitous metal battle-cry, but was in fact first uttered by Canada’s famous suffragette and women’s rights activist Nellie McClung: “Never retract, never retreat, never apologise… get the thing done and let them howl.”

You don’t get more metal than Nellie McClung.

But metal has proven itself an important conduit for Canadian history and heritage. And not just colonial heritage, either. Bands such as Saskatchewan’s Breach of Trust (a hard rock/grunge metal band comprised of First Nations members) bring a bass barrage to songs themed around aboriginal and First Nations identity, and the not-so-metal brutality of the country’s colonial legacy.

And then, of course, there's the francophone province of Quebec (or ‘Lower Canada’ as it was known once upon a time). Ah, Quebec. La Belle Province. Home of such proponents of the metallic arts as Gorguts, Voivod, Cryptopsy, Kataklysm, Nefastus Dies, and so many more. Its bands are acknowledged both nationally and internationally.

Metal’s predilection for dark all-consuming forests, deep ancient caverns, and the long-forgotten languages of eldritch civilizations lends itself well (aesthetically, at least) to exploring cultural heritage. And Quebec’s scene probably does it better than anywhere. Earlier this year Sepulchral Productions, a black metal label based in Montreal, Quebec, released a superb EP titled Legendes, featuring tracks by four of Quebec’s black metal bands (Forteresse, Chasse-Galerie, Monarque, Csejthe) all contributing tracks themed around Quebec/francophone folk traditions. And we’re not talking Celine Dion, here. Forteresse, for instance, explore the legend of the flesh-eating Wendigo.

But there are deeper ties between metal and the dictions and contradictions of Canada’s manifold identities. In an illuminating and thoughtful 2012 article, "The Heavy Revolution", in Canadian literary magazine Maisonneuve, John Semley reflected on the relationship between Iron Maiden and Quebec. Why, he wonders, are the Quebecois, in all their francophone national pride, so smitten with Iron Maiden? It’s true, too. Iron Maiden achieved their North American breakthrough playing concerts in Montreal, and even today the most significant Iron Maiden cover band in the world is Quebec-based Made in Iron (formerly Power Slaves).

As Semley recounts, when Iron Maiden “…was still supporting acts like Kiss, Judas Priest and 38 Special elsewhere on the continent, Maiden played top-billed shows to six-thousand-capacity venues in Quebec. It was the band’s gateway into North America—and that remains true today.” How did this band, sporting their trademark British union jack, bond so well with these ardently nationalist francophones?

“Contradiction resounds at the heart of Iron Maiden,” writes Semley. “’The Trooper’ is not an ode to King and Country, but to culture. It’s not about Britain, but Britishness; not about state, but nation… What Maiden celebrates is Britishness as personality, not as policy. It’s a fluid ethos, one that can be transposed onto any other national context. During performances of “The Trooper” in Montreal, I’ve even seen Dickinson swap his Union Jack for a colossal fleur-de-lis flag. This play on national identity is essential to understanding Iron Maiden’s primacy among Québécois metalheads.”

The Heavy Metal Archive

With such a vibrant national scene, how is a good metal-head to keep track of it all? Well, York University in Toronto houses the largest heavy metal archive in the country – and possibly the world. It started almost six years ago, thanks to the generosity of well-known heavy metal author and journalist Martin Popoff. Popoff, co-founder and senior editor of metal magazine Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, and author of over two dozen books on the topic of metal, donated much of his collection to the York Library in order to help ensure the preservation of many of the limited releases for posterity.

“We also did some databasing and sorting them into different genres which is cool,” said Popoff. “There’s artwork, there’s CDs, there’s indie stuff, there’s compilation albums, new bands, old bands, hopefully there’s a critical mass there that people could do something with. I think there is a lot of music that will never be online, there’s a lot of stuff that will be lost to history unless there’s copies of it there.”

Rob van der Bliek, York University’s music librarian, agrees. “A lot of those are bands that no one’s ever heard of, and no one will hear of again.” One of the accomplishments he’s proud of is the extensive array of sub-genre labelling they’ve managed, which he says is unique in university libraries. An instructor as well (he teaches in the university’s Music Department), van der Bliek is well acquainted with the growing focus on metal in academic studies.

“Metal is very interesting because it has all this sociological stuff around it. So it’s very interesting to create assignments around it. I’ve asked students to go and pick five or six metal albums and look at them from the point of view of how they’re presented, the iconography, the typology, all kinds of things that are not necessarily musical, but they’re part and parcel of the packaging. And then talk about how they think that genre is conveyed.

"Is it through the appearance? Is it because of the lyrics? What’s the difference between Christian metal and regular heavy metal? Is it just the lyrics, or are there more things? There’s all kinds of codes in the sound. So metal is a real great test bed for getting students to think about genre, packaging, medium.”

One of the things that makes metal unique, he says, is the intensity and devotion of its fans to their stylistic preferences.

“Metalheads are so devoted and so clear about what they like and dislike, moreso than other musical genres ... metalheads are very clear about what they like and dislike and why this band sucks and that band is great. A non-metalhead would not really be able to distinguish between them, but they can. They have special codes that they understand. It just makes it very interesting for studies.”

Building on the collections donated by Popoff, van der Bliek purchases additional material -- music, books and magazines -- every year to keep the library up to date. But with the growing role of MP3s and diminishing presence of physical recordings, he’s concerned about what the future holds for the archive. This is a problem, he explains, not just for metal but for all genres.

“We can’t buy MP3s, right? What would we do with them? We can’t put them up on the website because then we’d be accused of streaming them. We’re in a period right now whereby there’s a lot of stuff that’s falling through the cracks. Especially a lot of smaller bands that only put out something in MP3 on their website. It’s hard to say what will happen.”

While the library does subscribe to streaming services, he notes there’s not a lot of popular music on those, and that which there is doesn’t include the smaller and more obscure bands and genres.

Questioning Canada's Identity

Van der Bliek feels that it’s difficult to ferret out a distinctly Canadian presence in metal.

“It’s difficult in popular music period. The big names end up going to Los Angeles and making a reputation for themselves.”

And, while there is Quebec, he notes that Quebec musicians put their own stamp on every genre. His own background lies in jazz, and even there, he says, Quebec offers its own distinct style.

“It’s an interesting question. We have the same question, we always struggle with how to define Canadian jazz. We call it Canadian jazz or jazz in Canada. There is a sound that would represent Toronto at a certain point in history because a lot of the players who were playing were studio musicians so they were quite polished, and they were very white in their approach to playing. But metal, I don’t know.”

Popoff isn’t convinced the country’s metal has a distinctly Canadian flavour, either.

“My first thought would be that it doesn’t. The identity comes as almost a reverse chicken and egg. If a band becomes famous enough it becomes a Canadian identity.” He points to Rush as an example.

“No, I don’t think there’s anything that’s particularly Canadian identity. There are a couple of things that Canada has been known for. They were fairly early on well known for speed metal and thrash… Another thing Canada’s known for is a strong, highly technical death metal scene in Quebec… A third thing that Canada’s known for is the fact that Quebec is known to have something like fifty percent of the heavy metal sales in Canada.

"Quebec is known for being a supporter of progressive rock, progressive metal, Quebec is known to be a hotbed for power metal…[but] I would say no. Canada is just another country with a moderate number of heavy metal bands, it’s got a moderate number of heavy metal fans, it’s got no heavy metal identity outside of Quebec.”

Well, perhaps it helps explain the determination of Canada’s federal politicians to prevent Quebec’s separation from the rest of the country. It would be a shame to lose the finest cheese and croissants in Canada, but possibly worse to lose the country’s top metal scene.

Eggheads and Metalheads, Unite!

Before closing, it’s worthwhile considering what other academics have to contribute to this conversation. As we’ve seen, ‘metal studies’ are a growing area of university pop culture research. Earlier this year, Concordia University (in Montreal, Quebec\ of course) hosted the first ever ‘Grimposium’, an academic conference dedicated to heavy metal studies. Some academics even mix theory and practice: the classic heavy metal band Hellrazer (signed to a German label, with several albums under their belt) is comprised of a cohort of medical researchers at the University of Calgary.

But other researchers have produced some interesting work on the topic of metal, and debunked some prevalent myths. A 2001 article by a group of researchers at the University of Montreal (Eric Lacourse, Michel Claes and Martine Villeneuve) and published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence presented research around the relationship between heavy metal music and adolescent suicide. The complicated study produced a range of interesting results, but ultimately found that when other risk factors were accounted for, heavy metal music in fact did not have a significant impact in increasing the risk of youth suicide.

Moreover, it revealed that heavy metal could actually be beneficial for young girls: “A suppression effect was found, suggesting that vicarious music listening is negatively associated with suicidal risk for girls. It seems that listening to music to express uncomfortable emotions could be a rather effective coping mechanism for girls since it reduces the risk for suicidal behaviors.”

Another interesting, albeit dated, article by Jody Berland and published in the journal Cultural Studies in 1988 explored how different musical genres engaged with national identity. The research, based in part on interviews with musicians, revealed, for example, that folk-pop musicians were more likely to talk about Canadian identity. Heavy metal musicians loyally supported and praised other Canadian bands, but without particular reference to their Canadian identity.

As Berland points out, the way musicians engage with national identity is often framed by the industry in which they work. Folk-pop is a genre defined by particular attention to social themes, and thus is more likely to address local issues and identity. Mainstream success for Canadian heavy metal musicians, however, often requires they achieve success, or at least acceptance, in the much larger American market. This suggests that they, like musicians in many other genres, are more likely to avoid local cultural or geographic references that might be confusing to American listeners.

This has produced interesting effects in the Canadian metal scene. Jill Mikkelson observed in a 2005 article in Canadian music magazine Exclaim! that it’s not uncommon for Francophone bands from Quebec to produce entire albums with purely English lyrics, yet be unable to carry on a conversation in that language. This phenomenon is not unique to Canada – Brazilian band Sepultura used English lyrics in their early albums, even though it required them to do laborious translation work from their native Portuguese with the aid of dictionaries.

Sepultura, in fact, offer a useful example for us to consider in closing, and in trying to understand the connection between a place and its music. Keith Harris published a fascinating study of the band in the academic journal, Popular Music, back in 2000, where he argued that their career demonstrates the paradoxical “relationship between the global and the local within the Extreme Metal scene.” During Sepultura’s early years, he notes, they were based exclusively in Brazil and yet wrote songs and sang in English, emulating the style of North American and European metal bands. This produced what he describes as a form of “’placeless’ death metal”. It was only after they relocated to the United States and achieved commercial success, that they began to actively express their Brazilian roots in the content and language of their songs, in the musical forms and instruments they used, and in the themes they raised. This is, of course, most evocatively reflected in their 1996 album, Roots.

“Music is deeply implicated in the construction of place and individual and group identities are tied into this construction,” he writes. Music “scenes”, he says, are complicated. Fans like to feel a sense of ownership and control over their ‘scene’ and their bands; music labels like to feel a sense of ownership over their bands; bands tend to try to escape all of these shackles and assert their own sense of creative autonomy, not limited either by the demands of their corporate financiers, nor the narrow vision of their fans. But then there’s always the question of money.

“It is important to try to envisage a global musical practice as free as possible from large differentials of capital,” writes Harris, “that would reconcile the deep emotional investments in ideas of ownership stemming from the musical construction of place, with the fact that music can and will travel. This practice should enable the circulation of music and yet still allow for the penetration of locality, identity and ownership in unique, but non-essentialising ways.”

Harris argues that metal – and ‘extreme metal’ in particular – is uniquely poised to strive for this goal. “…the Extreme Metal scene is far closer to the global musical practice we are looking for than are many other scenes. At its best…[it has] the potential to provide temporary resolutions to the apparent contradiction between participation in the field of (global) popular music and the field of local/national identity. The scene also enables members across the world to interact on a fairly equal basis. The scene has the potential to avoid both the tight restrictions of traditional musical subcultures and the anomie of isolated musical occurrences facilitated by large multinationals.”

A daunting challenge. But what it says is that in a world where we struggle on a regular basis to understand what national identity means, and what role it plays, or should play, in our lives, metal possesses a certain power to express and shape that identity, in ways that can help broaden and render more flexible our understanding of who we are.

Well, if all else fails, just remember: Metal FTW!

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