Hail Canada! An Ode to Metal from Up North

We had members of Fuck The Facts, KEN Mode, Mitochondrion, the Ross Bay Cult, and more weigh in on the best Canadian metal bands and why our neighbors to the North are so great at slaying riffs.

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Jul 1 2015, 6:56pm

"Whimsical Uproar,""Tortured Souls"
For these fuckin' sounds my angry heart calls
Canadian metal, just obey
On your weak sounds
We will prey!"

Darkthrone had it right when they warbled the praises of Canadian metal back on 2007's gloriously grimy F.O.A.D. (and as fellow nerds will remember, on the NWOBHM - New Wave of Black Heavy Metal EP that same year). The Norwegian duo name-dropped their favorite songs from legends like Sacrifice, Slaughter, Piledriver, Razor, and Obliveon on this crusty banger, and casually reminded the world that Canada's metal scene has been positively crushing it since way back when Fenriz and Nocturno Culto were pimply teenagers named Gylve and Ted.

It's also worth noting that Darkthrone drives their point home via album sequencing, following "Canadian Metal" with "The Church of Real Metal" and "The Banners of Old" just in case we hadn't copped on to the fact that, in their world, older is better, and Canada's old guard still has plenty of teeth. Between Razor's triumphant performance at Maryland Deathfest, the much-heralded returns of Voivod and Gorguts, the long-awaited reissue of Blasphemy's classic Fallen Angel of Doom, and even a recent surge in ubiquity for proggy guitar wizards Rush (who aren't metal, but have surely inspired legions of Canuck shredders), our neighbors to the North have been killing it—and that's to say nothing of the newer bands who have taken the torch and run full-speed ahead with it.

From the Blasphemy-helmed black/death plague spawned from Vancouver's Ross Bay cemetery to Winnipeg's high-energy thrash, Toronto's vicious grindcore, and the atmospheric, innovative black metal springing up around Quebec, the state of Canadian metal seems stronger than ever. When I asked my social media followers about their favorite metal bands, the list seemed endless: Voivod took the cake and Gorguts and Woods of Ypres popped up a lot, but so did Akitsa, Fuck the Fact, Conqueror, Bison, Anciients, Unexpect, Blasphemy, Sortilegia, Conqueror, Revenge, Nuclearhammer, Cauchemar, Mares of Thrace, Cursed, Augury, Sacrifice, Iskra, Biipiigwan, Ion Dissonance, Exciter, 3 Inches of Blood, Cryptopsy, Adversarial, Chthe'ilist. Blood Ceremony, Neuraxis, Lust, Kataklysm, Rites of thy Degringolade, A.S.M.G., Skagos, Auroch, Black Moor, Gatekrashor, Devin Townsend, and of course, the mighty Thor. I'm wearing a Vault of Dried Bones shirt as I type this, and listening to Radioactive Vomit, and wondering when Occult Burial will play down here again. Even without making any special effort, our listening habits have turned maple.

Pitting countries against one another and asking why one metal scene is "better" than any other is the same as asking why your grandma's meatballs are obviously the best in the world—it's all a matter of opinion and there's no quantifiable data to analyze, just a gut feeling that, man, that shit rules. With all that in mind and in celebration of Canada Day, I talked to a handful of musicians, writers, and music business folk about why Canadian metal is so great, and which bands those of us still stuck below the border might be missing out on. Many of them cited the isolation that comes with living in a massive but comparatively sparsely-populated nation while others mentioned the weather or European influences, but nearly everyone agreed on one thing: Voivod are still the kings.

As Fuck the Facts' Topon Das explains, "Having lived in Canada my whole life, it's hard for me to really be able to tell you what makes Canada better or worse for metal bands as opposed to anywhere else in the world, but it's obvious that we have a strong (and strange) brew of talent and have unleashed some of the most classic and extreme metal bands from Voivod to Gorguts. Even my hometown of Ottawa is also where bands like Exciter and Annihilator live. I feel like we hear a lot about the same Canadian metal bands all the time (mine included), so I wanted to take this opportunity to shed a bit of light on some of the newer or perhaps less known amazing talent that we have up North."

Das sent over a slew of recommendations, including Sombre—"A young band that is delivering hardcore powerviolence with harsh noise and stoner sludge. I often think of their sound as a mash of Full Of Hell meets Biipiigwan—and Black Tower—"A perfect mix of heavy metal and punk rock. Extremely catchy tunes that will have you raising your fist and reaching for your Lord Of The Rings collection"—as well as some gnarly death from Altered Dead ("Ugly and raw death metal is alive and well in Canada, thanks to these guys. A mix of Incantation and Autopsy. These guys would have been on Relapse Records in the 90's") and "bleak, miserable and crushing doom" from Antibody. He rounded things out with party thrashers World War 4, progressive instrumentalists The Night Watch, and old-school death brutes Obsolete Mankind, so that should keep you busy no matter which shade of black you prefer.

Eileen Davidson, who describes her role in the Ross Bay Cult collective as "Ruthless Ross Bay Cult Sales Bitch and Customer Desecration," lives and breathes underground savagery, and had plenty to say about Canadian metal supremacy. "It must be our free healthcare and the copious amounts of maple syrup, or maybe they put something in Tim Hortons coffee, but we've produced some of the deadliest bands the world has witnessed. Proud to have put war metal on the map with Conqueror, Blasphemy, Revenge, Axis of Advance and thrash acts like Sacrifice, Razor, Voivod, Slaughter, Exciter. While those are considered older classics, we don't stop there with producing some of the harshest extreme metal like Nuclearhammer, Adversarial, Antediluvian, Paroxsihzem, the reformation and excellent new album of Megiddo or deadly labels like Vault of Dried Bones exposing the world to some of the best extreme metal around today. Canada is a force not to be reckoned with, and has a vault full of killer underground bands like Black Knight, Procreation, Antichrist— one can spend days discovering new bands. The more you search, the more you discover what Canada has to offer to hungry metalheads."

KEN Mode's Jesse Matthewson chalks it up to weather and outside influence, telling me that "there seems to be a correlation with cold Northern countries and producing heavy metal, and especially heavy metal with an aesthetic unlike any you can find anywhere else. I believe that the French Canadian influence on our country's scene is undeniable; and Voivod is the most important band in Canada's extreme metal history. There is nobody that sounds like them, and their influence is felt far and wide, whether obvious or not. On the other side of the country, there was a noisey punk rock band called NomeansNo that have been at it even longer, and I feel like these pillars have set a standard for challenging aggressive music within our borders that is truly unique. There's a certain dischord to a lot of Canadian metal and punk, and in many cases, it can boil down to these two bands being the root source of it all."

While busily pursuing her Ph.D, writer and music critic Natalie Zina Walschots weighed in on her current favorite Canadian bands—"Mortillery, Thantifaxath, Shooting Guns, Gorguts, Rage Nucleaire, Anciients, Fuck The Facts, KEN Mode, Mares of Thrace, Mitochondrion, Blood Ceremony, Nadja off the top of my head!"—and joined the chorus praising Voivod, as well as noting Kataklysm, Sacrifice, and Devin Townsend as crucial Canuck metal stalwarts. Sandi Martel, proprietor and sunny force behind the Montreal-based band B&B Sandi's Rock Inn, is newer to the metal scene than most of the people I spoke with, but has dived in headfirst, noting Bison and Indian Handicrafts as particular favorites. "I'm still learning, however I can tell you that in the short time I've been hosting bands, I've realized that metal is making me a better person," she tells me,"I feel very fortunate to be a tiny part of it!"

Shawn Hache of Mitochondrion and Auroch, on the other hand, has spent the majority of his life immersed in the depths of Canadian extreme metal. "Canada is at the crux of an interesting blend of culture," he explains. "We have the undeniably pervasive and dominant influence that comes from the South, and we are practically indistinguishable from Americans on the surface. However, there is a lasting echo from our European history that we never rejected nor actively sought to erase. At the very least I feel this gives us a broader view of the world and what is going on. Just like most underground genres, the metal "scene" is a global one. To make any music of worth a Canadian band has to create something more wrought, complex, meaningful, and textured just to cut through the mire of C-grade bands in existence."

He cites Rites of thy Degringolade, Adversarial, Antediluvian, Garrotting Deep, Gevurah, Chthe'ilist, Dire Omen, and Amphisbaena as newer (or reunited) bands within the black/death paradigm worth persuing, and also notes another factor that led to their creation. "There is an isolation living in Canada that can't be ignored," he continues. "We live on one of the biggest countries in the world with the smallest population in ratio. The next major city (for us in Vancouver) is a 14 hour drive away. Touring the country is a painstaking undertaking, and crossing the border into the USA is risky and can come with major consequences. So we have nothing but time. Time to put into crafting and overthinking every fine detail. Time to actually forge a unique identity. These factors have contributed to what can only be considered a lineage of forefathers who set the standards impossibly high. In context there was nothing like Blasphemy, Conqueror, Gorguts, or even Voivod in their times. It is an inspiring way to think, and that's what propels this "Canadian phenomenon" of great bands in my opinion."

Handshake Inc. label founder and filmmaker David Hall had quite a few thoughts on the subject, especially on the impact Canada's relationship with the UK had had (and again, Voivod, Gorguts, and NoMeansNo get a hefty shout-out— beginning to see a theme here?). "As baby cousins to the nation that birthed heavy metal, I think heavy metal is just naturally in our blood. Apart from that pedigree, we are a vast nation that does its best to protect our citizens from influence by our evil brothers to the south, the great Satan, America," he explains. "This Nationalist pedagogy, combined with our geographical isolation, and DNA shared with the great riff-bard Iommi, has created a unique environment in which young minds interested in heavy metal want to emulate their idols, but are in a bit of a vacuum in terms of access to and direct influence from popular American metal culture (pre-Internet anyway). I think is why we have produced some super unique bands like Voivod and Gorguts that really don’t sound like anyone else. I’d also put NoMeansno into that group of heavy/extreme bands that invented their own sound. In terms of my favorite Canadian metal bands I’d choose Voivod, Gorguts, Fuck the Facts, WAKE, Ken Mode, NoMeansno and probably some others I am forgetting. I’d also like to mention though, that liking a band based on their nationality, which is all the rage here in the Great White North, is extremely juvenile. Happy Canada Day! "

Kim Kelly harbors a serious grudge against the Canadian border, but loves Canadian metal- she's on Twitter: @grimkim