The St. John's metal scene is smashing assumptions that N.L. is all about folk music
Headbanging on The Rock is a lot more prevalent than you might expect
The capital of Newfoundland and Labrador punches above its weight culturally, with a downtown core full of bars where you can hear live music on any night of the week. The province's best-known acts are Celtic-infused bands like Great Big Sea or folk rockers like Hey Rosetta! — artists with styles that fit NL's popular image as a quaint, rural, somewhat old-fashioned place.
But the local St. John's scene is more varied that outside appearances suggest, and a thriving metal scene is part of that diversity. And as of a year ago, the city has a legitimate metal expert at Memorial University in Harris Berger, the research chair in ethnomusicology and director of the Research Centre for Music, Media and Place.
Ophelia Ravencroft, a PhD student at Memorial, is now studying that scene in her graduate work years after unexpectedly becoming a metal fan when she first moved to the city as a teenager.
"When I came here, I was not a fan of metal. I was listening mostly to Gordon Lightfoot," says Ravencroft, who started going to all-ages metal shows in St. John's because they offered a social outing for someone her age — and was surprised to find a small but supportive community of music fans.
Metal's working-class roots
Thanks to bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, metal initially came out of working-class communities in the U.K. and the U.S. that were experiencing economic decline in the early 1970s, Berger says. And over the years, the genre has often been played and listened to by kids who likely felt outside the norm in some way: socially, culturally, economically.
"There is no question that historically, metal has had a substantial fan base in white, working class communities in North America," says Berger. The working-class, economically downtrodden explanation certainly fits with Newfoundland and Labrador, a province that has seen a few economic downturns in recent decades.
Within our scene, there are black metal bands, female-fronted power metal, '80s thrash, stoner rock, melodic death metal — in lots of cases maybe one or two representing a genre, and all playing together on the same bills.- Nadine Hodder, local metal community member
But metal, especially the heaviest subgenres of the music, is also particular popular in places with some of the highest quality-of-life rankings in the world. Nordic countries like Finland, Sweden and Iceland have high concentrations of metal bands, as illustrated by a map made via information from the website Encyclopedia Metallum, which catalogues metal bands around the world.
"A subgenre of heavy metal called black metal emerged in Scandinavia," Berger says. "Those countries have high prestige in the metal world, because black metal has been so influential."
What distinguishes Newfoundland's metal scene in particular is its variety, says Nadine Hodder, a local metal fan and active community member. "Within our scene, there are black metal bands, female-fronted power metal, '80s thrash, stoner rock, melodic death metal — in lots of cases maybe one or two representing a genre, and all playing together on the same bills."
That variety of musical styles represented in the local scene is a factor in its popularity, Ravencroft says — there's a way into metal for everyone. "There's a real appreciation for the depth or intensity of the genre," she says.
Growing into a global genre
Its popularity in Newfoundland and Labrador reflects the reality that metal is now a genre with wide appeal, which means it can find a home even in a remote province with a small population.
Metal has always had diverse fans in the U.S. and in Canada, Berger says, even if the fanbase typically fit one demographic. "By the 1980s, metal had begun to spread all over the world," he says. "One of the chapters in our Metal Rules the Globe book discussed the metal proto-scene in Rapanui [on Easter Island], which has a population of only about 5,000 people. And the new African metal bands are really amazing."
That wide appeal is due in part to the strong sense of community that often develops around local music scenes, as Hodder says it has in St. John's. "Metal springs up in all kind of places all over the world — it bridges any number of borders and cultures — but overwhelmingly metal seems to show up amongst down-to-earth working-class people," Hodder says. "And by nature, people who don't quite fit."
Metal springs up in all kind of places all over the world — it bridges any number of borders and cultures — but overwhelmingly metal seems to show up amongst down-to-earth working-class people. And by nature, people who don't quite fit.- Nadine Hodder, local metal fan community member
That feeling of not fitting into other scenes also appealed to Ravencroft, thanks to the all-ages shows she could attend and that plenty of metal fans didn't smoke or drink. Those factors allowed her an "in" to the scene that she was comfortable with, even as a teenager.
The Newfoundland scene has gone up and down over the years, Hodder says. "Sometimes it seems like there are a million bands playing all the time and sometimes it seems like there's a bit of a lull, but it always comes around," she says. The all-ages scene that gave Ravencroft her entry to the genre is not as strong as it once was, though there are still shows from time to time.
But there are signs of an upswing in local metal. A downtown bar, Distortion, continues to run regular metal-focused shows. Local band Category VI signed with Killer Metal Records in Germany, and Stephen Reynolds of Montreal metal band MUTANK is originally from Newfoundland. And the popular genre webzine Metal Rules is run out of St. John's.
In that way, Newfoundland's metal scene makes sense. Because the music scene is both largely concentrated in one city, St. John's, and exists on a literal island, it survives here where it otherwise might not in other cities of this size. If you live in Kingston, it's not that difficult to go to Montreal or Toronto to enjoy a weekend of live music — but if you're in St. John's heading to a larger centre means getting on a plane.
"Newfoundland is cut off by nature," Hodder says. "We're on our own more than the majority of the rest of the country. We don't have the same back and forth, not as many artists are able to come here, we're not exposed to as much and not as much is actively available to us — so we've stepped up."