'We have assumed control': the evolution of Canadian metal

From Rush to Ken Mode, we explore our country's great history of metal music.

From Rush to Ken Mode, we explore our country's great history of metal music

Canadian bands Rush and Voivod have produced some of the country's best metal albums over the years. (Photos from Getty Images/graphic by CBC)

Written by Adrien Begrand 

Boasting bands such as Birmingham's Black Sabbath and Brazil's Sepultura, heavy metal has evolved over its 50-year history to include specific sub-genres that reflect local music scenes the world over. When it comes to Canadian metal, though, it's not as easy to categorize.

Compared to such hotbeds of metal history as San Francisco, Gothenburg, Sweden, and Oslo, Norway, Canada's local metal scenes were largely comprised of only a handful of bands, and it wasn't until the growth of Quebec death metal in the 1990s that Canadian metal came close to having a fertile breeding ground. With a small population density spread out across such a vast country, isolation played a key role in Canada's contribution to metal's development from the mid-1970s to the mid-'90s, with bands sprouting from miniscule sub-scenes — and yielding some of the most idiosyncratic music that the genre has ever encountered.

Metal's most famous hubs have clearly defined identities. Birmingham, England, spawned two of the art form's most enduring avatars at the beginning of the 1970s: Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Less than a decade later, the new wave of British heavy metal spawned groundbreaking acts from across the island, including Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Diamond Head, and Venom. Hollywood was ground zero for bacchanalian glam metal, led by Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, and eventually Guns N' Roses. Up the coast, Bay Area thrash metal introduced a much more aggressive, blue-collar and technically intricate approach thanks to Metallica, Exodus, Testament, and many more. 

The East Coast followed suit with stalwart acts inspired by the local hardcore punk scene (Anthrax, Overkill, Nuclear Assault). Germany became a hotbed for the anthemic, fantasy-driven style of power metal. Norwegian black metal immersed itself in nihilism and Viking culture. Sweden, conversely, helped pioneer the more bruising style of death metal. Brazil gave the world the young and inventive thrashers Sepultura, while Australia excelled at bluesy barroom hard rock thanks to AC/DC, the Angels, and Rose Tattoo. 

So how did this country's metal scenes in the '70s, '80s and '90s avoid such easy categorization? Below, we trace the evolution of Canadian metal to find out.

Rush: Canada's first heavy-metal superstars 

Heavy, loud rock music from Canada slowly built momentum in the 1970s with such bands as Steppenwolf, Warpig, Mahogany Rush, Moxy and Pat Travers achieving varying degrees of modest success. It was Toronto's Rush, ultimately, that became Canada's first heavy-metal superstars, thanks to the epochal 1976 album 2112, an ambitious record that boasted a 20-minute dystopian science fiction concept piece. Before the year was over, a generation of young listeners, some of whom would form influential bands of their own, were losing themselves in the gatefold of 2112, devouring those lyrics about the Temples of Syrinx and the Solar Federation. Like the classic Canadian metal albums that would follow for the next 20 years, nothing on the planet sounded anything like it. 

Rush's music in 1976 was as indebted to the progressive rock of Yes and Jethro Tull as it was the heavy blues rock of Cream and Led Zeppelin — a hybrid that the trio of Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart had been tinkering with on their second and third albums, Fly By Night and Caress of Steel, respectively, both released in 1975. Compared to those records, however, the concoction Rush created — that authoritative and versatile guitar work of Lifeson; Lee's intricate bass lines and attention-grabbing shriek; the erudite yet approachable lyrics by drumming genius Peart — coalesced perfectly. Rush was an anomaly, the first time the nerds had taken over heavy metal, and certainly not the last. For kids at the time, 2112 was a brainy alternative to the cartoonish fun of Kiss, the theatrics of Alice Cooper, the more straightforward approach of Blue Öyster Cult and Montrose, and the comparatively older Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, both of whom were starting to show (albeit temporary) signs of slowing down. 

Always ones to keep honing their craft, Rush's Lifeson, Peart and Lee would begin to shed the heavy metal side of their music in search of less bombastic, more nuanced sounds, starting with 1977's progressive, rock-influenced A Farewell to Kings and continuing in highly ambitious form two albums later with 1980's Permanent Waves. Although no Canadian metal band in the 1980s and early 1990s hit the kind of commercial heights as Rush did between 1976 and 1981, 2112 helped spawn a series of equally ambitious underground bands that would play a vital role in developing heavy metal during its boom years.

Anvil, Exciter and the next phase of Canadian metal

Formed in Toronto in 1973, Anvil spent its formative years developing a highly quirky sound, built around the buzzsaw guitar and wise-ass snarl of Steve "Lips" Kudlow and the powerful yet groovy drumming of Robb Reiner. The band's second album, 1982's Metal on Metal, combined the aggression of the young British metal scene with nimble musicianship reminiscent of what Rush had been doing six years prior. The riotous sci-fi banger "Mothra," the complex instrumental "March of the Crabs" and the legendary title track predated the thrash metal explosion with startling prescience, ultimately having a profound influence on such future superstars as Metallica and Megadeth in the process.

Hailing from Ottawa, Exciter named itself after the blistering opening track from Judas Priest's classic 1978 album, Stained Class, and in fact took that song's template and ran like hell with it on 1983's Heavy Metal Maniac. One of the defining albums of the distinct speed-metal era, Heavy Metal Maniac was all about double-time ferocity, flashy guitar work, sneaky harmonies and lyrics that, when not carrying on about uber-masculine fantasy, ranted to a charming degree about just how fun it was to be a metalhead in the early '80s. Featuring over-the-top, screamed vocals by drummer Dan Beehler, the speed-metal sound that Exciter pioneered is still practised by underground devotees to this day.

Thrash metal did flourish in Canada by the late 1980s, as Razor (Guelph), Sacrifice (Scarborough) and Annihilator (Vancouver) all made significant contributions. Scarborough band Slaughter, not to be confused with the American glam metal band of the same name, wasn't exactly popular when it put out its debut album in 1987, but the mystique surrounding the band and the 23-minute rager that is Strappado has only grown over the last 30 years. Fast, blunt, minimalist, profane, silly yet insidiously catchy, Strappado was a key moment in the development of the nascent death metal sound, ratcheting up the extremity that thrash metal had created. Even featuring budding American genius Chuck Schuldiner for a spell in 1986, Slaughter earned the admiration of the likes of Celtic Frost, Napalm Death and Repulsion, not to mention incalculable tape traders around the world. Today, Strappado is regarded as a major death-metal work.

Quebec: a hotbed of death-metal expertise 

If there's one Canadian metal album that equals, or even bests, Rush's 2112 as the greatest ever, it's Dimension: Hatröss, the fourth album by Jonquière, Quebec's Voivod. The best example of a remote Canadian metal band developing a unique style based on whatever genre knowledge they could possibly accrue at the time, Voivod sounded strange from the very beginning. At first their insanely fast tempos, atonal guitar riffs and accented English was met with bewilderment by a lot of listeners. The more drummer Michel Langevin, guitarist Denis d'Amour, bassist Jean-Yyves Theriault and singer Denis Bélanger developed their music, the more fascinating and richly diverse it became. 

Recorded in Berlin in late 1987, Dimension: Hatröss expertly combined elements of thrash metal, industrial, anarcho-punk, krautrock and progressive rock in a way that had never been done before and has never been replicated since. For Voivod, there were no genre restrictions, no strict templates to adhere to; the band was all about ideas, and this album explodes with them — the pounding "Tribal Convictions" and the whirling "Psychic Vacuum" were both catchy enough to receive regular airplay on MuchMusic — sounding fresh and innovative to this day. The record was a profound influence on an entire generation of musicians, including such highly regarded contemporary bands as Tool, Fear Factory, Meshuggah, Enslaved and Mastodon.

As the more aggressive and boundary-pushing side of metal exploded in the early 1990s, the province of Quebec became a hotbed of death-metal expertise. Aggressive and creative bands sprouted at such a pace that the talent pool seemed bottomless: Kataklysm, Gorguts, Martyr, Ion Dissonance, Neuraxis and Quo Vadis all combined complexity, melody and brutality that contrasted greatly with the more straightforward styles coming out of America and Scandinavia. As great as those bands were — Kataklysm and Gorguts are still going strong — Montreal's Cryptopsy one-upped them all with 1996's None So Vile, one of the most dizzying death-metal albums ever created.

A wild concoction of precise, machine-gun drumming, dexterous guitar work and erudite lyrics snarled incoherently by lead vocalist Dan Greening (who went by the moniker Lord Worm), None So Vile is controlled chaos personified. Novice ears might be overwhelmed by the cacophony, but repeat listens slowly unfurl a tapestry of staggering musicianship and discipline that incorporates elements of classical and jazz fusion.

What does Canadian metal sound like now? 

Rush kept evolving into the 1990s, too, working hard in search of that intangible magic that restless artists crave. Rush's Lee, Lifeson and Peart moved away from the high-gloss production that partly defined their 1982-1992 era in favour of a more muscular sound, succeeding here (1993's Counterparts) and stumbling there (1996's Test For Echo). At the same time, the global metal scene underwent dramatic change. 

On one hand, metal felt bigger than ever as more and more bands recorded music, to the point where it quickly became impossible to keep up with it all. On the other hand, there was a newfound sense of intimacy among metal fans thanks to the internet: for the first time, nearly anyone could listen to — and create — practically any kind of music they wanted to. Consequently, the 2000s saw a wave of young metal musicians with staggering technical ability.

Because of that connectivity, there are now fewer and fewer isolated scenes in heavy metal, especially in Canada, and today on a creative level Canadian metal is thriving more than ever. You won't find a better microcosm of the vitality and diversity of Canadian metal than the last eight winners of the Juno Award for metal/hard music album of the year, a category created in 2011: Winnipeg noise/sludge masters Ken Mode; the gothic doom of Windsor's Woods of Ypres; Whitby, Ont. progressive metalers Protest the Hero; Vancouver's beloved genius Devin Townsend; Montreal death veterans Kataklysm; indie technical metal band Mandroid Echostar from Guelph. Fittingly, this past year the mighty Voivod won the award for its ambitious 2018 album. The Wake — their best work in nearly 30 years.

Rush also enjoyed a creative rebirth, starting with 2008's return to form with Snakes and Arrows and 2012's late-career masterwork Clockwork Angels. Rush concerts were no longer dominated by introverted boys and headbangers who smelled like weed. Rather, they were multi-generational events. Many of the folks who saw Rush play in the 1970s now brought their kids or, in some cases, grandchildren.

By the time the band decided to retire the Rush brand (the physicality of playing night after night had taken a brutal toll on Peart's body, which compelled him to retire from performing), the final R40 tour in 2015 became a worldwide celebration of one of Canada's most beloved exports. At those shows, when the guys launched into "2112," "Anthem" and "What You're Doing," it was a joy to behold them returning to the heavy ferocity of their early work.

As sad as it felt to see them take a final bow, one consolation was that the legacy Lifeson, Peart and Lee left on Canadian heavy metal remains not only intact, but forged for eternity.


Listen to CBC Music's Canadian Metal playlist now.