Today marks the 150th birthday of Canada. A collection of politicians signed an accord that made Canada a country on July 1, 1867, and July 1 has been celebrated as Canada Day ever since. Amidst all the flag-waving and other jingoism that marks this occasion, I thought it would be fit to list 15 great Canadian prog and metal bands; because what’s a celebration without music? And I’m sick of hearing people prop up Bryan Adams, Sarah MacLaughlin, BTO, Celine Dion, Arcade Fire, Feist, and Leonard Cohen.
What thread links these bands together? Other than their country of origin, absolutely nothing! 150 is young for a country; we have few mythologies that hold us together. There have been people living here for thousands of years before 1867; but while some Scandinavian bands mine Viking folklore for lyrical content, the many stories of Canada’s First Nations people have not made it into the lyrics of any of the bands discussed here. (And incidentally, the whole “politeness” thing is a myth. Try to ride public transit in Toronto or Montreal at rush hour or try to have any kind of conversation with someone from Windsor if you do not believe me.) This results in Canadian musicians looking within themselves and to their technique to find their own sound.
Some might observe this list as being ‘top-heavy’ with Quebec bands. Good for them. I am from Montreal. Bands from here did a lot to put Canadian metal on the map so personal biases aside, this ‘Great Canadian Playlist’ almost by necessity needs to have that feature.
So without further ado, here are 15 great Canadian technical metal bands, in no particular order.
(Montreal, QC, though originally formed in Jonquière)
Voivod inspired a generation of Canadian musicians to play hard, fast, technically, and weird. They spent their entire career pushing envelopes: Choosing music over well-paying industrial jobs in their aluminum hometown of Jonquière; playing extreme metal before it was even a thing; mixing in industrial influences like Killing Joke and Chrome in 1988’s Dimension Hatröss album; deliberately moving away from the whole thrash paradigm with 1989’s Nothingface; and carrying on any way they please, line-up changes, a guitarist’s tragic passing, and contemporary trends be damned. Voivod are one of metal’s constant chameleons.
Devin Townsend Project
Who in this scene has been more prolific than Devin Townsend? Nobody in 1993 would have thought the 19 year old kid who sang for Steve Vai would have gone on to such greatness. Some might call it a monstrous impertinence not to grant a separate entry for Strapping Young Lad (and trust me, I was tempted), but reducing Devy’s career to just five albums would have been even worse. He has dabbled in hard rock, ambient music, new age, even country, but an ultimately aggressive, searing intensity has permeated Devin Townsend’s entire artistic corpus.
The Icons might not have invented deathcore, and like most deathcore bands, they are not wholly comfortable with that genre label. But Despised Icon played music that people have recognized as deathcore since their 2002 Consumed By Your Poison debut album (and even prior to that as an unsigned ‘wigger slam’ band in the Montreal scene). Despised Icon’s influence cannot be denied, and their re-awakening with the Beast album in 2016 was one of that year’s many momentous metallic events. Bonus: they made ‘bree-bree’ a (borderline) legitimate term for a singing style.
Protest The Hero
One of our (German) editors joked that there might be a law in Canada making it mandatory to like Protest The Hero. I can assure you, the band’s appeal was earned entirely on merit and no Parliamentary ordinance made this happen. Want proof? They released the Pacific Myth EP, one song at a time, entirely through crowdfunding. However innovative Protest The Hero’s music might be, this very approach to releasing it might just be the model to save mid-level bands in this industry, and preserve their independence in the bargain.
Somehow, this quartet from Quebec’s quiet and idyllic Eastern Townships region managed to morph from a generic death metal band into a global exemplar of tech-death. Nobody who heard Considered Dead or The Erosion Of Sanity would have thought Gorguts could have made Obscura, Colored Sands, or any of their other latter-day, influential works. Gorguts went from sounding like virtually every other early 90s death metal band to something completely unique.
(Ottawa, ON, with some time spent in Maple Ridge, BC)
Annihilator have a patchy, colourful history with lineup changes galore and all the drama that comes with them. (The article about them on Wikipedia lists 39 people having been in the band since 1984, including an ex-punk rock singer and a drummer who went on to join a little-known band called Dream Theater.) The thrash metal band is based around the talents of guitarist Jeff Waters, who handled the vocals on many albums too. Aside from some forays into industrial metal, Annihilator have stayed within a conventional thrash idiom, refining their approach to it rather than pushing any boundaries. In so doing, they represent a certain constancy in the scene.
My editor told me this article needed to be ‘personal’, to avoid too many nationalistic overtones. Well, I cannot write about Cryptopsy without getting personal. I remember when they were the only band in Montreal (possibly Canada) playing grindcore, then under the name Necrosis. I was on a first name basis with every member who made the Ungentle Exhumation EP. I paid rapt attention when Dave Galea explained how he strung their six string guitars with the ultra-thick ones meant for (the then little-known) seven-string guitars; just so they could play bass-ier than anyone else would dare contemplate in 1993. I remember watching with bewilderment every time Cryptopsy achieved new heights and recognition. And I’ve sat through the flamewars over the replacements for original vocalist Dan ‘Lord Worm’ Greening and whether or not The Unspoken King was garbage. (Shocker! I don’t mind it one bit.) Cryptopsy defined tech-death’s more brutal side, with Flo Mounier’s legendary blast beats throwing drums into an almost leading role.
A most compelling question: Why include Sacrifice, a (now) little-known thrash metal band on this list? The answer is simple: Every Canadian who was into metal in the 80s came home from school on Thursdays to watch the Power Hour on MuchMusic, and amidst the cock rock alienation of the American and British bands, we’d invariably be treated to this video for “Reanimation” by Toronto’s Sacrifice. At one time, every Canadian metalhead could play this song by heart in his or her head. “Reanimation” was part of Canada’s metal conscience for a long time and without a doubt many members of bands on this list can relate to this anecdote.
It is a shame that so many people only know of The Agonist as the band that contributed a certain blue-haired female singer to a certain Swedish band (neither of whom shall be named here). It gets worse when the death metal (be it technical or not) idioms of other Montreal bands overshadow The Agonist’s thrashier pedigree. Their use of non-standard power chords and some rather weird things with octaves shows them having more technical chops than what many critics would grant them credit for. What we have in The Agonist is a criminally overlooked band that adds to the Canadian metal mosaic something that is by turns both orthodox and modern at the same time.
To the extent that prog is less the product of musicianship and more the product of writing, Anciients might just be progressive metal’s most unjustly kept secret. They combine the stoner sensibilities of Mastodon with Tool-ish rhythms and sheer violent burning power. Anciients have yet to make an album that did not deserve (and receive) critical acclaim, and they only have three releases to date. This means that if the best is yet to come for Anciients, then we can expect brilliant things from them sooner rather than later.
When the nominees for the 2017 Juno™ Award (Canada’s version of the Grammys™) for ‘Heavy Metal Album Of The Year’ were announced, nobody expected Mandroid Echostar to get the award instead of Devin Townsend, Annihilator, Protest The Hero, or Despised Icon. I remember spitballing this with the rest of the It Djents staff, saying ‘Devy already won once, and a Quebec band (Kataklysm) got it last year so Despised Icon probably won’t get it either because we like to alternate that sort of thing. Jeff Waters has been at it for too long so my money’s on Annihilator getting the award. That’s the Canadian way of thinking.’ Sometimes, it feels good to be wrong. With a tenor-voiced singer, a more guitar-oriented sound, and a restrained approach to tempos, Mandroid Echostar might be the most ‘traditional’-sounding metal band on this list.
The It Djents staff have got into arguments over Borealis, specifically whether or not they qualify as power metal or progressive metal. Allusions to both sub-genres are valid, and an opening slot on tour with Evergrey will only intensify our disputations. All the same, Borealis have – in addition to a most stereotypically Canadian name – formidable technical prowess. Add that to a keen melodic sense and the result is something too powerful to be dismissed as mere power metal.
The Tea Party
(Windsor, ON, though one member lives in Australia now)
The Tea Party play Moroccan-tinged alternative hard rock. I included them because this site has evolved recently to include stuff other than pure, unadulterated metal, and when I saw them in March of 2017, half the audience members wore metal band T-shirts and my The Acacia Strain shirt did not seem out of place. The Tea Party serve to remind us of two things: One, the Canadian scene went through an awkward late 90s ‘we’re not grunge but we’re not totally metal either’ phase just as much as any other scene did; and two, not everything about Windsor, ON is dreadful. (NOTE: I used to live there. I have a license to cast shade on Windsor.)
We will add to our ‘not exactly metal’ smorgasbord a hardcore band, and the only band on this list from a Prairie Province. Canada always had a punk underbelly in its urban scenes, one of those aspects that saved the country from a boring morass of acoustic music; and thus hardcore has always been a natural partner of Canada’s metal scene. SNFU might not be Canada’s best-known hardcore band nor its oldest, but they are easily the most fun to watch live. Them harnessing the power of humor also helps.
If the last two entries did not make you shake your fist at the screen shouting ‘that’s not metal’, then this one surely will. But Rush do belong on this list, and the reason is simple. Almost every metal band, prog or otherwise, has at least one member who’s a Rush fan. So even if these guys don’t exactly djent, almost every band that does owes a part of their sound to Rush.
Lists like these will always be controversial. That I had to leave out so many other Canadian bands only bolsters the rich variety of metal from the world’s second-largest country. What are some of your favourite Canadian metal and prog bands?
We made this celebratory playlist available on Spotify for your listening pleasure. (Regrettably, “Re-Animation” is not available for streaming on that service, so a different Sacrifice song was included in its place.)