Casual music historians love to find little forgotten goldmines, especially when those goldmines possess an energy and consistency that is completely absent in the contemporary music scene and even more especially when that goldmine has no presence on the internet or in reissues. Canadian heavy metal in the 1980s is one of those goldmines. Don’t believe me? Here, try this amazing song and video by the Killer Dwarfs, and read on:
Metal On Ice by Sean Kelly is an indispensable document of a music scene that likely doesn’t exist on your radar. You may have heard of Anvil, and you’ve certainly heard of Helix (and you’re probably wrong about Helix if you don’t know how much they rock), but it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of the Killer Dwarfs before you watched the above video. Let alone Sword, or White Wolf, or Harem Scarem. And the reason for that is nobody has taken a serious look back at Canadian heavy metal. This is unfortunate, because heavy metal was the biggest deal in music in the ’80s, and beyond YouTube videos and hard-to-find records, we have no documents of what that scene was all about (why hasn’t a collection/archive of M.E.A.T. Magazine been done yet?). What was touring Canada like? What were the clubs? Who were the biggest bands? Why can’t we talk about heavy metal?
I’m not going to try to argue with or repeat anything Chuck Klosterman has had to say about heavy metal in the 1980s, and lucky for music fans, neither does Sean Kelly. This book doesn’t function as a theory of heavy metal; it documents the history of a scene. Kelly covers a decade of touring, clubbing, recording and rocking by interviewing a comprehensive list of musicians from the Canadian heavy metal scene. These firsthand sources bring the touring circuit, hotels, dangerous driving routes, studios, songwriting and fashion choices to life. And, better than abstract theorizing, you get a sense of what heavy metal musicians were thinking about, which is precisely what most books about music lack, and precisely what makes a lot of music criticism so exasperating.
One of the most engaging things about Kelly’s book is that these bands were the biggest bands in Canada, and many of them have been entirely forgotten. After the cultural revolution of the early ’90s eliminated heavy metal from the collective consciousness, most heavy metal (which was the biggest thing going, remember) was laughed into obscurity (with some justification). Notably, Kelly has no bitter words or jealousy-driven lazy criticism of the scene that replaced heavy metal.
However, the cycle of nostalgia brings things back, right? Well, sort of. Part of getting older -and feeling nostalgic- is paring down that memory. At the same time, part of championing forgotten music from the past is all about cool cachet without risk (hence thrash and shoegaze revivals) but the relative absence of traditional “heavy metal” and Chili Pepper’s/Jane’s Addiction-copping funk metal bands. And this is the biggest shame; Canada’s heavy metal feels very much like a part of us, like a music that Canada really made into something Canadian. Here, look at this White Wolf video to see what I mean:
The only complaint here is that the book goes by so briskly that it could be about double the length it is. You get snapshots of touring the west, and Northern Ontario mining towns, and the Yonge Street scene, but you’re left wanting more. Kelly talks about watching Voivod for the first time and wanting to figure out “How did they do that?”, but he doesn’t explain what Voivod was doing (playing really fast – but I already knew that about Voivod before reading the book).
Invigorating but brief, Kelly’s book tells an untold story about Canadian rock history that needs to be heard, whether you liked the music or not. Metal On Ice puts you onstage with a pointy guitar, in a van with no heat in Alberta, and inside clubs like Rock N’ Roll Heaven with the bands and in their own words. Awesome reading.