Photo of Michel Langevin by: Catherine Deslauriers; Photo of Thérèse Lanz by: Alicia Montague; Photo of Topon Das by: Alex Carincross
Metallic Convictions: The Passion Behind Extreme Metal In Canada
By: Daniel G. Wilson | Art by Michael Rancic
“There were a couple of periods where people were telling me that I was crazy to keep on keepin’ on,” Michel “Away” Langevin tells me over a video call from his office in Montreal . Best known as the drummer and primary cover illustrator of Canadian “technical thrash” legends Voivod (he’s been the sole continuous member since the band’s inception nearly four decades ago), Langevin knows a thing or two about the fundamentals of being in an aggressive and extreme band.
“You need to be very dedicated, and to the point where it’s almost crazy,” he points out. Voivod has achieved its legacy and global influence in spite of the lack of industry support for metal music in Canada. Though many sounds and styles that begin along the periphery are eventually subsumed into the industry proper, metal music—and extreme metal by extension—continues to confound, frighten, and evade that same fate. It’s clear in speaking to Langevin that it’s that same rebellious spirit still fuelling him today, one that connects him to a community of extreme-metal musicians and bands who persevere in a musical climate that wants nothing more than to look away.
From the outset of their career in 1982, Voivoid never really fit in. Though technically in the family of hardcore punk-infused thrash-metal bands in the same vein as Guelph’s Razor and Ottawa’s Annihilator, they were (and are) defiantly weirder and more conceptual than their peers, drawing on progressive rock and science fiction to form a sound that is truly transgressive.
That unique sound took shape on albums such as 1988’s Dimension Hatröss and its 1989 follow-up Nothingface, and has been cited as an inspiration by countless bands around the world, including Converge, Meshuggah, and Gojira. As an artist, Langevin has helped pioneer the visual style and language of extreme metal through the post-apocalyptic graphic design work he has done for the band, as well as other acts such as Dave Grohl and Toxic Holocaust. Over four decades, Voivod have been a defining influence on the experimental substrates of metal and punk, but their mercurial, experimental nature also makes “extreme metal” incredibly hard to pin down.
The term applies to music that pushes the principles, attitudes, and sonic elements of heavy metal (thrash, doom), aggressive forms of punk (grindcore), and noise well beyond the boundaries of conventional songwriting and composition. That might take the form of tempos hitting blistering or glacial speeds, vocal performances that verge on indecipherable, or sheer walls of turbulent cacophony. This advancement is often accomplished through physically demanding performances both in the studio and live in front of an audience. Just as important to the essence of extreme metal, however, is the attitude that drives it.
Despite the influence of Canadian musicians on extreme metal, extreme forms of music have always maintained an uphill battle in this country. By contrast, Langevin notes that “Canadian metal is really highly regarded around the world as being some sort of technical, heavy music, really well-performed, and so we have this signature.”
While it’s true that bands like Voivod have received accolades and awards more recently, like being longlisted for the 2019 Polaris Prize, and winning a Juno that same year for their album The Wake, these instances are rare exceptions. There’s still a significant gulf between the recent mainstream recognition a band like Voivod receives compared to the extreme metal scene at large. “I’m still amazed that The Wake won a Juno. It is just so amazing,” Langevin says, beaming. Though it’s Canada’s largest music award, the Junos only added a heavy-metal category in 2012.
Despite these occasional brushes with the mainstream, a sense of apathy toward conventional pop stardom and success pervades the genre. “Why are we looking for acceptance from people that don’t necessarily care to give it to us?” Topon Das challenges. “Like, who fuckin’ cares? I think that’s probably what the genre is built off of. It’s just like, ‘We’re gonna do what we want to do.’ And if people like it, great. If people don’t like it, then all right, there’s other music for them to enjoy.”
Das is the guitarist of the longstanding Ottawa grindcore band Fuck The Facts, which originally started as a solo lo-fi experimental metal project in the ’90s. They went on to become one of the most exceptional acts within extreme metal, with albums such as 2001’s Mullet Fever and 2008’s Disgorge Mexico showcasing a musical ambition that never abandons the crushing riffs that are expected of the genre.
Extreme metal as a style and philosophy aspires to make music that cannot be easily commodified. As Canadian metal musician and music journalist Sarah Kitteringham notes in her 2014 masters thesis, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses: The Treatment of Women in Black Metal, Death Metal, Doom Metal, and Grindcore, extreme metal is “not a commercially viable enterprise.”
Kitteringham goes on to observe that “bands revered in the underground with several decade long careers often still work day jobs unless they are extremely fortunate; in this, extreme metal perpetuates an underground, nearly unknown aesthetic, and often revels in its own obscurity. Indeed, it is ‘extreme music for extreme people.'”
“Just do what comes out. There’s no filter—that’s it,” Das says, explaining the ethos behind the experimental nature of his band, now well into its second decade. “The idea was to have a project where there wasn’t going to be any bounds.”
Fuck The Facts have exemplified this attitude, from their abrasive band name that limits radio play, record visibility in big-box music stores, sponsorship opportunities, as well as their frequent inclusion of unothordox influences such as showtunes and rap music. There is a sense in their music of a creative freedom that can come from being unfettered by the trappings of commercial success—freedom to experiment without worrying about trends that may come and go, or the demands of an industry that does not always reward unorthodox thinking.
This opportunity for rebelliousness also has implications for BIPOC involvement in the genre. As with all forms of music, especially those derived from rock, BIPOC have been instrumental in extreme music’s foundation. Two of the “big four” of Canadian thrash metal, Sacrifce and Annihilator, have been active since the emergence of the style, and include prominent non-white members. Other prominent examples from across Canada include bands such as Protest The Hero, Biipiigwan, Bison B.C, and Sarin, each of whom offers an example of the diversity of sound that can be found in extreme metal. That freedom affords the musicians the ability to assert their identities in their art in visceral and profound ways.
”My inspiration is my mom, who is a tiny brown woman who has been working in white, male-dominated industries all her life,” says Thérèse Lanz, lead singer, guitarist, and album artist of Calgary doom-metal band Mares of Thrace, who have just returned from a nearly decade-long hiatus.
“We’re both just filled with Satan. And if you tell us we’re not welcomed somewhere or there’s something we shouldn’t be doing, I’m gonna do it more—and harder, and I’m going to do it better than the people who are telling me I’m not welcome.”
Coming out of Western Canada, a longstanding breeding ground for some of the country’s loudest bands like KEN mode (of whom Lanz was once a touring member), Mares Of Thrace have carved out a niche for themselves within Canadian doom metal with a forward thinking approach on albums such as 2010’s The Moulting and 2012’s The Pilgrimage, blending elements from various influences both inside and outside of extreme music along with a love of mythology. The 2022 release of their third album The Exile marks both a return to form and is their most dynamic album, so far.
While the dedicated attitude fostered in extreme metal may seem ”over the top” to the casual observer, it’s directly responsible for the career longevity of the artists who gravitate to the style.
The emphasis on freedom and rebellion can also extend to a rebellion against time itself. In contrast to other styles of music, physical age is less important than the mental or spiritual age of the people involved. An evergreen sensibility permeates the culture.
It is not uncommon to see people wearing their band paraphernalia and going to shows well into their 50s and 60s, and for band members to keep performing with as much vigor as would be expected of musicians in their early 20s.
“There’s definitely something that keeps us young in heavy metal, not to mention the fact that it’s very energetic music, so you need to keep in shape to be able to deliver,” Langevin says.
Indeed, during our conversation, it was easy to forget that he is nearing 60. The energy Langevin has and love of the extreme that he carries when he speaks is reminiscent of a teenager talking about his favourite band.
“It was at the end of the ’90s—I saw Whitesnake in Montreal and I saw Tommy Aldridge doing double-kick drums for 90 minutes and I thought, ‘If I want to be that guy later, I better take care of myself,’” Langevin recalls.
The eternal youthful spirit is a fundamental quality of this kind of music that also extends into the relatively frequent comebacks that have occurred over the past decade, as in the case of Mares of Thrace. Unlike other genres that experience periods of stylistic nostalgia, extreme music rarely ever falls into such a conventional cycle. While there are periods when extreme music can bleed into the mainstream as seen in the commercialization of metalcore and screamo in the early-to mid-aughts, the underground always follows a much more resilient and enduring path. Following trends are not as important as creating music that is in effect timeless.
This timelessness is a fundamental aspect of the style as musicians are free to do as they wish. Sonically an act from the ’80s can sound just as modern as an act from the 2010s with the only difference being the quality of the equipment used to record and produce.
“Metal is definitely more forgiving of aging than being a pop singer,” Lanz says. “There definitely is a timelessness to it, and I hope that will always be the case.”
This quality further adds to the universality of extreme music and the culture behind it as age no longer acts as a barrier for human understanding. Passion is necessary to keep performing and putting out music in the style. “I have a passion for music,” Das declares. “I don’t get sick of it.”
It is through tight-knit support networks of passionate artists and fans that the music has been able to survive, evolve, and thrive despite the indifference it faces from the wider music industry and the average music consumer—those connectors can include everything from indie labels that release local music, to simple acts of camaraderie within the scene and bonds that can form from them.
“This sense of community encapsulates a lot of what I think the heavy-metal scene was when we started doing shows,” Langevin says. “I realized that it was an escape for many people from being bullied at school or problems at home with their parents or having this feeling of not fitting in anywhere. And then you get to this show, and everybody’s sort of like-minded and friendly to each other.”
Drawing on the DIY/DIT punk mentality of its roots, extreme metal scenes have existed and continue to exist based entirely on underground grassroots networks across the globe.
“It was just this giant international community that was super-amazing,” Langevin says, reminiscing about his first experiences listening to, and later touring with, bands from different parts of the world. Whether trading cassettes and zines by mail and making phone calls or booking and promoting gigs through blogs, social media accounts, forums, and emails, a complex ecosystem has always existed to support each other within the scene.
The trading of cassettes, or “tape trading” as it is commonly known, has played a particularly vital role not only in the proliferation of extreme metal worldwide as a genre of music, but as a community that stretches across borders and even language barriers. Keith Kahn Harris’ definitive extreme-metal text, Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, explains how the scene was built upon the global fanzine network established in the late 1970s by punks where there was little in the way of industry support or infrastructure.
Fans would share their addresses in these zines, and as the scene grew, metal magazines also featured pen-pal advertisements that made it easier for fans to exchange letters and tapes of demos, live recordings and rehearsals. These trading networks existed well into the 1990s, with some coalescing into the established ‘distros’ that still support the scene today.
“I did a lot of tape trading back in the day,” Das says. “I worked at a Zellers for a bunch of years, and that’s where I would do all my photocopies of flyers and stuff.”
It was through tape trading that many musicians like Das would find kindred spirits within the scene. “When we did our first European tour in 2009, I remember a few people coming out to see us that I had traded tapes with like a decade earlier,” he recalls.
The common analogy that “no man is an island” does not fully encapsulate that full complexity of community in extreme metal. It is better to think of it more as if everyone is an island unto themselves in a sea of other islands sharing the same water and the same resources.
“I’d like to think that the punk ethos of collectivism isn’t completely dead,” Lanz says. “I think that any community that exists on the margins tends to fare better if it sticks together and supports each other.”
This blend of collectivism and individualism at the heart of extreme metal stands as a statement of defiance against the status quo, creating an ecosystem that is not defined by capitalistic forces and competition but by shared passion and camaraderie.
“I think [the value of extreme metal] narrows down to being part of a collective,” Langevin says. “It’s always been known that the metal movement is a great community.”
Extreme metal offers so much more than a sonic palette designed for headbanging. For the people who perform and have a passion for it, it’s a form of expression, a rich worldwide community, a lifelong pursuit and fountain of youth. At the heart of those convictions is an aspirational spirit—one that models not seeking value, meaning or validation from an industry, but rather within art and connection to others first and foremost.