Calgary Metalfest conjures four big names in Canadian speed/thrash for a night of historic mayhem

Friday 09th, September 2016 / 16:02
By Sarah Kitteringham
Annihilator circa 1990 during the Never, Neverland tour. Photo: Courtesy of Annihilator

Annihilator circa 1990 during the Never, Neverland tour.

CALGARY — Spawned in our neighbouring nation to the south, Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth are credited with pioneering thrash metal as it’s popularly known today; adrift with pounding double kicks, shredding solos, and growling vocals decrying war and organized religion. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that several thousand kilometres east, the European nation of Germany was responsible for the likes of Tankard, Kreator, Destruction, and Sodom, the latter of whom expelled a vicious sonic assault that helped trigger the beginning of black and death metal. Of course, Canada had its own contributions to the genre and its affiliated fringes as notable names like Anvil, Razor, Exciter, Slaughter, Sacrifice, Voivod, Voor, Soothsayer, Piledriver, DBC and Annihilator emerged from the country’s most populated provinces. Exciter, Piledriver, DBC and Anvil emulated their NWOBHM roots, favouring the cleaner and more intricate dueling melodies of their forefathers with thrash’s sister genre of speed metal (the latter with a guitar enhancing dildo in tow); meanwhile musically Razor and Annihilator followed thrash’s handbook. Slaughter, Voor, Soothsayer and Sacrifice swayed in beastly directions, while Voivod simply ripped the genre to shreds, reinventing themselves to this day. As was the case in many nations around the world, the ’80s was a huge time for Canadian metal.

Annihilator and Sacrifice. Collage: Compiled by Shawn Vincent

Annihilator and Sacrifice.
Collage: Compiled by Shawn Vincent

Oddly, unlike the Bay Area of the United States, people don’t seem to consider that there was a localized thrash scene in Canada. Bands were swelling up from Eastern Canada, aided by tape trading, crate digging, unscrupulous and scrupulous record labels alike, and sweat. Toronto gave way to Slaughter, Anvil, Piledriver, and Sacrifice; Ottawa, Guelph, Montreal, Beauport and Jonquière also bore fruit. It is from this geographic location that the bigger name bands Razor, Exciter, Sacrifice, and Annihilator came to fruition; formed by teenagers who felt isolated or bored by their hometown’s glam metal scenes, who wanted something heavier, uglier, and better.

“Every band was like… they were either a Mötley Crüe type of band, or Van Halen, and if you didn’t play stuff like that, you weren’t part of it. I mean, I was friends with all these local musicians, but we were never part of that local scene,” begins Exciter guitarist John Ricci, who formed the project in Ottawa in 1980 from the ashes of Hell Razor alongside Dan Beehler and Alan Johnson. The veterans of the Calgary Metal Fest lineup quickly became the subject of admiration from their peers, releasing their diabolical full-length debut Heavy Metal Maniac (1983) a full month before Kill Em’ All hit the shelves. Released via the prolific Shrapnel Records, home to speed and traditional metal luminaries like Racer X, Chastain, Griffin, and Fifth Angel, the release helped transform the heavy metal landscape, triggering the emergence of extreme metal. For its follow-up Violence & Force(1984), the band was scooped up by Megaforce, the emerging label of Jon and Marsha Zazula. The label specialized in thrash, eventually releasing classics by Metallica, Anthrax, Stormtroopers of Death, Overkill, Testament, and Vio-lence.

“It was totally unexpected, Johnny Z starts calling me. ‘I got to sign you guys, I got to sign you guys! This kind of music man, it’s the way of the future, it’s the way of the future!’” recalls Ricci with a laugh.

“I think I was coming into high school when Dan Beehler… was leaving high school, and he had a Judas Priest British Steel [1980] leather jacket, jean jacket patch thing on the jacket while he was going through the school hall, and I thought he was the coolest dude in the world,” enthuses Annihilator’s mastermind Jeff Waters, who is the youngest, yet most prolific, band on the bill.

Exciter and Razor. Collage: Compiled by Shawn Vincent

Exciter and Razor.
Collage: Compiled by Shawn Vincent

“I remember my friend and I would drive down when we found out they were rehearsing at this house down at the other end of Ottawa, we would drive down, smoke a joint and half a pack of cigarettes just listening outside the house to Exciter playing. I remember John Ricci coming out and looking at us like ‘hey, what are you guys doing listening?’ and we would just take off in the car.”

Like Exciter, Annihilator formed in the government town of Ottawa, but Waters ultimately decided to depart to the greener pastures of Vancouver in 1987 following the release of two demos in an attempt to rev up his life’s work.

“We started out more of a solo thing with me and a singer from Ottawa, and his name was John Bates and he ended up actually [later] co-writing lyrics with me,” says Waters. Bates is best known for his solo rockabilly work as Big John Bates; he also shares songwriting credits from tracks on Annihilator albums like Never, Neverland (1990), King of the Kill(1994), Refresh the Demon (1996), and more.

“Him and I started the band, I played bass already, I was playing guitar, I was sort of engineering these little four-track cassette machines that would record our little demos so I was taking up a lot of little jobs that I didn’t realize would come in handy later on, and that I enjoy doing, but it was more of a like, I wanted to be in a band, right? So the problem was even after the first year I think I lost John, the singer, I realized it was just hard to find people that wanted to do this for like their life. Like who said ‘screw everything, booze… girls, friends, everything, forget ’em all, let’s work really hard for years and years and develop something and work on your own playing and start getting good at what you’re doing and learning.’ I wanted to do this for my life so I actually worked this and eat, slept and bathed in it, 24 hours a day. Heavy metal and guitar playing is what I was doing and wanted to do.”

The move to the West Coast quickly paid off: Annihilator’s 1989 debut Alice in Hell is one of the best selling Canadian metal albums of all time, and resulted in a career that’s thus far spanned 15 full-lengths, including 2015’s Suicide Society.

Concurs Waters, “Ottawa is a very conservative… Sorry, but boring, capital. [It’s the] federal capital of Canada, you know, when I moved to Vancouver, I got out there and it was just a new world.”

Jeff Waters with Judas Priest circa 1991 Painkiller tour in Dublin, Ireland.

Jeff Waters with Judas Priest circa 1991 Painkiller tour in Dublin, Ireland.

Meanwhile in Toronto, a varied and increasingly vicious scene was percolating with a strong support base that only a massive population can support. Anvil was one of the first bands to emerge, releasing the blue-collar rock album Hard ‘n’ Heavy in 1981 via Attic Records. The music was clearly equally inspired by Ted Nugent and sex; later albums demonstrated faster sensibilities as their third Forged in Fire was peppered with speed metal jammers. Live, their guitarist and vocalist Steve “Lips” Kudlow is famous for soloing with a vibrator.

“I never met the Anvil, the only thing I ever had was I was very young in the bar, it was called Roxanne’s, was Lips did his guitar solo with his dildo right at my table where I was sitting having a beer underage,” recalls Jeff Waters, laughing.

“Believe me, it sounds funny but it was the coolest thing ever and then I look back at it now and go ‘was that right?’ I was actually sitting there, a guy was up at me sweating on me, banging his head up and down, looking half like a woman, with a sweaty dildo, and he was soloing about two feet away from me and I was eating it up like it was the hottest chick in the world.”

Metal Blade Records promo photo of Sacrifice. Photo: Provided by Robin Dudley

Metal Blade Records promo photo of Sacrifice.
Photo: Provided by Robin Dudley

Anvil’s audacity and musical competency eventually helped spawn a scene that swayed away from the pop infused genre of glam, which dominated the charts.

“The ‘metal’ scene was made up of mostly glam and cover bands,” concurs vocalist and guitarist Rob Urbinati of Sacrifice, who formed in ’83 and released their hallmark debutTorment in Fire two years later via Toronto’s own Diabolic Force label.

“Recording Torment…, we were very young, like 17 years old,” he explains.

“Very inexperienced as a band and still learning our instruments. By the time Forward To Termination[1987] was ready to record, we had come a long way. Played a lot more shows, did our first small U.S. tours. We had a few new songs written, went into a small basement studio and banged it out in a day.”

He continues: “It wasn’t long before we could headline, but we soon realized it was better to play with hardcore bands that we liked. Bands like us and Slaughter were the only ones at the beginning, [but] Razor would come into town as well. The main venue was Larry’s Hideaway, a disgusting, filthy place, which was perfect for us. Eventually more bands started popping up, and the metal and hardcore scenes started to merge. Basically, all the Toronto bands were friends.”

Razor. Photo: Wayne Archibald

Photo: Wayne Archibald

Guitarist Dave Carlo of the long-standing speed/thrash act Razor concurs. Despite the band forming in the city of Guelph, which sits 100 kilometres west of Toronto, they’ve always considered themselves a Toronto band since forming in 1983.

“Razor has always been considered a Toronto area band. We always tried to keep a low profile in Guelph to be honest,” says Carlo.

“I loved having the total anonymity at home. Toronto is close,” he says.

“Our scene and the one we felt a part of was the Toronto scene. Early on we formed friendships with Toronto area bands, Sacrifice in particular.”

According to Urbinati, Sacrifice and the newly emerging Slaughter, who released the hugely influential underground classic Strappado in 1987, were also good friends.

“We were together all the time. All of us were from Scarborough [a district in Toronto], we were friends before they even formed Slaughter. Looking back on them now, they kind of invented that Swedish death metal guitar sound.”

The saturated scranch of the Boss HM-2 Distortion Guitar Effect pedal is evident in multiple Swedish death acts like Entombed, Dismember, and Necrophobic.

Exciter. Photo: Wayne Archibald

Photo: Wayne Archibald

“I’m sure Dismember and Entombed all had a copy of Strappado,” argues Urbinati.

Slaughter is far from the only Eastern Canadian band that has been criminally overlooked in the history of metal. One glance at the eight-demo collection from 2015, the Nuclear War! Now release No Speed Limit: Essential Québec Metal Demo Tapes, confirms this. Bands like Voor, Outrage, Treblinka, Soothsayer, and Oblivion were part of the compilation, which showcases multiple acts that merged thrash and death metal, primarily in the latter part of the ’80s. The desire for faster, uglier bands was particularly strong in Quebec, where Razor would frequently sell out gigs, thanks to their irresistible driving grime.

“I did note that in Quebec we could do seven days in a row at the same venue and it would be full every night,” recalls Carlo. “We probably had a special appreciation for Quebec at that time (mid 1980s).”

Razor was influential at home and abroad, releasing their Armed and Dangerous EP independently before they were approached and signed by Attic Records in “early 1985” for the release of their debut full-length Executioner’s Song.

“Riff wise Dave Carlo from Razor was a big influence on some of the early Annihilator riffs, on the first two records we did,” enthuses Jeff Waters.

Annilhilator lineup circa Alice in Hell pre-release period. Photo: Courtesy of Annihilator

Annilhilator lineup circa Alice in Hell pre-release period.

“I love that band, Stace “Sheepdog” McLaren, the singer at the time, I remember he was standing on stage at a little club here and I went to see them, and he was chain smoking while he was singing and doing these incredible screams that the world should [have] known about but never really heard, you know? Exciter and Razor to me were like the next-generation speed version of Motörhead.”

Today, although Eastern Canada is ripe with metal bands of all persuasions, thrash and speed metal live on. Newer bands like Droid, Manacle, Occult Burial, Iron Dogs, Chainbreaker, Skull Fist, Ice War, Sardu, Warsenal and countless more lean towards that sound, while Annihilator, Razor, Exciter and Sacrifice soldier on in various forms (scroll below for another link to more interviews with the bands on where they are now). Despite each band experiencing breaks, lineup drama, reunions, and more, the spirit of the ’80s continues to burn brightly in their songs and performances, making the upcoming Calgary Metalfest lineup particularly historic: it’s Annihilator’s first performance in Western Canada since 1993; Exciter’s first show in Western Canada since 1985, and marks the first time ever these four bands have performed together. If you worship the ’80s, want to learn more about music history, or simply appreciate metal, you’d be wise to attend.

“We are right from the same time, and the same mold, and you know… the ’80s had this kind of vibe,” concludes Ricci.

“Every band had their own unique style, but they were all going for the same goal. And having these four bands – we are all totally different, but we have the same message.”

Watch Annihilator, Exciter, Razor, Sacrifice and Gatekrashör on Saturday, September 17that Flames Central during Calgary Metalfest. Tickets are available online at read writer Ian Lemke’s interviews with the bands on where they are now.

Sacrifice '89 demo cassette. Photo: Provided by Robin Dudley

Sacrifice ’89 demo cassette.
Photo: Provided by Robin Dudley

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