Montreal flaunts heavy metal credentials as city hosts rock festival

MONTREAL — The Montreal city councillor who spearheaded a motion last April to formally designate the city a headbangers’ paradise says the reaction to the gesture has been remarkable.

“A lot of people are talking about it — people in the city, metalheads around the world,” said Coun. Craig Sauve, a musician and heavy metal buff.

“People are very appreciative of the recognition — particularly in the metal scene, where metalheads feel like their culture is not respected and cast aside.”

Those official credentials as a heavy metal “city of excellence” will be on full display this weekend as it plays host to the 10th edition of Heavy Montreal — a popular two-day metal and rock festival held on a small island near the city.

While the designation didn’t come with any financial perks, observers are confident the “positive vibe” it created will bring big dividends for up-and-coming local acts.

“It helps fill up the bars, it helps the promoters and it helps the bands,” says Montrealer Jimmy Kay, who runs Metal Voice, a YouTube channel that reports on heavy metal music. ”Now when I interview bands, they know about it, they’ve heard about it.”

Quebec bands that eventually found their way to Montreal did so for a variety of reasons, but the common denominator was a loyal and knowledgeable fan base packing the venues.

“When you talk to bands that have been around for 30, 40 years … if it wasn’t for Montreal, they wouldn’t exist today, because that’s where everyone wanted to hear them,” Kay said. “The fans were there for them always.”

Daniel Glick, director of concerts and events at concert promoter Evenko, which puts on the popular Heavy Montreal event, says the firm promotes about 100 metal shows yearly. He called the city’s recognition a nice “stamp of approval.”

“A lot of the metal bands and hard rock bands have done really, really well here over the years, if you go back to the early years — Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica — Montreal is definitely one of their top markets,” Glick said. “It may have changed the way they did their live shows, the vibe here is definitely than going to another American or Canadian city. I think the fans are extremely passionate and respectful at the same time, and that definitely leads to that relationship (with bands) that has gone back to beginning.”

Rick Hughes knows that connection well from his years with local band Sword, which made its mark in the 1980s and continues to perform to this day. He says the kids who were at his shows decades ago are among the people still coming out today.

The St-Bruno, Que., native said that after the band’s last Montreal show, fans hung out for two hours to get autographs. In talking to them the affable Hughes learned the young fans from the 1980s had gone on to become everything from engineers to pilots and businessmen. Some had brought along their own children to see his band play.

“You only find that in metal, and the enthusiasm of the crowd in Montreal is unequalled,” Hughes said.

Montreal’s scene included homegrown bands like Cryptopsy and Kataklysm, but it also drew from all over Quebec as talent arrived to hone their craft. Quebec’s most famous heavy metal outfit, Voivod, was formed in Jonquiere before moving to Montreal in the mid-1980s.

Guitarist Daniel Mongrain, who currently plays in Voivod and has played extensively with other groups, said bands knew that being in Montreal was essential. “It was good to play in our local area, but we had to go to Montreal to meet other bands, that’s where the action was,” he said.

An accomplished guitarist, Mongrain began playing guitar at age 11 after having seen a music video involving the original incarnation of Voivod on the French-language music channel Musique Plus.

“I bought a guitar and wanted to be like them,” said Mongrain, known as Chewy, who is celebrating his 11th anniversary with Voivod.

Mongrain, 43, originally from Trois-Riveres, Que., said the Montreal sound fans worldwide now recognize is really the creation of acts that got their start all over the province.

“Montreal is symbolic of the rest of the province,” he said. ”There’s a uniqueness to the sound of Montreal, but Montreal includes Rimouski, Rouyn-Noranada, Trois-Rivieres and Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean.”

By the time he was playing regularly in the 1990s, the grunge movement was gaining popularity in the rock scene, and times were difficult for metalheads. There were no big metal festivals at the time, but Montreal fans remained loyal.

“It was a small community, but every time there was a show, there was a bunch of people — like a brotherhood.” Mongrain said. “It was an underground scene that was very alive, but still very underground.”

Hughes said recognition of Montreal’s heavy metal roots was overdue, placing it alongside jazz as a sound that has long helped define Montreal.

“It’s music that ages well through its intensity — it isn’t pop, it isn’t the flavour of the day,” he said. “Jazz isn’t the flavour of the day — it’s stays the same, and metal is the same: It stays metal.”

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