Near the end of Metal on Ice, Toronto musician Sean Kelly writes that, in almost every book about Canadian music he’s ever read, his “heavy metal and hard rock heroes have been relegated to footnote status at best.” Provided the opportunity to give those hairspray heroes their due, however, Kelly offers up something that reads like a 200-page sidebar.
The book is partly a memoir of Kelly’s lifelong devotion to head-banging, and partly an oral history of Canadian metal, which, for him, begins roughly with Coney Hatch’s first album in 1982, and ends abruptly nine years later with the Extinction Level Event that was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Kelly’s simplistic thesis is that the metal he loved as a young man (he’s a shade under 40 now) was pretty rad, and that bands like Honeymoon Suite, Brighton Rock, Slik Toxic, and (especially) Helix deserve respect for their perseverance, and for the impact they had on the country’s musical landscape. But he does little to contextualize their successes, or offer much of an argument as to why they ought to be remembered for being anything other than regional knock-offs of more popular British and American bands. Attempts to define a specifically Canadian metal sound trail off into clichés about long, lonely highways and crowded vans. (As if non-metal bands travel between gigs by pneumatic tube.)
Kelly de-emphasizes genuinely interesting and influential bands like Rush and Quebec’s Voivod in favour of justly forgotten nonentities like Harem Scarem or metal-free pop acts like Haywire. And he misses entirely the broader, class-driven implications of the rise of indie and alternative music, when a year or two of post-secondary liberal arts education suddenly became a prerequisite for rocking out.
Metal on Ice’s biggest weakness, however, is its tone-deaf prose, which very often has the ring of a high school metal-head’s book report. One typical example: “A band that kind of straddles the line between being considered an early-to-mid-eighties band and a mid-to-late-eighties band to me is Killer Dwarfs.”