Finding some Yellowknife rock in Wildrose country

Finding some Yellowknife rock in Wildrose country
Reporter Jack Antonio (centre, green) with members of Tales of the Tomb, Yellowknife native Bryn Herbert, Connor Adams, Tres Thomas and Corey Skerlak (kneeling).Photo: Jack Antonio

It’s a gloomy and overcast Sunday afternoon in Edmonton as I walk anxiously up to the entrance of the DV8 for the Wacken Metal Battle Alberta press conference.

It’s not just the weather that’s gloomy, though. It’s also my overall disposition after the Black Sabbath show was cancelled the night before. I am not sure if anything can break this mood I’m in.

As I get close, I am greeted by a very enthusiastic Cara Ashbey. She’s a publicist that does some promotional work for Asher Media Relations and also manages a local death metal act called Tales of the Tomb. AMR is a PR firm that handles many independent Canadian metal acts. In fact, I would venture a guess that almost every Canadian indie metal band of any kind of significance is on Jon Asher’s radar. This is a guy that knows a lot of people and a lot of bands.

I have been working with AMR for about three years now. They’ve sent me a lot of CDs and lots of digital Canadian content for DO YOU KNOW JACK? RADIO SHOW during that time frame, so when the opportunity comes my way to actually meet someone affiliated with AMR and also a few of the bands on their roster, I am actually pretty excited. In fact, seeing as the corporate mega-show of Black Sabbath/Rival Sons was such a bust, attending this little indie shindig ought to be a refreshing change of pace.

It’s Cara Ashbey that was my main contact for this event and I must admit that she has done a wonderful job of recruiting around a dozen bands to come out. Her rules were pretty simple: Each band invited to the press conference needed to have at least three members in attendance, cycle around to each different “press person” to chat and bring along 15 copies of their latest CD. My mission as a member of the press, should I choose to accept, is to chat with as many of the bands during the time that I have which, unfortunately, is pretty limited due to the fact that I need to get on the road and get back home.

Striking the right note

I am just settling in when I see the short-framed, leather jacket-clad, long-haired Adam Brown saunter in. Brown plays drums for Striker who are one of the more internationally-renowned metal acts in Edmonton. We’ve chatted twice before – once over the phone and once in person. Since then we keep in contact over Facebook occasionally.

I start our little impromptu interview by asking Adam about the venue we are in. I’ve really only ever been to the Starlight Room in terms of more “underground” venues in the city and I figure that Adam will have a much better handle on many of the “metal-friendly” venues in Edmonton than most.

“(The DV8) is a longstanding venue name, however, this is its second location. It’s a pretty decent venue. This (venue now called the DV8) used to be New City and New City used to be across the river on Jasper Ave. So this is a pretty historic little spot.”

When I bring up the Starlight Room Adam explains the local live scene in a little more detail “(The Starlight Room) is also another iconic Edmonton venue. Edmonton has actually gone through a little phase here. We’ve lost quite a lot of live venues which has been a real big bummer. The Pawn Shop, most notably for us (has closed). That was Striker’s stomping grounds for a solid four years. We could always count on a good show there. It was great times. They shut down when we were on tour and it was so heartbreaking. We weren’t even around to go have a last beer. It was so quick.”

The closing of venues and the lack of live opportunities is nothing new. In fact, as I point out to Adam, Montreal, a stronghold of Canadian heavy metal for many years, has recently closed down some iconic venues.

“To be honest,” remarks Adam, “I don’t know if it’s metal venues in particular. It’s venues in general. At least in Alberta here they’ve started raising the liquor prices a lot and here on Whyte Avenue they keep raising the rent so that the logistics of actually running a venue and paying people becomes unrealistic and they close. And y’know with the (Canadian) economy low people have less money to spend on tickets so it’s a vicious circle.”

I push this issue further by mentioning that Striker has chosen to end their relationship with Napalm Records. My instincts prove correct when I surmise that it’s to due to the almighty dollar.

“It is about the dollar,” Adam says. “There’s days when I wish I could just go and play my drums but there’s too much business to deal with. But, when you’re an independent band, the opportunity to make money is there whereas when we were signed with Napalm we crunched the numbers and it was seeming like an impossibility.”

When I bring up the label support that they are losing by choosing to leave Napalm Records, Adam expresses further frustrations: “They had a great team of publicists. ‘A’ list people. But the band had no control over when or what they published. For instance, we just played a European festival tour and we were like ‘man we need some press this is a great opportunity’ and nothing came of it. But now as an independent band we hired a pretty similar team of publicists. I think we have five publicists worldwide and when we have a tour it’s announced. That being said, Napalm had a lot of pros to it. I can’t discount that entirely.”

It’s a strange situation that the entire music business is in these days. The advent of social media has enabled bands to get the word out more but it puts less money into the pockets of bands for their recordings due to file sharing, etc. I can understand why bands would want to be more in control of of the situation. It’s always great chatting with Adam and I wish I could quote the entire convo that we had but I have to move on. I will say that I will likely air the interview on a future episode of DO YOU KNOW JACK? so by all means tune in! Zero in on my Facebook page for all the latest info.

Tales from the tomb

Next up, I motion Corey Skerlak and Connor Adams of extreme metal band Tales of the Tomb over to my table. Tales of the Tomb is a punishing band of razor-sharp riffage with the intense screaming of vocalist Adams layered overtop. Seeing as I am now in the mood to wax philosophical about metal’s current “underground” state of mind, I begin by pointing out the relaxed camaraderie that seems evident in the room. There’s a definite lack of professional jealousy. These guys are obviously all familiar to each other at the very least.

“If you burn the wrong bridge (in this scene) I guess you’re going to be pigeonholed. You kinda gotta play nice. And having a community is obviously better than having people that don’t really care. Working together is always going to yield a greater end result,” states Corey.

At the underground level at least, it can be challenging getting the word out on extreme metal. It’s mostly covered by campus FM or even community radio that has a mandate to play more “peripheral genres.” You’re not going to hear bands like Tales of the Tomb on mainstream rock radio. It’s simply not a reality and it never has been.

“Another big thing too is when you go to another city and play a show it’s hard to get a good (crowd) because it’s hard for an extreme band to get awareness. So we have to regularly go to these cities to keep our name up,” adds Connor.

Corey continues: “Just having someone be able to hear your song before you come out and play that city is what we rely on. Like campus radio, internet radio and blogs and things like that.”

It’s a long way to the top if you wanna headbang, apparently. But I get the feeling that these guys wouldn’t trade it for anything and that’s good. It’s bands like Tales of the Tomb, and their strong resolve to hold down the fort that will continue to push the envelope in extreme metal. That being said, are we living in a world that is too “PC” to handle the subject material of extreme metal? The band’s most recent three-song EP focuses on the subject of serial killers and, to be honest, that kind of bothers me and I am a pretty open-minded guy.

“(The lack of PC subject material) was something that we did think about when writing some of these songs. (These stories) are still a part of Canadian history. It’s something that nobody could (or perhaps should) turn a blind eye to. When we first started out developing the image of the band we decided we didn’t want to be a band that really glorified it. Our image is so dark but it’s more like learn from it, grow from it, and be more thankful for the life you have,” Corey says.

I wish the guys good luck and then invite the next band to my table.

Taking on a tyrant

Tyrant is another very heavy, hardcore-styled band. I must admit, I have never really been a fan of bands like Of Mice and Men, Miss May I, As I Lay Dying or Dillinger Escape Plan but what draws me in about Tyrant is their very dynamic frontman, Brett Reid, who is extremely animated and energetic when he performs. Perhaps almost too energetic. But that’s what makes Tyrant’s shows a lot of fun. The other band members joke to me about it feeling like they are a pinball machine or bumper cars. Brett is knocking into them constantly, it seems.

“When we’re on stage and you feel that music and the presence of the crowd, you just want to go crazy and let loose. Once we start playing it just happens. It just comes out. It’s wild,” quips Brett.

“We’re stepping up our stage show too. I mean, as insane as Brett gets, I like to think we are striving to compete (with him). We want to be more energetic each show,” adds guitar player Robert.

The band has been through a number of lineup changes in recent years, so, if they aren’t a tour de force now I believe it’s only a matter of time. I wish the guys the best of luck and am positive that this will not be the last time I chat with them.

Into strange territory

Next up is unfamiliar territory. Drummer Brett Seaton and guitar player Scott Greene of the female-fronted, melodic hard rock act Van Halst is a band whose music I had not yet heard at press time. Having just spoken to Tyrant about their frontman Brett Reid, I am curious to know about the dynamic that being a female-fronted rock act will bring to the table. What energy do they convey? In my conversation prior to our interview taking place I ask the band whom they consider as a primary influence and Scott immediately cites In This Moment, whose vocalist Maria Brink is widely known for her use of sex appeal on stage. Does the “sex” aspect work its way into the Van Halst stage show?

“There is a different dynamic (working a female-fronted band). Kami (the band’s vocalist) is a very confident woman. I think the sex is there. But our lyrical content is quite different than In This Moment. Soundwise we kind of go for it a bit (sounding like In This Moment) but Kami is a very socially-conscious person so a lot of the lyrical content comes from that place. I’ve known Kami for many many years. We have a really great dynamic all on our own. We’ve done many projects together.”

Upon returning home I get the chance to hear some of Van Halst’s material and I would have to agree with Scott on this. The band has a great vibe and the production on the record is very strong which is likely due to Scott’s connections to Powersound Studios in Edmonton. Membership has its privileges, the old adage goes. Anyway, I could easily hear one of their tracks on something like Octane or Liquid Metal. Their material would be very comfortable there and due to their work ethic, I think they would deserve the exposure.

Old stock rockers

The last band to sit in front of me is also what appears to be chocked full of the oldest guys in the room which would not be all that hard considering the fact that most of the bands seem to be in their 20s. Vehement Dissent is a more traditional thrash-sounding act out of Edmonton. Old dogs cranking out old tricks but it’s definitely a formula that really fits for me personally. Their music has an underproduced, shoddily mixed, “days of tape trading” vibe about it that gives me flashbacks to such uncompromising thrashing classics as “Bonded By Blood” by Exodus. Vehement Dissent’s sound is very DIY but I like what I hear regardless. And to boot, these guys are three intense customers. If their live show is anything like their demeanor in person, I would imagine that they can bang out a kickass live set.

Given their relative age (they look like 40-somethings) I make the educated guess that they have a good sense of the evolution of the Edmonton metal scene and can put some punctuation on the discussion that Adam and I started earlier in the day. How has the Edmonton metal scene changed over the years?

“I think it’s become saturated after a while. Everybody’s in a band. You just gotta stand out somehow. You just gotta figure out what that is (that makes you stand out),” laughs drummer Mark Andersen.

So how does Vehement Dissent stand out?

“Probably the intensity. Probably the passion and our band cohesiveness, I think, and in our respect for each other, which is important. There’s a lot of business, business, business (stuff) in the world but it’s important to build an organic kinda band. For me personally, it’s important to slow down and focus on writing good material that’s honest for me and not pretentious,” explains vocalist/guitarist Matthew Portas.

“We’re not in the business to really sell it. We’re in the business to invent it and play it first. (We write) what we like and hopefully it’s received positively. (Just) like the music that I listened to growing up you hope that (your own music) can speak to somebody like that music spoke to you,” Mark states.

Words of the wise indeed and that puts an air of finality on my day. Heavy metal is a genre that does speak to a lot of people and hopefully bands like the ones I have spoken to this day can continue to carry the mantle and carry it well. Good luck to all of you!

Cara stops the proceedings momentarily to announce my exit and to voice her appreciation for me on behalf of everyone there. There is resounding applause and I am very flattered. It puts a nice little ending to a weekend that otherwise would have gone very sideways for me. And I am grateful, very grateful for my friends in the underground. At the last second out of the corner of my eye I spot a familiar face. Someone I vaguely recall from many many years ago. Suddenly my memory is jogged. It’s Bryn! Bryn Herbert! Bryn apparently is now the bass player in Tales of the Tomb. He came to the press conference late… But Bryn also played a part in the local Yellowknife hardcore scene back in the day. With all this talk that has taken place with young bands here in Edmonton it’s reminded me that Yellowknife once had a blossoming scene and somewhere down the line it died. How did this happen? I need to get to the bottom of this, provide some perspective and maybe even see if we can turn back the clock. This is hard to do considering that the “scene” has been dead and buried for a while but I will try to do what I can. I feel much better as I jog back to my rental car. There’s work to be done! In the meantime, if you’re in Edmonton, check out the Wacken Metal Alberta shows in March. You won’t be disappointed.

Jack Antonio

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