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Less is More: The Power of the Rock/Metal Three-Piece

I was hanging out with a couple of musician friends last night, and after talking about our RRSPs and Ottawa’s best hot yoga studios, the discussion eventually turned to music. One of them is in the process of putting a new band together with himself on guitar/vocals, a bassist, and a drummer. So we started talking about the virtues of the three-piece band in hard rock and heavy metal. Some of the biggest and best tunes in the history of heavy music came from the smallest bands. There’s something to be said about creating loud, intricate, and monumental music from the barest of bones: one guitar, one bass, a drum kit, and voices. So I got to thinking about my favourite three-pieces and decided to list some of them here:

The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Hendrix is, of course, the greatest guitar player who ever lived, but he needed a larger-than-life rhythm section to complement his tremendous riffs and solos. Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding (and later Billy Cox) matched that revolutionary guitar work with powerfully epic beats and bass lines.

Cream
Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce added a harder edge to the psychedelic rock sound of the late 1960s and inspired generations of musicians to pick up guitars, basses and drumsticks. Cream made some of the funnest riffs to play.

Motörhead
One of the most influential pioneering heavy metal bands was also one of the most stripped-down. While the genre itself has evolved into diverse musical styles, Motörhead is the essence of that original loud, raw, fast, and unrelenting spirit.

The Police
They’re by no means a “heavy” band (they’re actually barely “rock”), but I was fortunate enough to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing them live about six years ago in Toronto, and was mostly blown away by the fact that it was just the three of them (along with the obligatory backup singers) on stage for the whole show.

Nirvana
Although I’m a little tired of hearing some of their hit songs overplayed on the radio to this day, it would be a disservice to leave Nirvana off of this list.

Primus
Les Claypool is the Hendrix of the bass, and Primus is one of the most unique three-pieces in rock history because they made a traditionally rhythmic instrument the cornerstone of the band’s sound. That also made them one of the heaviest bands of their era.

Dinosaur Jr.
The second-loudest concert I ever saw was a Dinosaur Jr. concert at the Garrick Theatre in Winnipeg.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
The loudest concert I ever saw was a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion concert at the Kool Haus in Toronto.

KEN Mode
I rave enough about these guys, but I think they’re the most exciting heavy band in Canada and I’m really stoked to hear their new album coming out soon. This three-piece from Winnipeg creates some of the loudest and most interesting sounds out there.

I know I left off a few (hold your fire Rush fans), but that’s where you come in. What are some of your favourite three-piece rock/metal bands?

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Boreal Brutality

Bison b.c. (courtesy The Obelisk)

Heavy Metal is a powerful international culture that features a wide array of genres and voices. A fan of heavy music can find a wealth of diversity in everything from sludge to grind to black metal originating from the Americas to Europe to Asia. Canada is home to some very strong and unique music with metal roots and influences. I enjoy all kinds of music, but today I find myself listening mostly to some of the modern heavy metal this country has to offer. Here is a potent dose of noteworthy Canadian bands you should know about:

KEN mode
Every song by this three-piece from Winnipeg is a sonic assault. Their music is loud, complex, and distinct. Heavy, intriguing and unconventional rhythms lay a foundation for intense vocals and guitar leads and riffs that erupt from a fierce core. Earlier this year, they won the inaugural JUNO award for metal/heavy music.

Bison b.c.
The riff is the essence of metal and this Vancouver band has more than mastered that tradition. Their songs mushroom into epic masterpieces of force that are often tinted with slight hints of psychedelia. Powerful and intricate, their music becomes even more immense when played live.

Propagandhi
They started as a punk band in rural Manitoba in the 1990s, but their sound has since evolved into something much faster and heavier. It’s an intriguing blend of traditional punk and thrash metal. Their left-leaning lyrics may not be for everyone, but their most recent album is the best I’ve heard this year.

Fuck the Facts
This brutally fast and loud outfit from Gatineau, Quebec defines grind metal and pushes it beyond the realm of physical possibility. The technical prowess of all five members is truly something to behold, and to see them live is a sheer spectacle. They also embody a commendable do-it-yourself work ethic and that dedication paid off this year with a nomination for the aforementioned metal JUNO.

The Great Sabatini
Some of the strongest examples of contemporary metal incorporate the more favourable elements of rock n’ roll and make them their own. These Montreal dudes tie heavy riffs to all kinds of tempos and top it off with a massive vocal onslaught. Their live shows are compelling, interactive performances that everyone should experience.

Biipiigwan
Disclaimer: one of my brothers is in this band, so obviously I’m a little biased. But for me being a fan goes beyond family ties. They capture a massive guitar sound and seamlessly go back and forth between the slow droning of sludge metal and the ferocity of grind. Their latest EP is free and features one of my favourite songs of the year, “Kingmaker”.

Barn Burner
As far as more traditional-sounding metal goes, it doesn’t get much better. This Montreal band is fast, loud, and catchy, and above all, their guitars shred. They wear their influences on their sleeves, and metal pioneers from the 1970s are audible throughout their powerful packages of songs. At the same time, they’re one of the most unique contemporary Canadian bands.

Alaskan
When done well, metal music can also be beautiful and soothing. This Ottawa three-piece has effectively carved out a sound of their own based on intricate guitar and bass melodies and slower, more hypnotic rhythms. They also complement that more ambient sound with a tidal wave of intensity.

Vilipend
The emotional core of good metal music is sheer aggression, and few bands embody that better than these guys from Toronto. That intensity is especially prevalent in some of their more hardcore-punk sounds, but their ability to take the listener to all kinds of sonic realms in just one song is their forte.

Swarm of Spheres
Monster riffs and tight, heavy rhythms make this Ottawa trio impossible to turn down. Their sound is reminiscent of both 1970s riff-rock and stoner metal of the 1990s and today. Perfect driving music.

Click the bands’ links above for music and videos. What are some of your favourite Canadian metal bands?

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Top Ten Documentaries

On the weekend I finally got around to watching Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s a very compelling film about an obsessive-compulsive hipster in Los Angeles who randomly stumbles upon the underground world of street art and eventually becomes a practitioner himself. The candid looks at the subversive and mysterious movement provide exclusive insights into the lives and methods of these artists, including the elusive Banksy himself. I highly recommend checking it out.

The main reason Exit works so well is the massive array of visual elements. There’s unprecedented access to a world most viewers know nothing about. While the interviews generally lack emotion, the footage is what carries the film. And that’s what I love about visual documentaries. There’s a delicate balancing act in effectively marrying comprehensive and emotional interviews with powerful pictures. It’s something I’m still learning.

I loved documentaries long before I became a journalist. This is mostly due to my early exposure to the tremendous work of Alanis Obomsawin. I saw Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance in high school and it blew me away. It would later inspire me to dedicate my life to telling the stories of Aboriginal people across Turtle Island. I now find myself in the fortunate position of producing my very first hour-long television documentary. Capital NDNs will begin production in early June, and will air at the end of August on CBC TV. Stay tuned for more information on this look at contemporary urban Aboriginal life in Canada’s capital. On that exciting note, here are the films that inspired me to follow this path:

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
Alanis Obomsawin, 1993

It’s the most powerful and comprehensive look at the most important moment in modern Canadian history. Obomsawin successfully tells the real story of the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec and exposes viewers to the crucial moments and facts withheld by the Canadian military and federal government.

A Place Called Chiapas

Nettie Wild, 1998

Another intense Indigenous struggle is done justice on film. Chronicling the 1994 Zapatista revolution in Mexico, A Place Called Chiapas is another story of a subordinated group of people desperately trying to have their voices heard by a government who would rather have them wither in the periphery.

Gimme Shelter

Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970

One of the first “rockumentaries”, and probably the best. It chronicles the debacle that was the Rolling Stones’ free concert at Altamont Speedway outside of Oakland that tragically marked the end of the 1960s.

Memorandum

Donald Brittain, 1965

Holocaust survivors return to Germany two decades after fleeing the Nazi’s scourge. It’s a riveting illustration of the attitudes of both 1960s Germany and the Jewish people who initially fled – generally, shame and bitterness respectively. It looks at how everyone was coping in the aftershock of one of the greatest horrors in human history.

Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change
Zacharias Kunuk and Ian Mauro, 2010

The climate change debate goes right to the contact point of its biggest impact: Canada’s north. Kunuk and Mauro talked to dozens of Inuit leaders, elders, hunters, and scientists to gauge just how the earth’s changing climate is affecting their day-to-day lives. All the interviews and dialogue are in various dialects of Inuktitut.

Manufacturing Consent

Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992

An ominous look at how government and corporate media work hand-in-hand to create a monstrous and indestructible propaganda machine. It’s based almost entirely on the ideas of media watchdog Noam Chomsky and his struggles as a political outsider. Required viewing for anyone working in media.

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey
Sam Dunn, 2005

A lifelong heavy metal fan travels the world to trace the roots of an eclectic, powerful, and misunderstood genre. Dunn’s anthropological approach to uncovering the loudest music on the planet is a treat for both fans and unfamiliar listeners.

When We Were Kings

Leon Gast, 1996

Director Leon Gast went to Zaire in 1974 to make a film on the “Rumble in the Jungle” – a highly touted boxing match between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman. But because of legal issues, the material he gathered sat idle for more than 20 years. It was finally released, with old and new interviews with some of the key figures.

Little Caughnawaga
Reaghan Tarbell, 2008

Few people realize that the mighty New York City skyline was constructed with the help of dozens of Mohawk steelworkers from Kahnawake, Quebec. From the 1920s to 1960s, they carved out their own community in the heart of New York. The film goes back and forth between the rez and the city, chronicling this unique exodus and contribution to modern urbanity.

Buena Vista Social Club
Wim Wenders, 1999

Legendary guitarist Ry Cooder seeks out long-forgotten musical counterparts in Cuba to explore their traditional music and tell their life stories. A classic album resulted from the sessions, which were thankfully filmed.

Feel free to leave your favourites in the comments!

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