1. The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions: music is a means of catharsis for them
– The Oxford Dictionary
Put 75,000 mostly young, largely male folks in a field on an island overlooking downtown Montreal during two sizzling summer days. Hire 60 heavy metal and punk acts to entertain them into the night under a full and brilliant “super moon.” Add copious amounts of beer and tattoos, then overlay with a collective mood of marching happily to the apocalypse. Stir vigorously.
In its sixth edition, Heavy Montréal hit the long bomb, the Hail Mary touchdown pass of rock and roll. Headlined on Saturday by Metallica, metal’s reigning kings, this year’s festival broke attendance records during a bacchanalian celebration of volume and emotion.
Metal and punk are the musical genres of the gloriously damned, the alienated and the marginalized. It’s a simple recipe of guitar, bass, drums and full-throated vocals (with the noted exception this year of Finland’s Apocalyptica, a metal cello band). But this basic concoction provided a powerful and liberating brew for a few hours that feel like freedom.
I grew up a fan of metal, and later punk rock, after my older sister bequeathed me her Black Sabbath albums in the late 1970s. I squeezed my way up to the stage at a Sabbath concert in 1982 as a 17-year-old to watch Tony Iommi pick the devil’s notes with his famously amputated fingertips. I head-banged to the Scorpions, got sick during Iron Maiden, punched the air for Motörhead and moshed in dozens of dingy clubs and underground punk venues.
More than 30 years later, it may have seemed foolhardy to brave tens of thousands of metalheads to reach the barrier in front of the stage at this year’s Heavy Montréal August 9-10, but I succeeded.
Feel the rage
My festival started Saturday afternoon with Pennywise, a veteran California punk band that play a driving but melodic string of politically edged songs. The most familiar of those is their 2001 hit, “F*ck Authority,” a song I’ve gleefully adopted as a personal anthem.
Thousands chanted along to what could have been a theme for the weekend: “Frustration, domination, feel the rage of a new generation!”
The hic to this lyric is that this music and its rebellion now spans a few generations. Pennywise were young when they started playing together more than 25 years ago. No longer. Most of the headliners at this year’s festival and previous editions are, like myself, balding and greying.
When Quebec thrash-metal favourites Voivod took a short break from crunching eardrums, singer Denis “Snake” Bélanger took a deep breath, wiped the sweat from his wrinkled brow and announced that he was celebrating his 50th birthday. “And can you believe it? I’m still up here!”
My path to Metallica
By that time in the afternoon I had moved over to the Molson Canadian stage, where I knew Metallica would be playing hours later. This was strategic. I had edged up during the Three Days Grace set, got pushed closer to the barrier during the joyous moshing of Boston’s Celt-punkers Dropkick Murphys, and then found myself only two guys behind the rusty grail for Anthrax’s energetic set of classic metal.
Then, while The Offspring were slamming their Cali-punk hits on the neighbouring stage, the mood turned serious among the thousands waiting for Metallica.
There’s a competition and brotherhood among the people in the pit at a big rock show. Some will get violent trying to get their way to the edge of the stage. Others form instant arm-lock alliances with perfect strangers so that both can maintain – or improve – their positions.
There is jostling, shoving, angry stares. There are also instant friendships, acts of caring and bravery, and a common understanding of the moment’s danger and promise.
Then there’s the sweat. Tightly packed bodies under a merciless sun leave one drenched in other people’s body odour and yet at danger of dehydration.
The security guards in the stage moat took pity on people close by, squirting water into our open mouths like mama birds feeding their chicks. Those further out were sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses to help diminish the danger of heat exhaustion.
For many, it wasn’t enough. Many crowd surfers were actually refugees seeking relief from the crush by escaping to the muscled and oft-heroic security dudes. As Metallica prepared to take the stage, the mob’s sudden forward surge made breathing difficult. The fight for survival was on.
Metallica’s trademark opening to Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold,” the stirring theme song to the spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, raised a million goosebumps of excitement before the band crunched into “Blackened” made the outside world disappear. By the time they launched “Nothing Else Matters,” 13 of their biggest hits later, the song was undeniably true.
By then, I had won a place at the barrier through the process of attrition, as the fellow ahead of me gave up resisting the unrelenting press of humanity. For most of their performance – the only show Metallica will play in North America this year – I was right in front of James Hetfield’s microphone, the best square foot of space on the planet at that moment.
But I had paid the price. Exhausted, parched with thirst and sporting a muddy footprint on my forehead from a crowd-surfing foot, I decided to give up as they finished the set with “Enter Sandman.”
Lifted like a baby by pair of security guards, I was able to take a full breath for the first time in hours as I walked out on wobbly legs, drenched from head to toe.
A media pass has its advantages. Will Nicholls and I watched the encore set on huge screens set up in the VIP tent over a well-deserved beer, with the full moon and Montreal’s skyline twinkling out over the Saint Lawrence. Drained but happy, the catharsis of an epic day and night gave way to a sense of peace. My aggressive instincts were fully sated even as the final chords of “Seek and Destroy” echoed across Parc Jean-Drapeau.