By Olivia Harbin
The band members fiddled with their instruments on stage while nervously joking with each other about the impending snowstorm that was threatening to shut down their show that evening.
Lead singer and guitarist Manus Hopkins, his brother and drummer Cormac Hopkins and bassist Cole Brocksom had a dedicated fan base in their friends and loved ones. But how many more of those who had fronted $15 to see them play at The Baby G on Dundas St. W. would trudge through the wet snow, high winds and a freezing -7°C temperature to see a horror-metal concert?
The Animal Warfare Act is no Taylor Swift with fans waiting hours to pay exorbitant prices on Ticketmaster, which is now being investigated for anticompetitive practices. And horror metal, which combines heavy-metal with gory imagery and lyrics, lacks the currency of more popular genres like hip-hop, pop and indie music.
But much to the band members’ relief, fans not only braved the cold, but they came decked out in the full spirit of the band’s brand with dark clown makeup and outfits consisting of fishnets, chunky black boots and all-black clothing accented with white or red.
Soon, the floors were wet with snow from the outside, and fans were hugging the stage, dancing frenetically, banging heads and forming mosh pits.
The Animal Warfare Act has been performing in Toronto for two years now and has made a name for itself in the local heavy-metal scene. The band has also begun to play in neighbouring cities in Ontario, trying to build a fan base in a genre that is not mainstream.
“I want to play for bigger audiences and have better quality music, but before that I want to work on getting our numbers up. Just more promotion and press on our end,” said Manus.
Clas Nader, the owner of Futhark Records, a heavy-metal store in Toronto’s east end, said that going mainstream in heavy metal isn’t easy. The last time heavy metal was considered mainstream was in the 1980s when bands were releasing music that was easier to categorize into popular music at the time.
“They were releasing music that had clean singing. Their lyrics were comprehensible, the music was not as extreme, and it was more melodic. I think people found that easier to relate to,” said Nader.
But the genre is far from disappearing. Nader says that his business has been growing thanks to social media. Through his online presence, he has been able to attract many heavy-metal music lovers eager to visit his store as it is the only heavy-metal record store in the city.
To attract more fans, members of The Animal Warfare Act say they aim to provide audiences an experience that’s more than listening to music. Fans know the band members, Manus, Cormac and Brocksom by their nicknames Cuddlebunny, Corndog and Catscratch, respectively, and the trio appear on stage wearing animal face masks, made by the band members themselves and matching the physical appearance of their animalistic character, but with a horror, heavy-metal twist.
The band members also integrate props throughout their performance.
At the Baby G during the song, “Guilty Pleasure, Innocent Pain,” CuddleBunny bit down on a red rose as he continued to play his guitar. He took the rose out of his mouth and held it up in the air, pointing to the crowd to see who would be the lucky one to catch it. The crowd screamed and hands rose in the air with anticipation to seize the flower.
Their closing song, “Hecates Trance,” featured CuddleBunny reaching into a bucket onstage and pulling out a mangled fake gorilla head on a silver chain. His bandmates continued to play behind him as he raised it up into the air and kissed it. He screamed with excitement at the crowd and held it up once again, before lowering it back down into the bucket.
Manus, the band’s founder, has high hopes for his band’s success.
“We have a developed theme, artistry, and image. I just want it to get better. I never want it to change, just improve,” he said.
Manus was inspired to start his band after his parents took him to a KISS concert in Vancouver when he was 10. KISS’ loud, metal music and theatrics, as well as the energy from the crowd left an indelible impression on Manus, and inspired Manus to one day create his own band that audiences could enjoy visually as well as musically.
“I started to understand that there is so much depth when it comes to performing and how to play live. I wanted the audience to have that same experience of nothing but energy and excitement. It was about more than just music when I created the band.” said Manus.
Twelve years later, during the beginning of the pandemic, Manus asked his brother to play the drums for an album recording that would come to be The Animal Warfare Act’s first album, The Doomsday Tapes. From there, the brotherly duo stuck together as the core members of the band. Manus added Brocksom into the band as the bassist in 2021.
With heavy metal not being a prominent aspect of mainstream music today, the band recognizes their challenges while working towards success. Cormac said the lack of success with new heavy metal artists is somewhat worrisome when thinking about the band’s future.
“Most metal artists today aren’t playing huge shows or living the rockstar lifestyle, so it’s a little hard to think about your future when you don’t know what will happen,” says Cormac.
But even genres like horror metal that have such a narrow following have room to advance in a music industry dominated by lighter genres than metal, according to Doug Elliott, executive programmer and radio show host of Toronto’s 94.9 The Rock.
“The music industry is constantly changing. Songs of all genres can make the top charts. Yes the metal genre is very specific, but as long as you have good music there’s always a possibility to succeed.” said Elliott.
The genre’s multiple layers of metal music make it more accessible to listeners of all musical backgrounds, as there are different sounds for each categorization of metal.
“Heavy metal has so many genres that people are going to listen to. I think, overall, people are getting more into it as new generations grow up and begin listening,” said Nader.
At the venue, balloons of various colours were lined along the stage as an eerie clown-themed backdrop hung in the background, displaying the clear essence of the “scary circus” that the venue and the band had promised audiences in their advertising.
As the band neared the end of its performance, Cormac got up from behind his drumset and took a single drum with him as he approached the front of the stage. He picked up a prop in the shape of a bone and put one foot up on the speaker. He played the rest of the act with the bone, his bandmates continuing to play their guitars beside him, while the crowd continued to dance. Fans threw their hands into the air and cheered for the band as they finished their final song of the night.