“Ding dong! The witch is dead,” trumpeted the crowds, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met her maker in April this year. Thatcher was, understandably, a deeply unpopular politician, and plenty of celebrations were held as the ‘Iron Lady’ headed off to rust in her grave. A great deal of social unrest accompanied Thatcher’s long term in office, but we do have her reign to thank for firing up the vitriolic engines of some great UK bands. And, as it happens, for kickstarting one of the best record labels in existence.
London-based Rise Above Records marks its 25th birthday this year. The independent label was founded by then grindcore guttersnipe Lee Dorrian, former vocalist of Napalm Death, and lead singer of recently laid to rest doom colossus Cathedral. Dorrian first drew on funds provided by the UK Enterprise Allowance Scheme to get Rise Above Records off the ground in 1988, and there’s something utterly delightful about the Baroness’s government contributing to the birth of a label full of unruly rock ‘n’ roll artists—she would have been shocked and appalled by every last one of them.
Dorrian’s original plan for Rise Above was to issue a few hardcore 7-inches. However, 25 years later, Rise Above has a substantial and eclectic history of releases behind it, many of them highly collectable. The label’s artists have delivered doom, sludge, traditional and proto-metal releases. There’s also been plenty of progressive and psychedelic rock, as well as all manner of mixing of hazy, hell-bound, and heavenly points in between.
The success of Rise Above comes down to Dorrian’s history as an avid record collector, and he puts his appreciation of aesthetics and sonics to work by exhibiting meticulous care in many of Rise Above’s CD and vinyl releases. In 2006, Rise Above Relics was established, a subsidiary label dedicated to releasing artists from the underground ‘60s and ‘70s rock and folk scenes. That’s resulted in wonderful releases from bands well worth (re)discovering, such as grim folk act Comus, heavy psych group Luv Machine, doom titan Necromandus, steely rocker Bang, and fantastic prog-naut Steel Mill.
While Relics takes care of the vintage finery, Rise Above’s roster includes a host of well regarded metal and rock artists. Many of the label’s artists are co-released in the US, on labels such as Metal Blade, and in its time, Rise Above has introduced us to a raft of significant artists—see Electric Wizard, Grand Magus, Witchcraft, Orange Goblin, and Ghost, for a start.
The label was well ahead of the curve in signing artists that captured the creative spirit of ‘70s hard rock and metal, and Rise Above has grow organically, avoiding the stain of following whatever happens to be trendy at the time. The complete list of Rise Above’s releases thus far makes for a very impressive catalogue, but not every release is a pièce de résistance. As with any label, clunkers are to be found. However, overall, Rise Above’s success rate at introducing interesting artists is formidable, and there have been infinitely more applauded releases than misfires over the past 25 years.
A lot of the focus on Dorrian recently has centered on the demise of his long-running doom band, Cathedral. While it was sad to see the band end this year, on the plus side, Dorrian now has more time to concentrate on Rise Above. His philosophy for the label has always been straightforward. “We have just always aimed to put out good rock records.” Rise Above put that theory into action with its first release, a 1989 live 7-inch from Napalm Death, soon followed by releases from Japanese hardcore band S.O.B.
However, as Cathedral gained momentum in the ‘90s, hardcore fell from Dorrian’s sights, and Rise Above began digging deeper into the stonking rock and magma-thick doom. Releases from hulking riff-worshipers Penance, Mourn and Revelation marked out Rise Above’s position early on, but it was 1995 debuts from Electric Wizard and Orange Goblin that truly put the label on the ‘eavy map.
Rise Above has issued a slew of weighty recordings over the years. Some, in the label’s early history, came via shared deals with other labels, such as Man’s Ruin or Southern Lord, while many more were provided by handpicked Rise Above signings. Many of those are well worth seeking out today, and high on that list would be releases from cult UK stoner/doom four-piece Sally, Canadian Sabbath-obsessive Sheavy, and dead and buried sludge instrumentalist Capricorn.
Rise Above’s history is scattered with obscure and interesting releases, and while the whiff of hidden gems from the past is all very fitting given Dorrian’s record-collecting compulsions, the label obviously looks to the future, too.
Age of Taurus
Recent releases from bands such as Moss, Witchsorrow, and Age of Taurus point to the label actively seeking wielders of monstrous riffs. Rise Above has also corralled a few legends along the way, with a grand return from NWOBHM hero Angel Witch, on 2012’s As Above, So Below, and long-running US doom band Iron Man’s recent album, South of the Earth.
Of course, a few notably heavy releases over the years have been pivotal in Rise Above’s success. Some might pick doom giant Electric Wizard’s 1997 album, Come My Fanatics…, as a landmark release (and it is), but other releases also stand out as confirming the label’s ‘eavier reputation, too.
Every album from Electric Wizard has added to the band’s status as a scruffy-necked, unyielding godhead at the gates of doom. However, 2000’s Dopethrone is the definitive album from the original trio of guitarist and vocalist Jus Oborn, bassist Tim Bagshaw, and drummer Mark Greening (who recently returned to the band’s ranks).
Dopethrone is, unquestionably, one of the heaviest albums to have ever come out of England, and it’s one of the best metal albums, period. It contains some of the densest doom metal in existence, diving into abrasive downtuned depths, and grinding through monolithic and murderous psychedelia. Add in Electric Wizard’s reputation for copious consumption of illicit substances; all those cult film references; wall-of-noise VOLUME; and skull-splitting dirges like “Funeralopolis”, “Barbarian”, and “I, the Witchfinder”; and you’ve got a stone(r) cold classic that was a milestone release for the band, and for Rise Above.
Dopethrone wasn’t the only crucial release to mark 2000 as an important year for Rise Above. Also released that year was Sheavy’s Celestial Hi-Fi, and Orange Goblin’s third full-length, The Big Black.
You could argue endlessly about which Orange Goblin release on Rise Above is the band’s best, but The Big Black is its most significant. It marks the endpoint of the band’s space/stoner metal phase, before it became a diesel-fuelled outlaw on 2002’s Coup de Grace.
Everything fell into place for Orange Goblin on The Big Black. The band’s songwriting skills were sealed on the opening mind-bender “Scorpionica”, and the heaving psychotropic jaunts that followed allowed the band to step out from the shadow of bands like Kyuss. Orange Goblin has produced great albums since The Big Black, but never anything as perfectly plugged into a triple dose of head-banging, arm-flailing and ass-shaking quite like this.
Church of Misery
Six thousand miles away from Orange Goblin’s abode, Tokyo-based Church of Misery had been busy dishing out a double dose of murder since the mid-‘90s. The first homicidal element to the band is its twisted obsession with serial killers and mass-murderers, and the second killer component, well, that’s obviously the band’s cranium-crushing sound.
Church of Misery released one of 2013’s best metal albums on Rise Above, with Thy Kingdom Scum. However, in 2009, the band’s first recording for the label, Houses of the Unholy, brought both the band and the label a big boost. Church of Misery was known in the doom underground before Houses of the Unholy‘s release. The band’s 2001 debut, Master of Brutality, had got the band off to an all-blunts-blazing start, but it took till Houses of the Unholy for the band to perfect its mix of fuzzed-out and overdriven doom, throbbing psych, and vocal insanity.
Much of Houses of the Unholy‘s success came down to singer Hideki Fukasawa, who aptly howled bloody murder on the album. But, the rest of the band executed all the earth-shaking instrumentation with unhinged aggression, and while swampy rock ‘n’ roll features heavily in Church of Misery’s sound, as sluggish and sinister as Houses of the Unholy is, it couldn’t disguise the band’s finesse.
As loud, loutish, and ear-splitting as many of Rise Above’s releases are, there’s also another side to the label. Dorrian has always been vocal about his love of hard, progressive, and/or hallucinogenic rock, and there’s a raft of artists on Rise Above’s roster who, while very energetic, aren’t as elephantine as the label’s heavier hitters.
London-based Firebird, founded by Carcass guitarist and vocalist Bill Steer, dishes out groovy and smokey hard rock, and has recorded a number of entertaining albums for Rise Above. You’ll also find flashes of catchy hard and garage rock brilliance in Swedish band Troubled Horse (formed by ex and current members of Witchcraft), along with fellow retro-rocking Swede, Horisont, who released a galloping good time with Time Warriors this year.
Out on the freakier fringes, acts like Purson and Hidden Masters have cooked up fantastically psychedelic brews for Rise Above of late, drawing inspiration from the ‘60s and ‘70s outsider rock and pop scenes. Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s full-length debut for Rise Above, 2012’s Don’t Hear It!! Fear It!!, is one of the label’s best releases to sup from the pool of vintage sonic arts. However, when it comes to Rise Above’s revivalists, one act has found itself hailed far and wide, at least, initially.
Swedish occult rock band Ghost provided Rise Above with a bona fide hit with its 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous. The album was filled with catchy Satanic singsongs, laced with deliciously theatrical and throwback melodies, all performed by hooded underground enigmas, and one very naughty Pope as a frontman.
Opus Eponymous was nominated for a Swedish Grammis Award and received rave reviews, and rock and metal stars aplenty name-dropped Ghost and donned the band’s t-shirts. Of course, then Ghost sold its soul to Satan’s major label representatives right here on earth for 2013’s follow-up, Infestissumam. That decision tweaked a few fans’ giblets, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Opus Eponymous is an exemplary debut full of expertly crafted songs, all rooted in old-school momentum, and infernal rituals.
The Devil never sounded more attractive than on Ghost’s debut, but Rise Above artist Blood Ceremony does the ‘70s occult rock exceptionally well, too. Cut with upbeat and vintage acid rock—thanks, in part, to front-woman Alia O’Brien’s flute solos and organ jams—the band has recorded three Satan-praising albums for Rise Above, and each has been better than the last.
Rise Above found retro-rock success first with celebrated Swedish band, Witchcraft. Formed in 2000, the band was quickly signed to Rise Above, and produced three albums for the label: 2004’s Witchcraft, 2005’s Firewood and 2007’s The Alchemist. Much like Electric Wizard, you’d be hard pressed to pick which of Witchcraft’s Rise Above releases is the best—just imbibe all, if you’ve not already.
Each album is firmly rooted in old school analog rock, mixing the vibe and vibrations of Pentagram, the 13th Floor Elevators, and a folksier (and jazzier) Black Sabbath. Authenticity is the key for Witchcraft, and recording its debut in a basement on vintage gear helped send the band (and listeners) back in time. Witchcraft’s rich and hooky songwriting evokes the tone, temper, and animation of ‘70s rock perfectly and a raft of half-baked retro-rock acts have subsequently searched for the seam Witchcraft unearthed.
One thing that’s obvious from Rise Above’s signing of Witchcraft is that the label has a knack for getting in early with bands that have produced tremendous works in their genre.
You can add Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats to that list. The band found itself under the gaze of enthusiastic fans with the release of 2013’s psych ‘n’ roll mini-masterpiece Mind Control. However, the UK band’s previous effort, Blood Lust—originally issued on Killer Candy Records in 2011, then reissued by Rise Above in 2012—is just as much fun, or maybe more so.
Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats’ debut, 2010’s Vol. 1, was a blast of crude and chilling psych, but Blood Lust stripped any vestiges of hippie happiness from its fuzzy rock. Sure, there were lighter trills and melodies scattered about, but Blood Lust was dark, real dark. It saw flower power gleefully stomped on by garage rock and proto-metal—and then thrown in a Wickerman and burnt to a crisp.
From chainsaw opener “I’ll Cut You Down” to poppy murder scene “I’m Here to Kill You” and the witchy Sabbath glorification of “Withered Hand of Evil”, Blood Lust bludgeoned with raw rock and unnerved with eerie B-movie horror. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats was clearly inspired by a long list of the same wicked artists that many other bands orbiting its sound revered, yet the best thing about Blood Lust was that it managed to sound wholly unique.
Wickedness aside, Rise Above also has a keen ear for progressive and cosmic rock, and the label has a few excellent bands, such as stargazer Litmus, and the jazzier Diagonal, on its books.
However, it’s San Diego-based Astra that really blew minds with its stunning progressive rock debut for Rise Above, 2009’s The Weirding. The band’s follow-up, 2012’s The Black Chord, was even better—about as close to prog perfection as you can get. The album hearkened back to the original root of progressive rock (with Yes, King Crimson and Pink Floyd all getting a mention) and was drenched in Mellotron, Moog, and hypnotic riffing, all wrapped in a full and fuzzy analog production.
Heavier tracks brought the grunt of space rock and proto metal, pure psychedelic bliss was achieved along the way, and serpentine jams were thoroughly indulged. The Black Chord was a crucial release in contemporary prog circles, and once again a major coup for Rise Above.
Painting a picture of some of Rise Above’s releases leaves an awful lot of colorful treasures undisturbed. There’s as much tuning in and dropping out as drop-tuning and whigging out to be found on the label, and, as mentioned, underrated gems lurk on Rise Above’s catalogue. For instance, Black Clouds in Twin Galaxies by acid-doomster Winters, or the sheer insanity of the “glam clad death disco” found on Chrome Hoof’s Beyond Zade EP.
Upcoming, in late December, Rise Above is celebrating its 25th anniversary with two nights of what is sure to be riotous rock ‘n’ roll at London’s Garage venue. So, if you’re in town, you know where to go. All that remains to be said is simply, Cheers, Rise Above. Thanks for a quarter century of top-grade doom, psychedelia, and screeching guitars. Happy 25th birthday. Long may you reign.
"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…READ the article