It’s been an extraordinary time for metal music these past 12 months, one of the best years this writer has seen since the 1980s, and looking back at the veritable flood of high quality releases to come our way, it’s a staggering prospect to whittle the best of the best down to a list of 40 or 50. At the beginning of the year and as the albums started pouring in, though, it quickly became abundantly clear that two record labels were going to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.
As far as high profile albums go, Relapse Records is the clear winner, but then again, with a roster as strong as theirs, anything less than a very strong year from the Philadelphia label would have been an outright failure. With such 2007 releases as the Dillinger Escape Plan, Pig Destroyer, Baroness, High on Fire, Cephalic Carnage, Rwake, Minsk, the End, Coliseum, and Car Bomb, everyone knew Relapse was going to dominate, and to their credit, not to mention that of the artists, they delivered in a huge, huge way. However, while Relapse deserves the bulk of attention from the year-end metal critics’ lists, the real story of 2007 has been the unexpected rise of a small Canadian record label from an obscure vinyl imprint to arguably the finest purveyor of avant-garde extreme music going right now.
Profound Lore Records first turned heads late last year with the funereal doom dirges of Asunder’s Works Will Come Undone, but little did we know that it would be a teaser for even bigger things to come. Ten full-length albums were released by the label in 2007, all of them exceptional, each vastly different, each containing some of the most thrilling, challenging, genre-defying music of the year. Wold’s Screech Owl combined a black metal aesthetic with Canadian prairie folklore and infused it with wave after awe-inspiring wave of blinding white noise. Amber Asylum put an ingeniously dark, gothic twist on neoclassical music with Still Point. The Angelic Process delivered a punishing, yet highly melodic take on ambient drone metal on Weighing Souls With Sand. Cobalt’s Eater of Birds combined the innovation of US black metal with the more aggressive, classicist influence of the Scandinavian sound.
The haunting ambient soundscapes of Pulsefear’s harrowing Perichoresis were accentuated by touches of jarring industrial touches. Caïna’s diverse Mourner marked the emergence of Andrew Curtis-Brignell as a major talent in Satanic black metal. Atavist brought a melodic sensibility to its brand of suffocating sludge/doom, and the Howling Wind went completely old school on us, bringing back memories early ‘80s Hellhammer and early ‘90s Darkthrone. Australian eccentrics Portal put out the creepiest album of the year with the enthrallingly disturbing Outre, while conversely, the innocence and shameless romance of Alcest’s majestic Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde left listeners devastated by its beauty.
“It’s an eclectic kind of repertoire from the past year, different styles, but it’s cool because they all fit under the same banner in a way,” says label proprietor Chris Bruni. “Amber Asylum and Portal are two different entities, but in my eyes I think they fit under this aesthetic umbrella, and that they can relate to each other. That’s what I’m trying to achieve with the releases.”
Operating out of the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario, the 30-year-old Bruni does everything himself, from seeking out and signing bands to shipping out mail orders from his website, ProFoundLorerecords.com, and it’s his vision, not to mention his incredible knack for uncovering strange yet fascinating musical talent, that has quickly propelled his label to the heights of such cutting edge peers as Southern Lord and Hydra Head.
“It’s kind of weird because now my own personal tastes have become very, very tunnel-visioned, even though I have this eclectic roster of sorts, with different styles,” he acknowledges. “In one way, someone can objectively see it as, ‘This guy is very open-minded to this music,’ but at the same time, I’m really not. I’ve actually become more selective of what I like and what I listen to these days, since getting entrenched in this label. I’m engrossed in my releases, I keep listening to them and luckily I’m not getting sick of them. When I hear other albums, there are very, very few albums that really stick with me…I get even more tunnel-visioned and pickier, because good is not enough.”
Profound Lore’s inception was typically low-key, but it wasn’t long before Bruni’s passion for innovative music steered the imprint towards the direction it’s heading in now, having since taken over the helm from his former collaborators. “Basically it started off with a few partners. I had nothing really going, I was working a crap job at Blockbuster Video,” he says. “I had a bunch of money saved up and I decided to help out, and things just took off from there. In the beginning it was a quote-unquote vinyl label, and I got stubborn, I was like, ‘There’s no challenge to it anymore, everyone’s pitching vinyl,’ so I wanted to see what it’s like to release a CD and nurture a band through that. It’s cool because we got a reputation doing vinyl, working with certain bands, so that helped build it up a little bit. But I wanted to get rid of the whole vinyl label tag.
“I can’t have any partners,” he continues. “I don’t want to say my musical tastes are better than anyone else’s, but it’s just the way I listen to music that I can only understand a certain aesthetic. A partner would only taint the vision of the label. I can’t deal with that. That’s why I see the Asunder release as a turning point. It was the first or one of the first releases without a partner; that’s why I say October 31st of 2006 was the turning point for the label. That’s when the Asunder album came out, that’s where it’s free of any partners or any of that crap, now I know the focus of where I want to go, without anyone trying to get in the way of it.”
Profound Lore’s wave of new releases has been greeted with a slew of high praise, from underground metal fanzines, to blogs, to influential glossy publications like Terrorizer and Decibel, to popular webzines with much broader readerships like PopMatters and Pitchfork, but while deeply appreciative of the good press, it’s the steadily growing word of mouth that Bruni is most counting on.
“Good reviews alone don’t help album sales,” he admits. “What’s helping album sales right now is touring, and that’s why you see a lot of these shitty metalcore bands selling… they’re on bigger labels obviously, but what really sells the copies is their touring, no matter how many bad reviews they get. All these other bigger labels are almost in bed with each other, so if a big tour comes down, they’ll all get together to put their bands on together. I’m a smaller label, I can only do so much, I barely have any connections for touring. I’m kind of on the outside of that. It’s all about who you know, if you know another band who wants to take you on tour, that’s what I have to depend on. If Cobalt toured, they would have been on the last High on Fire North American tour. That’s what I’ve got to depend on.”
Of the ten 2007 releases, three titles specifically stand out. On Caïna’s Mourner, the 20 year-old Curtis-Brignell sounds mature beyond his years, his worldly, soulful perspective on LaVeyan Satanism and Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic Magick meshing beautifully with such seemingly disparate influences as folk, lo-fi black metal, abstract drone, and moody early-‘80s goth. According to Bruni, despite the brave, bold finished product, Mourner‘s metamorphosis was much more gradual than most would think.
“I heard his previous album, which I thought was cool, and I thought there was more promise to it. And he sent me a CD-R of six songs off Mourner, there were rough takes of them. At the time he said some other label was going to release Mourner, but he still sent me this track and I listened to it… I was kind of helping him out, guiding him on where he should put these, and the label that was supposed to release it fell off the face of the earth or whatever, and I said ‘Hey, how about I release it?’ He was psyched about it, and wanted to add a few more songs, so a lot of Mourner came together in different segments. He’d say, ‘I have this one song, can I add it?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s add it,’ and that’s how Mourner pretty much worked out. There were different pieces he had that were pieced together, whereas the album he’s recording now is going to be more continuous. I’ve just heard these rough demos, and they sound incredible. I’m really psyched about the next Caïna album, that’ll be coming out in September or October.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, and actually from the other side of the world, hails Portal, a bizarre Australian outfit bent on bringing the death back to death metal. Outré is astonishing in its lavish art design, the band’s genuinely frightening visual presentation, and especially its stifling mix and lurching pace. “When I saw the cover to the Portal album I almost fell off my chair,” says Bruni. “I think it has to be one of the most disturbing, weird images I’ve ever laid eyes on, so I’m kind of proud to have an album with that image on it.
“Portal was recommended to me by someone, and I checked out their web page, which aesthetically blew me away, so I decided to re-release Seepia. I thought it would take off a little more, I was a bit naïve at the time, but I think it took a while for new fans to kind of get it. A lot of people didn’t. That’s the whole point behind Portal. The band creates a lot of conversation, so there are a lot of opposing views for people in the middle to think about. That’s the whole point of the band, it’s confrontational, it’s supposed to provoke, it’s supposed to create some sort of dialog. It’s very important to provoke, it’s a necessity in a way to push the limits, to challenge, to push it as far as you can, and that’s what bands like Portal and Wold do.
“A lot of death metal fans won’t get Portal because it’s too extreme for them. Good, Portal’s not for them. No disrespect to the guy who likes technical death metal, the digitally processed, triggered, brutal singing, but Portal is not for them. If somebody in the indie scene would hear Portal and starts to freak out over it… I don’t want to be an elitist. But if some trendy death metal fan blows off Portal because it’s not produced well enough, then fuck off, they’re not for you, don’t waste my time. I’ll be like that to them,” he laughs.
The real jewel of Profound Lore’s repertoire, and the one title with the biggest crossover potential, is Alcest’s Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde. A one-man project by French black metal artist Stéphane Paut, who goes by the moniker Neige, Alcest sees him all but shedding his black metal past in favor of something much more pastoral, warmer, and optimistic. With lyrics that are more preoccupied with the beauty of nature than the usual icy darkness and misanthropy that dominates so much black metal, and with arrangements that come close to matching the dense yet understated beauty of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive, the album’s emotional power is undeniable. It hit Bruni immediately, and his dogged pursuit of the distribution rights ultimately landed him the coup of the year.
“I pretty much had my eye on Alcest for months,” he says. “I heard the two [MySpace] samples, and I was immediately sold, blown away, and I told him I want to release the album. He said he already signed a deal, I just didn’t know which label it was. For a few months I was think of what label he’d signed to, if he signed with a label in Europe, because then I could license it for North America. Literally I’d go [to his website] to see who he signed with or what kind of updates [he’d posted], and I was at home when Prophecy announced it, and immediately within minutes I took action right away. At the time they were kind of evasive about it because a previous deal with a label didn’t work out well, but I made them a generous offer. I was really determined to get it… I can think of one label who for sure regretted not getting it, but we’ll leave it at that,” he adds with a laugh.
“It’s not a dark album at all,” Bruni muses. “It paints this fantasy world or realm I wish I lived in, free of corruption, free of pain and suffering, I think it’s the kind of plateau where a lot of us want to reach. But again, it’s only a fantasy-like realm… this may sound naïve, but I hope I can reach this sort of kingdom, but it definitely won’t be in this lifetime. Interestingly, the original cover to the Souvenirs album wasn’t the little girl, it was actually this really gorgeous cover, with an older girl, it’s a close-up of her and she’s wandering through a field, and there’s a shimmering light shining behind her, and that original cover portrayed this amazing mood by looking at this image. That cover shows that kingdom, where this girl was coming from, and when you listen to it, you get transported to it in a way. I guess that’s why it’s personal. It’s a kingdom where you yearn to grasp or dwell within.
“I was surprised a lot of black metal kids were into it,” he continues. “There’re a lot of people who can relate to it. I don’t know if it’s because of Stéphane’s black metal background…maybe that draws the kids from the black metal scene towards it. At first I was like, ‘Well, he’s a one man band who doesn’t play live and sings in French’… In a way I’m not surprised, it’s gorgeous music, but it’s quite amazing how it’s caught on. I think a lot of hard-edged kids can relate to that. I’ve seen a lot of that.”
Having such a diverse group of artists has led to Profound Lore’s biggest early success: nimbly avoiding the stereotype that goes with any particular sound or scene. Though its roots are in extreme metal, the label has in a short period branched out beyond that one sound, and while metal releases will always be a part of Profound Lore’s oeuvre (Indiana doomsters Gates of Slumber will attract a fair share of hype in the New Year), Bruni’s sights are set on a much more diverse audience.
Operating such a small label, he knows he has to make that crossover one listener at a time, but it’s growing steadily. “A bigger label might think three or 4,000 in sales is not that much, but for me, that would be a huge success,” he says. “So now I’m at that point where I can sell 1,000 releases comfortably, and we can then build that up a bit more to 2,000, because it’s such a niche market in a way, a market in where you have to build this reputation slowly but surely.
“I’m not really concerned with being a metal label,” he admits. “Every kind of scene or label has a stereotype. The indie crowd, the quote-unquote hipster crowds or whatever, to have the label progress and grow, those are the kind of crowds I have to penetrate. I have to tap into those crowds. A lot of these indie music crowds are not really hipsters or anything, but they’re intelligent listeners. I want to attract open-minded listeners; they may discover a band like Amber Asylum, and maybe they can discover a band like Atavist. I just have to build this reputation where every release I put out, people are going to know it’s quality.
“For your readership, PopMatters, Pitchfork, Paperthinwalls, that crowd is definitely the key to expanding the label. These listeners who appreciate it would freak out if they hear something as blacked-out as Wold, freak out in a good way. That’s what I want.”