“I don’t want to die without any scars.”
—Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
On 11 September 2012, Hydra Head Records founder Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom etc) announced the label’s “imminent demise”. After 19 years of genre-expanding experi-metal and all manner of off-kilter endeavors, Hydra Head will stop releasing new material very soon, turning its operations over to selling as much of its back catalogue as possible to repay its debts. As Turner explained, “Years of imbalance between creative ideals and financial realities, personal problems amongst the label operators, an unwillingness to compromise our aesthetic standards, a tendency towards releasing challenging (ie unmarketable) artists, and the steady decline of the music industry in general, are amongst the chief reasons for our inability to continue.”
The demise of Hydra Head is a tragedy for all concerned, and it’s a shock to find the iconic label at death’s door, especially as it seemed so robust with a stream of great releases this year. Throughout its existence Hydra Head has released wildly varying artistic statements on ‘heaviness’, offered safe harbor to confrontational artists, and sketched a template that umpteen labels have followed. There’s a strong sense of aesthetic integrity to a Hydra Head release, and strong trust between the label, artists and fans. Hydra Head’s cross-pollination of the metal scene with noise, hardcore, and avant-garde sounds has been crucial in broadening metal’s cultural and musical parameters.
The list of Hydra Head artists who’ve released influential albums runs long: Torche, Kayo Dot, Pelican, Xasthur, Cave In, Botch, Coalesce, Mare, Nihill, Helms Alee, Harvey Milk, Isis, Converge, Jesu, Oxbow, Keelhaul, among others. And let’s not forget offshoots Hydra Head Noise Industries—with releases from Sunn O))), Merzbow and others—and Tortuga Recordings, with artists such as Scissorfight, Old Man Gloom and 5ive.
Tributes from fans, label owners and artists poured in as soon as Turner posted his statement, with many crediting Hydra Head’s unwaveringly idiosyncratic vision as hugely inspirational. Heading over to Hydra Head’s website to purchase a little something or three will help ease the label’s passing into the night, and is a great way to say thanks. However, before you go, here at Mixturam Metallum we wanted to express our gratitude to Hydra Head for providing us with endless deafening and imaginative audio experiences over the years.
The following is a list of 10 Hydra Head releases that have meant a lot to us personally. It’s important to note that this is not a ‘best of’ list by any means (that would be thrice as large), it’s simply a tip of the hat to the label for two decades of colossal noise and creativity.
HH, thank you, we salute you.
We Are the Romans is a heart-stopping expression of cerebral fury as high-end art, without any trace of pretentiousness. It’s a record borne of disassociated musicians, frustrated with the jockular hardcore scene at the time, who longed to create something distinctive—something tangible within the reach of their escalating technical abilities. The shards of brilliance that Botch blinded us with on their Hydra Head debut American Nervoso, shattered into sensory overload in Technicolor on We Are the Romans. Revolutionary in its vibrancy and diversity, the coruscating riffs of Dave Knudson—whose technique instilled hardcore with the difficult time signatures of jazz and the virtuosic flair of a young Eddie Van Halen—grate against the raw neuroma of Brian Cook’s heavy-set bass-lines and Tim Latona’s intricate but no less powerful beats and fills; not to mention the bloodied, expressive roar of Dave Verellen—who maintains the authority of a pissed drill sergeant throughout. We Are the Romans breathes and spits vitriolic fire through precise, inventive song-writing and comes engrained with a sly sense of humour—something that was (is) absent from the muscular hardcore scene—making this hardcore record an often emulated, but never exceeded (nor equalled), stone-cold classic part of Hydra Head’s legacy and the legacy of ground-breaking metal in general.—Dean Brown
When you think about Hydra Head, it’s often the label’s sludge and post-hardcore innovators that spring to mind. But Hydra Head also released the debut (The Grimmrobe Demos) and sophomore album (ØØ Void) from highly respected über-dronelords Sunn O))). The Grimmrobe Demos was originally issued in a batch of 500 copies, and as Sunn O)))‘s initial recorded foray it adhered closely to the band’s original vision of being an extremely murky Earth tribute band (note third track “Dylan Carlson”). As such, The Grimmrobe Demos is a rudimentary and crushing crawl. With no illuminating effects or vocals, the album’s three tracks (ranging from 15 to 21 minutes each) are rumbling, subterranean, cyclical drones. Dark, grim and challenging, Sunn O)))‘s core duo, guitarist Stephen O’Malley and bassist Greg Anderson, are at their purest, minus the orchestral sweep and multiple guest roles that would flesh out the band’s sound on later albums. Here there is nothing but monolithic downtuned minimalism, where layers of filthy six- and four-string reverb decompose in a low-end swamp. It’s either a revelation of the third eye opening, or a sordid exploration for the elusive brown note—you choose. Both no doubt make for similar experiences in the end.—Craig Hayes
Named after the assassinated American politician and gay rights activist, Harvey Milk is a perfect example of Hydra Head’s penchant for signing artists that defy convention; a band kindred in untameable spirit only to the Melvins. Life… The Best Game in Town arrived in 2008 and scared the hell out of those who have the misfortune of making its acquaintance. It’s a record that toys with emotion, moving from tenderness to sheer ugliness—and that is only on the frightening opener “Death Goes to the Winner”. The rest of the album works to a similar effect, testing the limits of the listeners’ nervous system through gnarly noise rock riffs with a blues soul, bruising rhythms and Creston Spiers’ feral howl/deranged roar, creating a sludge rock album that is obstinate in its quest for non-conformity. Instead of stepping in line, with Life… The Best Game in Town Harvey Milk step straight off the precipice and spill their guts for all to see. The aftermath is beautiful, but disturbing, and entirely human. Reject commercialism and embrace provocative displays of individuality as art. Hydra Head have, and so should you.—DB
Back in the halcyon old guitar-slingin’ days of 2003, Chicago, Illinois quartet Pelican dropped its debut full-length Australasia. The band’s tectonic instrumental metal sounded like mountainsides collapsing onto glaciers, resulting in tsunamis of dazzling and destructive riffs. These days, explosions of crust-shaking metal are all very familiar, but tracks from Australasia, like “Nightendday” and “Angel Tears”, heaved instrumental metal into innovative realms of epic proportion. Although Australasia reveals a debt to Isis and Neurosis—with tacky guitar parts drawn from a slurry of sludge, doom, drone and post-metal—Pelican arrived fully formed on its 2001 demo. While the band went on to greater success with albums such as The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw and City of Echoes etc, the raw, ripping potential it showed on its first album is outstandingly visceral. The album was recorded under stressful constraints (you can feel that tension in its pitch and sway) and its organic manner is extraordinary—it effortlessly switches from gloomy to glowing, dirge-like to dynamic, and from layered to laid bare. Post-rock and indie fans delighted in Australasia as much as metal aficionados, but its wide appeal required no artistic sacrifice. It’s as heavy and proud of its barbs today as it ever was.—CH