It might seem absurd to suggest that metal has an uneasy relationship with its own success, given that it’s generally accompanied by such thunderous adulation. However, there’s often a tense standoff in the metal underground around how it should celebrate its accomplishments. Although swaths of fans gather to extol metal’s glories at festivals such as the recent Maryland Deathfest, the deeper you descend into metal’s subterranean tiers, the more the prospect of widespread recognition becomes abhorrent. A fair proportion of underground metal fans take an extremely dim view of anyone’s ego being buffed, however inadvertently.
Some fans would argue that the existence of a column such as this is the antithesis of underground metal’s raison d’être. There’s sound logic behind that. Keeping metal’s victories close to the chest reinforces its bonds of community, that tight-knit kinship being the root of its strength. Others disagree, arguing that isolationism is a manacle. They believe there’s nothing inherently wrong in publically celebrating underground metal’s often innovative artistry, and that an obsession with kvltdom is ridiculous, considering the umpteen million global fans whose very presence seems to negate metal’s ‘outsider’ status.
It all makes for a conflicting, though hardly unique, situation. The ‘popularity versus credibility’ battle is one that all challenging music faces daily, and it makes for an interesting quandary in the shadowy world of metal–how does one evolve without compromising one’s integrity?
At the Helm of the Abyss
One of the best answers to that question can be found in the works of independent Canadian metal label, Profound Lore. The label is about to reach a significant milestone in July, with its 100th release, and while the label’s triumphs are by no means a secret, its reputation and integrity remain rock solid.
Founded in 2004 by Chris Bruni and his now former partners, Profound Lore has had abundant positive press since its inception. Its releases are widely celebrated and anticipated, and its artists have been covered by metal and non-metal media alike. They’ve been streamed on NPR (US National Public Radio), and have featured in Scion showcases sponsored by Toyota. However, earlier this year the label had its most public success yet when noise/metal outfit Ken Mode collected the metal/hard music album of the year award for Venerable at Canada’s Juno awards.
You could argue that metal doesn’t need shiny tokens of mainstream acceptance, although it was delightful to see black metal band Watain win a Swedish Grammis in 2011 and round out the acceptance speech with a rousing “Hail Satan”. Generally, aside from metal-specific events, the genre is predictably misrepresented at music ceremonies.
Some European awards occasionally pick a worthy underdog, but the majority of events are so far out of touch with the metal scene that nominations are irrelevant. This made it all the more satisfying that–after some passionate lobbying from metal journalists, fans, and labels–the Juno awards brought back the metal category this year and awarded it to a thoroughly deserving band.
However, Ken Mode’s win wasn’t just a victory for the band, it also threw a spotlight onto Profound Lore, illuminating just how vital this metal label has become over the past eight years.
Since the beginnings of underground metal, the allegiances forged between fans and labels have been essential components to the scene’s resilience. No metal fan will be likely to forget the label that opened the catacombs of metal for them. These days underground metal is extremely popular, it has currency, and some labels have taken to strip-mining the scene. Not so for Profound Lore. It retains that very same sense of trustworthiness on which the underground scene was founded.
Crypt Born and Tethered to Ruin
Profound Lore’s ethos and aesthetic comes from Bruni’s youthful excursions into metal’s crypts, drawing on the formative years of metal labels such as Peaceville and Earache, as well as iconic non-metal labels such as 4AD. Like many niche labels, Profound Lore began as a hobby. Following its first release, Melechesh’s ’04 EP The Ziggurat Scrolls, Bruni and co. expected to release limited edition vinyl.
Reshuffling in the label’s early years resulted in Bruni taking sole charge. Vinyl releases from respected outfits such as Ulver, Agalloch and Leviathan established Profound Lore’s profile, but it was the unorthodox death metal of Australia’s Portal that put the label on the map. Profound Lore reissued the band’s Seepia on CD in ’05, and Portal is now one of its most respected acts. Although Seepia was a hard sell initially, it was a crucial release because it revealed the meticulous care with which Bruni would begin to sculpt his label’s roster.
For a young label, an obscure band of reprobates from the Antipodes might have seemed a risky undertaking. But the personal connection Bruni feels with all his artists (the more defiant and artistically distinctive the better) sealed the label’s imprint very early on. That personal motif is something that continues to this day. Certainly, the death metal Profound Lore releases is all equally, magnificently, putrescent and aberrant.
Bruni often cites sludge-ridden doom outfit Asunder’s ’06 release, Works Will Come Undone, as the album that truly birthed Profound Lore. Asunder, though short-lived, had an impact on the metal scene that reverberates to this day, and Works Will Come Undone is notable for setting Profound Lore outside stylistic trends within the metal scene. The label adheres to the steadfast rule that its artists give no ground. If their music happens to coincide with the rise of a particular sub-genre, so be it. Profound Lore has frequently led rather than followed.
The considered rather than calculating momentum of the label’s development is one of the prime reasons why it’s been able to maintain its grassroots integrity while awareness of its success has risen. Plenty of metal labels no doubt started with good intentions, only to get tossed about in the endless wash of trends, sullying their reputations forever. With Profound Lore, Bruni’s decision to release only albums that feel instinctually right, and the absence of gauche marketing, mean its unhurried progression has bolstered its reputation for consistently high-quality metal.
Profound Lore has branched out sonically and thematically since Asunder helped refine its aesthetic goals. Its litany of often genre-defining works is staggering.
Pestilence and Peril
The year 2007 saw the release of acclaimed works from black metal duo Cobalt (Eater of Birds), satanically sophisticated Caïna (Mourner), revered black metal band Krallice (self-titled debut), and spitefully twisted Portal (Outre). In 2008, progressive metal outfit Hammers of Misfortune released its glorious conceptual marathon, Fields and Church of Broken Glass. In the same year, Winterfylleth released the majestic (and contentious) ode to its forbears, The Ghost of Heritage, while blackened-noise behemoth Wold provided an unremitting barrage on Stratification.
Early releases were vital in establishing Profound Lore’s reputation as a label that represented innovative underground artists, but heavyweight doom titan Yob brought the label an entirely new level of recognition. The influential trio from Eugene, Oregon split in 2006, but returned in 2009 with the enormously anticipated and critically lauded The Great Cessation. Further underscoring that year’s importance were releases from Irish rustic black metal band Altar of Plagues (The White Tomb>), Krallice (Dimensional Breakthrough), Portal (Swarth), and Impetuous Ritual (Relentless Execution of Ceremonial Excrescence). Cobalt’s Hemingway-celebrating masterpiece Gin was also released in 2009–an event as important to the label’s visibility as Yob’s rebirth.
And on it went. In 2010 Profound Lore released, among others, the best album from the now sadly defunct Ludicra (The Tenant) and two wonderful traditional metal salvos from Dawnbringer (Nucleus) and Slough Feg (The Animal Spirit). Agalloch returned with the majestic black metal masterwork The Marrow of the Spirit (clearly the metal album of the year, and a turning point in the label’s fortunes and profile). Cobalt multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder also took Profound Lore into new territories. The grim Americana of his Smiling Dogs album, from solo project Man’s Gin, painted a remarkably different landscape for the label.
Surrender to all Life Beyond Form
It’s evident that Profound Lore’s artists are challenging, unconventional and, in the case of Leviathan’s 2011 album True Traitor, True Whore, divisive and controversial. However, for all the extremity of the label’s roster, substantial artistic forethought lurks behind the noise. Let’s be clear, pushing the boundaries is crucial to the rationale of many of these bands. But Bruni’s vision for the label clearly doesn’t undervalue the intelligence of metal fans, or dismiss their need to be challenged in a variety of ways.
Extremity in metal comes wrapped in different sized parcels–not all of which are measured in decibels alone. One of the key factors in Profound Lore’s success has been the diversity of its roster. Some artists may be more genteel than others, but that doesn’t imply their material is less palpable or visceral. As a result, the label’s fans often see no contradiction in listening to both the subtle and the slaughtering.
Take the case of some of 2011’s releases. The refinements of SubRosa (No Help for the Mighty Ones) nestled alongside the gut-wrenching doom of Loss (Despond). The psychedelic sludge of The Atlas Moth ( An Ache for the Distance) met the thuggish death metal of Disma (Towards the Megalith). Yob returned with its most deeply spiritual album (Atma), while death metal acts Mitochondrion (Parasignosis) and Antediluvian (Through the Cervix of Hawaah) trawled the depths of arcane mysticism.
Every one of those albums represents an entirely different strain of underground metal. Some are raw, pustulating ulcers of filth. Others are experimental, fragile or pensive, while some combine textures from throughout the metal spectrum. However, the label’s diversification hasn’t come at the expense of the needs of its audience, quite the opposite. Once, a rigid sense of self-identity may have held fans back from indulging in both the evocative minimalism of Profound Lore’s Worm Ouroboros and avowedly satanic labelmate Avichi. But the label’s credibility has helped broaden the cultural characteristics of metal.
Obviously, Profound Lore is not alone in broadening metal’s scope. Its roster has both mirrored and fostered wider developments in the scene. (Non-metal attributes are integrated throughout metal in a variety of ingenious ways, while conversely, many bands have pared metal back to its malicious root.) The key to Profound Lore’s ability to encompass that broad range of metal and yet remain a cohesive, trustworthy label, comes down to one fundamental factor–its intransigent ethos.
Profound Lore has shown a dogged commitment to nurturing artists of unique vision. However, no matter how musically or lyrically distant they are from one another, the label’s artists have a common disposition that binds them–all are uncompromising in their artistic endeavors. It’s a testament to Bruni’s ironclad philosophy that so many differing, ingenious artists can collectively be gathered under a single banner. Obviously, not everything the label’s released has been universally adored, but if you’re going to hate something, why not hate the best?
Profound Lore’s modus operandi has always been one of carefully paced evolution, rather than a frenzy of slap-dash signings. Many of the label’s artists have been recommended by musicians Bruni respects–those he’s worked with in the past, or those contacting him about possible future ventures. From 2009 to 2011 the label released a raft of albums that represented pinnacle achievements for many bands (at least until we hear from them again). Yet, continued growth and broadening perspective haven’t caused Profound Lore to lose touch with the metal underground.
Some folks took exception to Profound Lore artists working with Scion, seeing it as a sign of unforgiveable corporate intermingling. I’m sure some folk were also appalled when Bruni had the audacity to release anything but vinyl, but that’s the metal fraternity–passionate opinions abound. In substantive terms, however, in an arena where the briefest hint of recognition often sees the term ‘sell-out’ thrown about, the label’s ability to balance credibility with expansion is to be much admired.
Already, in 2012, that credibility has been reaffirmed by a series of outstanding releases.
Into the Cryosphere
In February this year doom outfit Pallbearer released the extraordinary Sorrow and Execution–a masterful display of songwriting acumen. The album’s gigantic and fuzz-laden riffs combined with Brett Campbell’s evocative vocals to make it a top contender for doom metal album of the year. In March, things took a diaphanous turn as Worm Ouroboros released its hauntingly ethereal Come the Thaw, and the split Locrian and Mamiffer album Bless Them That Curse You tackled gorgeously crestfallen terrain.
Come April, it was the turn of Occultation to deliver Three and Seven. A bone-chilling occult rock album that avoided any trace of pastiche, delving deep into spheres of unadulterated and sincere devilry.
May presented a bumper crop. Aldebaran’s Embracing the Lightless Depths was a magnificently reeling and desolate doomscape. Multi-instrumentalist Chris Black’s Dawnbringer project released the phenomenal conceptual feast Into the Lair of the Sun God (tick the box for traditional metal album of the year contender). And, as if that weren’t enough, two limited edition rereleases appeared from the enigmatic Black Twilight Circle scene, with Odz Manouk’s self-titled album and Tukaaria’s Raw to the Rapine.
In June, Profound Lore made things even more complicated by releasing the bluesy, windswept might of Witch Mountain’s Cauldron of the Wild, clearly another contender for doom album of the year. The soulful, often operatic vocals of Uta Plotkin were paramount to the album’s success, but the expressive, sweeping riffs oozed poignancy and gritty Southern charm. The inscrutable entity Bosse-De-Nage arrived late in the month with its third album, III. Its unrestrained collision of minimalist black metal and Slint-like post-rock is made all the more mysterious by the band members’ refusal to participate in any promotional activities whatsoever.
That brings us to the present. Early in the month of July we can look forward to the menacing supernaturalism of The Howling Wind reappearing with Of Babalon. The crowning 100th release arrives at the end of July, with the highly anticipated new Evoken album, Atra Mars, set to pulverize any likely adversaries with a colossally heavy broadside of pitch-black, guttural doom.
Marrow of the Spirit
Profound Lore is not the only metal label with an unyielding aesthetic or a dedication to releasing consistently thought-provoking and challenging work–far from it. You’ll find exactly the same temperament exhibited by labels such as Seventh Rule, Dark Descent, Broken Limbs, Handmade Birds, The Flenser, Gilead Media, Nuclear War Now, Ajna, Hydra Head, and stalwarts Southern Lord (along with myriad others).
What defines Profound Lore’s integrity, however, is the respect it has shown for its audience. It has never betrayed its core vision, and never underestimated its fans’ capacity to appreciate vast varieties of nuanced noise. Over the past eight years the label has built a roster of imaginative and individual artists, leading fans to trust its judgment implicitly. You know exactly what you’re getting with a Profound Lore release: unconditional artistic freedom encased in unbridled creativity.