“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.
Botch: We Are the Romans
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
Sunn O))): The Grimmrobe Demos
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
Harvey Milk: Life… The Best Game in Town
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
Isis, Torche and more…
Appearing with their startling debut EP — a record that given half the chance will scar your psyche, irreparably — and disappearing without a trace after its release, Mare is possibly the most overlooked band on Hydra Head’s roster. And all we have left to remember this Canadian band by is the oppressive presence that remains forever incarcerated in their sole recording — Mare. Aspects of drone, doom, avant-garde experimentalism, hardcore, sludge, and jazz, all find a padded cell of their own on this EP. Such genre spanning may sound quite scatter-shot. However, in the hands of Mare these disparaging influences are mauled and drained of all individuality to form a discordant, cohesive whole. Mixing clean vocals and harsh screams is an all too familiar part of metal these days, but the vocals of guitarist Tyler Semrick-Palmateer — who favours an angelic, meticulously layered croon and the most harrowing scream you are ever likely to hear — are extremely unique in delivery and intent. This record is built upon uncomfortable tension, and it takes patience, persistence, and dedication from the listener to reveal its true intention — and even then this EP remains austere and unforgiving. But such is its appeal, and for those willing to sacrifice themselves to the sounds of Mare, eventually, you shall be rewarded tenfold. Innovation never sounded so enervating. — DB
Boris with Merzbow: Sun Baked Snow Cave
Recorded over a three-year period (2001 to 2004), Sun Baked Snow Cave is an under-appreciated collaborative masterpiece from two titans of Japanese experimentalism. With noise maestro Masami Akita (AKA Merzbow) on computers, and Boris member Atsuo playing the role of feedback conductor (along with Boris bandmates Takeshi and Wata on guitar and bass), the album consists of a single 62-minute tune. Described perfectly by the artists involved as, “The roar of a (gigantic) wheel as it turns uncontrollably,” and “A boom like a chorus of thousands of cicadas heard under the sun,” Sun Baked Snow Cave begins with 15 minutes of acoustic minimalism followed by 35 or so minutes of ceaselessly battering noise, which is in turn followed by a more sedate outro. Sounds simple enough, but oh what a tangled maelstrom Merzbow and Boris weave. The wall of noise at the heart of the album grows and expands till it is an impenetrable roar of bruising reverberations. Sombre, yet strangely comforting, what begins as a hazy drone crackling with feedback becomes a hiss- and reverb-soaked purge that you want to burrow into. Admittedly, it’s all an acquired taste, but then, so many of Hydra Head’s very best releases are. — CH
An unholy roar amplified beyond belief drowns all in sundry with tidal waves of highly distorted, sludgy riffs that ebb and flow with paralysing frequency. This can only mean that Hesperus — the third full-length by instrumental ear perforators 5ive — is pouring Kyussian fuzz grooves straight out of the speakers. For the unknowing, you would swear that this band is comprised of five guitarists, all of whom cranked volume up to earth-shaking levels, but the gargantuan, roaming riffs and Bill Ward-esque orchestral beats are the creation of two musicians: Ben Carr (guitar/bass) and Charlie Harrold (drums). Hesperus was released in 2008 by Hydra Head’s imprint Tortuga and saw the duo working within self imposed song-writing confines for the first time. The opening trifecta of aquatic miasma: “Gulls”, “Big Sea” and “Kettle Cove” all churn and capsize at will, but the groove always re-emerges; slowly crawling from the spray on the incremental dissolve of “Polar 78” and relentlessly flowing through the remaining two tracks “News I” and “News II”. Batten down the hatches, Hesperus takes the frail of heart overboard and buries them beneath the ocean’s floor. This record is an iridescent jewel in Hydra Head’s treasure trove of artistic triumphs. — DB
Discordance Axis: The Inalienable Dreamless
The Inalienable Dreamless is the third and final album from pioneering grindcore trio Discordance Axis. Undoubtedly one of the most mis-shelved CDs ever released due to its rather beautiful DVD case and design (Hydra Head has always ensured its roster has been artfully presented), it comprises 17 songs spread over 23 minutes of spasmodic, dissonant and relentlessly meteoric grind. Guitarist Rob Marton provides the technical thrills, with his intricate riffs arriving in a shred-storm of atonality. Jon Chang’s lyrics, and his shrieked, grunted and growled vocals, are admirably demented, perfectly matching the sonic tone. Combine all that with drummer Dave Witte’s quasi-robotic and insanely dexterous fills, and you have an unhinged, incendiary and unrelenting blast of intelligent grindcore that hasn’t aged a day. The Inalienable Dreamless has a math-like precision à la Dillinger Escape Plan wrapped about the brute pummel of Nasum (though keep in mind that Discordance Axis predates both). It’s the perfect mix of gristle and steel. Abrasive as hell, it’s a legendary extreme metal release, but aside from its impact on the grind, avant-garde and noise scenes, its best feature is that, 12 years on from its release, you can put it on and still find flickers of nuance you’d never noticed before. — CH
Torche’s self-titled debut was a sugary pop gem coated in sludge metal and created by past members of heavy-hitters Cavity and Floor. Steve Brooke’s glowing vocal harmonies contrasted yet complimented the sequoia-thick grooves that he, Juan Montoya (guitar), Jonathan Nuñez (bass), and Rick Smith (drums) cut down and rolled out. Torche‘s pop sensibilities — within the context of stentorian metal — really distinguished the band from the rest of the sludge herd, and its uniqueness perked the ears of Hydra Head who shrewdly signed the band. Torche, aided by the production skills of Kurt Ballou, repaid Hydra Head’s enthusiasm by refining their immediately addictive sound and truly crafting harmony on Meanderthal. This record is jammed to the gills with memorable tunes that are fully realized and free of excess — just a rollercoaster ride of hulking sludge, Brian Wilson-esque vocal charm, ’90s alternative rock, skate-punk and some stoner-breeze, all which is in a constant free-fall for 36 minutes, without any tedious inclines. Fun is not an adjective usually thrown around when describing metal, but it is hard to hold in a smile while listening to this caffeine bomb for the ears. Meanderthal has received critical acclaim for a reason; bask in the colorful glow of the Torche rainbow! — DB
Isis: Oceanic Remixes/Reinterpretations
Oceanic Remixes/Reinterpretations is a compilation of tracks lifted from Isis’s 2002 album Oceanic. Originally released on a series of four vinyl EPs on label Robotic Empire, the tracks were gathered by Hydra Head (as well as an additional number from Tim Hecker) for a two-disc CD release in 2005. Featuring contributions from Fennesz, JK Broadrick, James Plotkin, Thomas Köner, Venetian Snares and others, the album explored Isis’s more atmospheric side, via artists attuned to notably abstract investigations and re-imaginings. Reactions to the album have been mixed, but naysayers be damned, because Oceanic Remixes/Reinterpretations works extremely well as a companion piece to the excellent Oceanic, or as an album on its own. If gazing upon ambient horizons while electronic glitches, sci-fi swirls, loops, vocal tricks and techno blips soundtrack the vista isn’t your thing, look elsewhere. It’s undeniable the album had an effect on Isis’s future recordings (although the band was hardly a stranger to tinkering with moodier frequencies). Wonderfully gritty percussion and guitar are still to be found, particularly on the outstanding final track “HYM”, where JK Broadricks’ Godfleshian chug ends things on an incredibly powerful note. But ultimately, Oceanic Remixes/Reinterpretations is really just a magnificent example of why Hydra Head is renowned for being forward-thinking. — CH