11 American Record Labels That Made Us Fall In Love With Heavy Metal
Historically, the record label is seen as a governing body of cigar-chomping starfuckers who want to neuter your album in the name of their bank account. Not so much with heavy metal labels – like all grassroots movements, metal is a culture built and nurtured by its fans, who learned early on that a world frightened and contemptuous of their favorite art wasn’t going to help them publish it. As such, most metal-centric record labels are the babies of metalheads themselves, inspired by punk’s DIY ethos and dedicated to giving back to the music that hopelessly completes them.
But of the many metal labels out there, the ones we truly love are those that remind us of why we got all these insane tattoos. Those labels whose rosters, missions, and/or places in history make us fall in love with metal all over again are the ones to which we owe more than we can express. And while the UK and Europe have a greater experience with DIY labels going massive (Nuclear Blast, Roadrunner, Earache), for us in the US, where metal isn’t as accepted by broader rock audiences and bands like Iron Maiden are still regarded as outsider art, it’s an honor to watch these indies thrive after years of struggle and hard work.
Here are 11 American labels who have made us fall in love with metal time and time again.
Who else could be Number #1 on this list? Whether it’s milestone albums by Slayer and Cannibal Corpse or contemporary classics by Behemoth and The Black Dahlia Murder, there’s something for every headbanger to love on the Metal Blade roster. To this day, the Blade remains alive and relevant, thanks in no small part to label head Brian Slagel’s undying dedication to metal music. From the first Metallica track on the Metal Massacre compilation to this year’s releases by Rivers Of Nihil and Visigoth, Metal Blade has time and time again reminded us why we showed up in the first place
Started by the Zazulas and Maria Ferrero in a Jersey basement, Megaforce Records was a low-to-the-ground label that focused on a burgeoning genre within metal: thrash. Megaforce released the first albums by Metallica, Anthrax, Overkill, Raven, Testament, and the U.S. versions of Mercyful Fate’s albums. The result was establishing thrash as metal’s dominant life form, giving some of the genre’s most important bands a way to release their music. These albums restoke the fires in our dark hearts every time we listen to them, and because we’re even able to do so, we owe Megaforce a huge Hell Yeah.
Sometimes, ugliness is the most beautiful thing in the world. Formed in Colorado but moved to Pennsylvania soon afterwards, Relapse Records quickly made a name for itself by signing and releasing albums by underground and extreme standout acts like General Surgery, Pig Destroyer, Skinless, and Dying Fetus. The label has remained strong, picking up new groundbreakers like Gatecreeper and Outer Heaven, and continues to be one of the most interesting and powerful indies out there. These guys are an inspirational reminder that starting small and staying true can pay off in huge ways.
While everyone else was focusing on how to make thrash palatable, New York-based Combat Records was focusing on the more extreme side of things. The label helped spearhead the extreme metal movement with releases by Megadeth, Dark Angel, Possessed, Exodus, and of course Death, all of whom moved thrash away from power metal and into more terrifying territories. Though Combat is no longer as present in the scene as it used to be, the classic releases by these bands have earned them a special seat at our table, any time.
Smoke it if you got it. Established by Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn 0))), Southern Lord quickly became THE American label for doom and experimental metal. While slow sluggers by acts like Sleep and Weedeater gave the potheads awesome tunes to bob along to, furious acts like All Pigs Must Die and Power Trip kept the crust punks and old-school heshers frenzied in their devotion. A label that puts cool music and its fans first, Southern Lord are a beautiful testament to the true power of the underground.
Fuck yeah, beer; fuck off, fascists. When it comes to staying true to your roots, Oakland-based indie Tankcrimes has always done it right. The label almost single-handedly revived thrash via releases by Municipal Waste, Necrot, and Ghoul, and have continued to champion old-school heavy metal, punk, and hardcore. Perhaps most notable about Tankcrimes is its ethos, mixing hard-partying mayhem with social consciousness and unmovable personal standards. They remain the label equivalent of the golden-hearted best friend in the denim jacket that we all grew up with.
The inclusion of Sumerian Records on this list is sure to get us sneered at, but we don’t care: these guys did things no one else even attempted at a time when many were proclaiming metal dead. As the scene known as metalcore was evolving into mainstream hard rock, Sumerian was championing new, heavy, and different bands like Periphery, Animals As Leaders, Between The Buried And Me, and The Faceless. Their fearless approach to new talent and sounds got everyone interested, and once more showed listeners all the things that metal could be.
At the end of the day, Prosthetic Records from LA warmed the cockles of our hearts by providing a home to two bands: Lamb Of God and (at least in America) Gojira. That the label has also put out incredible music by bands like The Hell, Kylesa, Skeletonwitch, Septicflesh, and Himsa is almost an afterthought compared to those bands’ might, but that’s a huge fucking “almost” given the quality of music those bands bring to the table. When it comes to aggressive metal that doesn’t easily fall into one category or the other, no-one does it quite like Prosthetic.
When Deathwish Inc. was established by none other than Converge’s Jacob Bannon, most fans could’ve told you the label would make a considerable impact on the world of extreme music. Bannon didn’t disappoint, and Deathwish quickly established themselves with powerful genre-straddling releases by bands like Deafheaven, Doomriders, Cult Leader, Cold Cave, Integrity, and of course Converge. While we were all dealing with metal’s teething pains in the early 2000s, Deathwish was providing us with sonic balm for our bleeding gums.
Like Deathwish, Hydra Head was founded by one of metal’s progressive heroes: Aaron Turner of Isis. The label’s roster of emotional, boundary-pushing acts, including Torche, Daughters, Xasthur, and Agoraphobic Nosebleed, makes them a much-loved odd man out on this list. While some of the other labels listed here connect with our traditional, Accept-style metal hearts, Hydra Head talked us off the ledge of hard rock by breaking molds, reshaping sounds, and helping artists unlike anything we’d ever heard before.
20 BUCK SPIN
One of the younger labels on this list, Olympia, Washington’s 20 Buck Spin is arguably the most promising metal indie out there right now. Their recent releases, including albums by Khemmis, Spirit Adrift, Tomb Mold, Deadbird, Ulthar, Mournful Congregation, and Scorched, have all presented enthralling takes on old genres without straying too far from the path. That ability to walk the line between progressive and traditional jump-starts our love of metal every time, and makes the label’s name an official seal of headbanger quality when we see it slapped on a record (plus, the label’s named after a Pentagram song, and you can’t go wrong with that).
Words: Chris Krovatin