"The whole mantra for us in the early days was 'Heavy metal will never die' and 'it's not a fad'. None of us back then would have thought it'd be this big 30 years later." – Brian Slagel, Metal Blade CEO
As legendary underground label Metal Blade Records celebrates its 30th birthday, we're offering a free sampler of some of their most notable artists and newcomers alongside a snapshot of their impressive roster. This is the label that discovered Metallica, gave Slayer and Armored Saint their start, encouraged innovators like Trouble and Cirith Ungol—and that's only in the first decade. From Cannibal Corpse and GWAR in the '90s to As I Lay Dying and Whitechapel in the new millennium, don't just take our word on their artists and accomplishments, see what founder and CEO Brian Slagel had to say about his baby turning 30.
Google Play: How did the label get started?
Brian Slagel: I was just a young kid in LA in 1981 working at a record store, doing a fanzine, you know, all these things involved with metal—mostly the New Wave of British Heavy Metal [NWOBHM] and the scene happening over in England. But there was also this scene emerging in LA at the same time, with a lot of great bands like Ratt and Motley Crue, so I knew at that point—and this is long before cell phones, the internet and anything else—that nobody would ever hear these bands because the major labels didn't care. I got the idea to put together a compilation album of LA heavy metal bands. I talked to the import distributors that I was working with at the record store and said, "Hey if I put together a compilation of LA heavy metal bands, would you guys sell it?" And they said sure, so I went out and asked a bunch of bands and ended up putting out a record.
That compilation, Metal Massacre, is legendary. Who's the first band you signed after that?
First of all, I had no money, so one of these distributors came to me and said, "Well, we know you don't have any money, but you seem like you kind of know what you're doing. We can offer you a pressing and distribution deal if you want to do more." So I thought, yeah sure, why not? And again having no money, I had to ask the bands to record something on their own, so the first band I went to was this band Bitch who were really good friends of mine. And the first thing we put out after Metal Massacre was the Damnation Alley EP by them.
I've read in other interviews that, although everything started to pick up on the Sunset Strip, that's not that sound you listened to. What were you looking for?
I was into the heavier stuff. Being into [British bands] like Iron Maiden, Saxon, Motorhead, surprisingly for me, there were bands in the United States that [sounded] like that. Obviously there was Metallica, who I would have loved to have signed because they were all very good friends of mine, but I had no money so that didn't work out. But after that I saw this band Armored Saint playing in LA so we did an EP with them. We did a record with a band called Warlord—[they were] more of a studio band, they didn't really play any live shows—but these guys were good musicians and they were playing this very European style of heavy metal.
Slowly after that I started to see more bands, and we ended up doing Slayer and Trouble and Fates Warning and these bands from outside of Los Angeles. I was just looking for stuff I liked. I didn't have a real specific idea, I was just a young kid doing this out of my mom's garage by myself, trying to turn people on to good new music. The heavier stuff and the more European-influenced stuff was just what I was after.
When did you realize that running a label was going to be your career?
I guess when I actually got out of my mom's garage after three years (laughs), hired one employee and had a small office that it was like, well I guess this is kind of becoming something more than me doing it for fun. It was really such a slow process—especially back then before the internet and computers and all these things. There wasn't really one particular moment where that light bulb goes on, but I think getting an office made it more serious.
How did you come to name your label Metal Blade?
I originally wanted to call it Skull and Crossbones Records but somebody else already had that name. I was a big fan of medieval stuff—swords and axes and those sort of things—and I wanted it to be heavy metal imagery, so I thought "blade" is cool, "metal" for heavy metal and "metal blade" kind of goes together.
Is that why you have a skull and crossed swords as the logo?
The original logo was a bloody axe [image] I had a friend of mine put together for free. And just over the years it kind of evolved. One of the guys at the office came up with this design for a t-shirt; we loved the design so much it ended up becoming the actual logo.
What are some of your proudest moments and favorite records over the last three decades?
I guess for the first decade, just putting a record out in the first place was pretty amazing. I got to work with so many amazing bands. Being around in that 1980s time frame where [metal] went from being nothing to being something kind of big by the end of the decade was pretty amazing. I loved working with Slayer. Those records are phenomenal—both Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits and all the stuff we did with them.
Honestly, I love the first Trouble record. It's kind of fun to look back at some of these records and how still today they are so revered. Another is Fates Warning's Awaken the Guardian; working with that band was amazing. I love that sort of progressive style, and having them come full circle with John Arch coming back into the band this year was really amazing.
One other one—a little bit of an obscure one, but 30 years later they're more popular than when they started—was Cirith Ungol. Back then they were just this little band from Ventura and nobody really knew what to make of them, and now you look literally almost 30 years later and people love that record and it's in [their] all-time top bands. It's just crazy.
What bands on your extensive roster really define what Metal Blade is all about?
There's so many it's impossible to pick. But certainly bands that we worked with for a very long period of time, like Cannibal Corpse, Amon Amarth and As I Lay Dying, bands that we've had for their entire careers. In the case of Cannibal, 25 years, Amon Amarth, 20 years, and As I Lay Dying, now 10 years—those are three bands that we've had from beginning to end that have done well. So some of our proudest moments are being able to work with bands for a long period of time.
Who is the most underrated band on your roster?
Right now I'd have to say this band 3. They're a little bit different, they don't fit in any specific category but I absolutely love them. The records are phenomenal, they're great live, but it's been very hard to get them out to people because they don't really fit in a category, but people that hear them and see them just love them. Whether you're into super heavy stuff or not, they're not a crushing metal band, they're just so good. Barn Burner is a great one too.
How have you seen metal change in 30 years?
I think the business has changed much more than metal. I think metal's kind of grown and evolved; obviously you had the '80s where it was really big and you had the hair metal and the major labels come in and kill it and it went back underground during the '90s. So many great bands came to us in the '90s, like GWAR and Cannibal Corpse. So even though [metal] was not in the mainstream, the underground was very strong. [And it still is now] in the 2000s with new bands, metalcore and also the resurrection of the older bands like Maiden and Metallica.
Right now I think that metal is almost as healthy as it's ever been because you have the older big bands doing really well and selling out stadiums all over the world, and then you have a lot of great mid-level bands doing really well and I think there's a lot of up and coming new bands that are happening too.
Over the years, the music still is roughly the same, and I think the fans are roughly the same, but it's just grown which has been awesome to see. The whole mantra for us in the early days was "Heavy metal will never die" and "it's not a fad." None of us back then would've thought it'd be this big 30 years later. It's a genre of music that's not going anywhere, like classical or jazz or country or any form that is healthy and doing well; the whole metal scene has been able to carve that out for itself and it's just amazing.
Tell us about some of your latest band signings.
After being around for so long, we had gone through all these metamorphoses. We've been really lucky to work with bands like The Black Dahlia Murder, As I Lay Dying and Unearth and now Whitechapel. I'm really excited about the new Whitechapel record. They've taken so many different elements and put it all into something that's kind of their own.
We just had In Solitude and The Devil's Blood out with Behemoth on tour, and those are two really great new bands that are doing something interesting. The Devil's Blood is into that late '70s to early '80s rock/metal thing and then you have In Solitude which is very much into that old school Iron Maiden/Mercyful Fate style. It's fun to see these young bands that weren't even born when some of these records came out being so influenced by them and having their own take.
We have a record coming out in August by this band called Gypsyhawk that have their own Thin Lizzy vibe, and I'm a huge Thin Lizzy fan. I'm so excited for the future of metal because, wow, there's some really cool stuff coming out. I think we're in for some really interesting things happening. The one thing that's stayed consistent over the years is that we're just trying to turn people onto new music and it's fun. – Jen Guyre, Google Play
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