Recently I read that Roadrunner Records is once again cutting back and laying off employees and though Roadrunner hasn't been putting out very much that I want to listen to in recent years, I do remember working with a pretty cool chick named Amy (who handled Roadrunner's radio promotions) while I did my radio show back in like, 2005, and I do remember a lot of just really great albums that came out on that label way back when. In fact, growing up in a dull college town and having very limited internet access in the early 1990's, Roadrunner albums were often the only ones that were getting broad enough distribution that I could find them at the local Sam Goody (sorta like FYE) or the indie record store (Plan 9).
I obviously got older, and around the same time that I got my first computer and internet access Roadrunner had begun it's decline into nu-metal garbage and I was discovering smaller labels such as Century Media and Relapse. Still, it would have been very difficult for me as an isolated youth to discover bands in the "underground" if not for Roadrunner putting out so many great classic records. I thought it'd be fun to think back to the albums that really impacted me personally.
Death Symbolic (1995)
Truth here; I’m not the biggest Death fan in the world. I think they were a fine band, and had some amazing lineups (fucking Gene Hoglan, James Murphy, Steve Digorgio, Kam Lee, Chris Reifert, the Cynic dudes, Richard Christy…just goes on and on and on…) but Chuck’s growl was never his strength. Still, this was the first Death record I heard (though I only owned it on CD-R until maybe, 3 years ago) and there were some serious stand out tracks on here, such as “Without Judgement” and “Crystal Mountain”. If Death was responsible for anything, it made me want to seek out increasingly “technical” metal.
Disincarnate Dreams of the Carrion Kind (1993)
Holy shit how can this not be on a list of best Roadrunner albums? Fuck, it belongs on the list of best death metal and even best of lists for the entire metal genre! James Murphy had made a name for himself recording with Cancer, Death, and Obituary, but this was the first band he was ever part of that was really his show. Crushingly heavy, full of dexterous time shifts, sludgy thick riffs, dive bombs and fluid soloing, sick vocals, and with tons of groove, “Dreams of the Carrion Kind” delivered on an epic scale. These riffs got stuck in my head and even today, they just pop up in my mind while I’m driving to work or somewhere and I’m just like, “awww shit, need to listen to some Disincarnate!”. Besides the opening and closing fluff instrumentals, there wasn’t a throw-away song on this whole album. The production was solid enough that this album still remains relevant and sounds fresh today. I still have vivid memories of hearing this for the first time…probably right after high school around 1998-1999 or so…and I can still recall the excitement that I felt when a girl I was dating sent me this album as a CD-R back when people traded those things.
Exhorder The Law (1992)
I didn’t hear this in 1992. In 1992 I probably just discovered Pantera’s “Vulgar Display of Power” by staying up late and watching the Headbanger’s Ball on low volume so that my parents wouldn’t catch me since my mom thought all heavy metal music was “vulgar” and “wicked” and all kinds of bad. Anyhow, real truth: I thought Pantera was the fucking shit…right until I graduated high school. We had this little pedestrian mall in Charlottesville…back before it became all yuppified and Urban Outfitters opened there. It was the place all of the subculture kids gathered to walk laps along the brick walkways looking for some party or place to adventure to at night…or to buy weed from the black kids who lived in the projects across the railroad tracks nearby. Anyhow, I met this dude named Jimmy who was the one guy really hooked up with underground metal in a town where everyone else who was “subculture” or “underground” was listening to goth/industrial shit while swearing that they were punk rock and claiming to be best friends with some dudes in Bella Morte (a goth band I guess has some reknown from aforementioned town.) Jimmy and I hit it off and there were a lot of nights I remember hanging out at his apartment rummaging through mix tapes and burned CDs where I got to learn about more bands than I could ever recall, and when the subject of Pantera came up, Jimmy did 2 things. One was show me pictures of the “glam” Pantera; he then proceeded to play Exhorder for me.
The Exhorder/Pantera comparisons faded in relevance with time, because I don’t care how full of themselves Pantera were, I’m not going to dispute the riff-fest that is “Far Beyond Driven”. But if you think anything Pantera ever did touches Exhorder’s “The Law” album, I’ll call you a fucking idiot. “The Law” was full of the grooves that Pantera made their career off of, but also featured slap base, 12 string acoustics, and all around tighter performances. Kyle Thomas’ vocal style was full of redneck venom at a time when Phil was still whipping out falsettos and doing rap-style vocals (listen to “No Good (Attack the Radical)”). And “Cadence of the Dirge” was just fucking heavy as hell. Another album that I can still listen to today.
Fear Factory Demanufacture (1995)
This album hasn’t aged as well as I wish it had.. I’ve talked about this with a friend lately, Fear Factory in general did not age well, as so many of their samples and themes are from a long-gone dial-up era. The album that Fear Factory recorded which I can listen to the most in 2012 is their debut, “Soul of a New Machine”. The truth is that album is almost complete Napalm Death worship. It’s good Napalm Death worship though.
That said, the Fear Factory album that had the most impact on me was “Demanufature”. I thought the band name was cool, and I skipped a day of school to go to the first Ozzfest tour (in 1997?), and Fear Factory was on that tour promoting “Demanufacture”. Songs like “Self Bias Resister” and “Replica” were catchy, and Dino Cazares played those rapid fire palm muted riffs over Ray Herrera’s relentless kick drums…I was into it. I didn’t even mind that Burton C. Bell was auto-tuning the fuck out of his clean vocals, it lent itself to the quasi-industrial vibe the band was going for. I was able to listen to “Demanufacture” for years, but as I got into heavier and heavier stuff, I eventually neglected this album. Coming back to it, I still hear massive riffs and catchy choruses, but the dial-up internet samples and such really sound painfully dated. Nevertheless, this was an incredibly significant album for me, and probably Roadrunner as a label.
Immolation Dawn of Possession (1991)
“Dawn of Possession” wasn’t the first Immolation album I ever heard; that was actually “Close to a World Below” in 2000. However, I was quite aware of the legend of this album via “Unholy Metal” chat on AOL back in the day, and it seemed like it went out of print basically as soon as Roadrunner released it. So when I found what was likely an unauthorized Polish reissue of it (via Metal Mind Productions) while in a Montreal record shop in 2005, I felt like I had struck gold. It ended up being a soundtrack for a good portion of that roadtrip; the mocking tones of the solos, the twisting, churning, and constant time shifting of the riffs and tempos, Ross Dolan’s guttural incantations…this album is basically impossible to get bored of, seamlessly blending technical prowess with brutality…but it also shares a certain murkiness with early Morbid Angel. It lacks some of the discordance of Immolation’s later albums, instead focusing on more sludge, which makes it a really distinct sounding record for what is one of my very favorite death metal bands ever.
Life of Agony River Runs Red (1993)
True story; I checked this album out because Beavis and Butthead made fun of it. I just thought that that opening riff to “This Time” was crushingly heavy. I still do. I think part of what makes this album so damn powerful though was the fact that when it came out in 1993, these guys weren’t all that much older than me, and instead of singing about satan, mythology, being a badass, drinking beer, or whatever else most “popular” metal bands sing about, “River Runs Red” was about a lot of issues that disillusioned teenagers could identify with; I know that I could. (Which isn’t to say I was ever suicidal or addicted to substances or anything…nor were most of people I think were affected by this album, but we could identify with the alienation of a bullshit upbringing that could create those feelings, if that makes sense.) Keith Caputo’s voice sounded like a tortured cry for help (because it probably was…as we’d discover years later), Joey Z’s solos were every bit as dexterous and emotive as any of metal’s elite guitar heros, and those riffs were a crushing blend of hardcore thump and the groove metal which was emerging at that time.
Unfortunately, each progressive album after “River Runs Red” saw the band soften to the point they became a shittier Stone Temple Pilots (who already suck…), and Keith Caputo became Mina Caputo (seriously) but that hasn’t changed my ability to listen to this album. Besides, that breakdown in “River Runs Red” is fucking heavy as fuck.
Machine Head Burn My Eyes (1994)
There was a time when people actually bought soundtracks to movies. Really. And I remember finding to soundtrack to the movie “Demon Knight”, and Machine Head was featured on it along with other commercial metal bands from that time. Anyhow, their contribution (“Demon Knight” was the song if I recall, actually) caught my attention as a 14 year old so when I found “Burn My Eyes” sitting at Sam Goody, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up. It was…dare I say…modern thrash? Lots of dive bombs and solos, but many of the riffs had that trade mark mechanical sort of tinge that has become a Robb Flynn trademark. This, and “The More Things Change” that followed it were Machine Head’s high water marks before Roadrunner decided to push them to become “nu metal”, which they sucked at. Recent years have seen Machine Head recover somewhat, but I don’t think they’ve ever recaptured the magic that was present here. Still, at age 14 when I was listening to my share of Pantera, this was an album that got frequent rotation.
Solitude Aeturnus Beyond the Crimson Horizon (1991)
When I was 18 years old (1998), I couldn’t stand traditional clean singing in the vein of Halford or Dickinson; I openly declared it to be “gay” and Iron Maiden was metal for old fucks in tight pants and mullets. Disclosing my still newfound love for doom metal to the aforementioned Jimmy, he has me chauffeur him to the local Plan 9 records and immediately instructs me to purchase “Downfall” by Solitude Aeturnus, insisting that this band would change my entire perspective about traditional metal singers. He was right; Robert Lowe’s powerful vocal delivery was high pitched and traditional, yet the particular tone of his voice was easy on my ears. It helped that the riffs were crushingly heavy, the tempo was brisk for a doom band, and Edgar Perez’s solos were fluid and emotive. “Downfall” is easily the worst produced and weakest of their albums, which made discovering the rest of their catalog all the more amazing. It was Robert Lowe who made me reconsider traditional metal vocalists and sit back down with albums like “Number of the Beast” and “Painkiller”; I would’ve never given bands like Nevermore, Blind Guardian, or Candlemass a chance if not for being introduced to Solidue Aeturnus. I consider each of their albums to be masterworks, but 1992’s “Beyond the Crimson Horizon” had a particularly thrashy crunch in songs like “Seeds of the Desolate” that makes it perhaps the most listenable album of them all, as well as one of my favorite metal records of all time.
Suffocation Pierced From Within (1995)
“Pierced From Within” is another one of my all time favorite albums, both in the death metal subgenre and the metal genre as a whole. It was the band’s “Reign in Blood” or “Master of Puppets”; and it holds that sort of hallowed place in metal history- no band and no album has been more ripped off than this one. Yet as countless bands have matched the brutality and increased the tempo of the Suffocation formula, none of them did it with the effortless technical dexterity that Suffocation did; this is an album full of time shifts, crushing riffage that peeled off into blistering and fluid Slayer-esque solos replete with dive bombs and mocking harmonies before pummeling the listener all over again. And those vocals, at once raw, guttural, and strangely articulate; this was Frank Mullen’s best recorded performance. The track “Thrones of Blood” is basically everything that’s awesome and brutal and satisfying about death metal.
Type O Negative Bloody Kisses (1993)
I remember hanging out with this kid named Kyle when I was in middle school; just like me he had to stay up late and watch the Headbanger’s Ball on low volume hoping that his religiously conservative parents wouldn’t catch him up at 2am on a Sunday morning waiting for that one Slayer or Kreator video. Anyhow, to show my age here, you used to be able to subscribe to these services that would send out a VHS cassette of music videos from various bands every month. Some of the bands would be laughably craptastic, and some would be cool. Anyhow, Kyle had one of these video subscriptions and I remember being in 7th grade (1994-ish) and on that VHS you typically had Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, White Zombie, Pantera, etc…the usual fare that was getting ridiculed on Beavis and Butthead (for some reason people actually liked Therapy?) But there was one band on the VHS we were watching that just stood out as totally different as fuck from anything either of us had ever previously heard, and that band was Type O Negative. The song was “Christian Woman”, and it was a totally different thing hearing Peter Steele singing in that low voice over that down tuned, sludgy riff during the verse…that was fucking heavy. Anyhow, I remember buying that album, and singing along to “Kill All The White People” and I recall a chick I went to highschool with basically stealing it because the spoiled rich girls playing “goth” happened to like that band as well. One of the early shows I ever went to was to see Type O Negative in Richmond, Va at a club called The Flood Zone, and they were probably one of the first bands that really showed me that metal could be more than glam rock or extreme thrash/death/black metal. I probably ended up seeing Type O Negative about 10 times before Peter Steele’s death, and I wish it had been one more.