The Boston Phoenix
February 4 - 11, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Metal health

Hydrahead keeps Boston heavy

by Carly Carioli

Aaron Turner At 21, Aaron Turner -- founder, owner, and, until recently, the sole employee of Hydrahead Records -- is barely old enough to be admitted to the clubs where his bands perform (at least in Boston, where all-ages shows are hard to come by these days). In fact, the seeds of Hydrahead were sown before Turner was old enough to vote -- when, from his bedroom in New Mexico, at the age of 17, he formed a mail-order distribution company specializing in hard-to-find punk-rock records. Before he was old enough to drink, he was negotiating with major-label reps: in 1997, Walter Yetnikoff's label Velvel signed Miltown, a band who'd put out their first single with Hydrahead, and who subsequently released an EP with Turner's label even after they'd moved to the big leagues (the joke was on Yetnikoff when Miltown broke up without releasing anything further). Now, from an apartment in the sketchy part of Mission Hill, this art student/musician (he's at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and fronts Isis, a tinnitus-inducing noise/metal swarm) has put Hydrahead at the forefront of an emerging renaissance in the loud arts. He's already helped retool the aesthetics of metal and hardcore from the underground up. And he's just getting started.

"I grew up in New Mexico, and there wasn't a whole lot as far as youth culture is concerned," says Turner, who moved to Boston and put out his first release in 1995. "Especially when I started to get interested in straight-edge and wasn't doing drugs anymore, there was really nothing for me to do. So that was like a big reason for me, I suppose, to become really productive. Also, I've never been a really social person. So there's not a lot of time taken up by my social life. And music has always been a very very big part of my life. I guess just a combination of those factors is why everything got started so early."

Turner has that rare, intuitive gift that for lack of another term I'll call vision. He has the underground equivalent of what major-label A&R reps call a "great ear," and with his painter's eye he's overseen exquisite packaging and artwork that dramatizes the music's narrative drive -- namely, the creep of heavy metal out of the Dark Ages and into an Enlightenment. Friends describe him as unassuming; in person he's tall, lanky, easy-going, even subdued, but deliberate and clearly focused. There is no boastful edge in his voice when he says, "I really don't feel that there is any competition for Hydrahead in this area."

Indeed, there isn't. Although the label's releases are regularly selling between 3000 and 5000 copies each -- highly respectable for a mid-size indie label, and almost unheard of for a three-year-old, one-man operation -- Hydrahead has kept a low profile in Boston and isn't readily identified as a local label. Through mail order it's sold discs as far away as Russia, Malaysia, and Japan; about half the inventory is sold outside New England. And though most of the Hydrahead roster is from the Northeast, Turner has released singles by an impressive list of nationally renowned heavy hitters: Brutal Truth, Today Is the Day, Eyehategod, Converge, Anal Cunt, Coalesce, and Dillinger Escape Plan.

Hydrahead's high-profile releases last year -- the hyperrealist post-metal of Cave-In's Until Your Heart Stops and Botch's American Nervoso, the casually avant art-core of Cable and Converge -- looked and sounded like nothing else, and they seem destined to define the time and place in which they were created. A recent flyer for a Cave-In show heralded the band as "Slayer meets O.K. Computer," which in the reductionist semiotics of gig flyers -- where Slayer connotes, well, you know, Slayer, and O.K. Computer connotes, as Daydream Nation once did, all that other weird and arty and even occasionally pretty shit whose origin we're not quite sure of -- is very nearly accurate. Think what Tortoise, Trans Am, and June of '44 might have sounded like if they'd been raised on John Zorn, Fripp, and Vio-Lence instead of John Cage, Eno, and Rites of Spring and you're almost there. Sometimes. Other times you just think, y'know, wow, that's really fucking South of Heaven of them. The album recently broke 7000 copies, and Turner is certain it'll break 10,000 sometime this year.

Just as impressive are Hydrahead's designs and layouts (most of them created by Turner, Converge's Jacob Banner, or some combination of the two), which might be the most visually exciting since the heyday of the British postpunk label 4AD. The artwork for Cave-In's Until Your Heart Stops, for instance, combines the precision of a medical-textbook diagram, the shock of forensic photography, and a wary, paranoid abstraction, bespeaking the intricately constructed chaos within.

"Just being an artist gave me a different perspective on doing the label," says Turner. "I think it's come more naturally for me, the connection between visuals and music. With whatever I'm doing as far as paintings or design stuff for records, I try to think about the subject matter and the band and the relation to the artwork. And also I would like to think that a lot of what the Hydrahead bands are doing is really original, and to keep up with that I try to create records that are very striking and pretty original."

The detail and breadth of Hydrahead's product is the kind of thing that makes collectors drool. A single Coalesce/Boy Sets Fire split seven-inch went through three pressings (and is scheduled for a fourth, on CD) that included a total of five different colors of vinyl, as well as several different covers and labels. A vinyl pressing of Soilent Green's Sewn Mouth Secrets (licensed from Relapse, the nation's premier architect of underground metal) included an elaborate bonus single and a heavy-stock glossy booklet done up in neo-classical style. One of the label's most ambitious projects is a series of split-seven-inch singles (to be compiled on a double-CD later this year) devoted to left-of-center Black Sabbath covers by some of the biggest names in underground metal -- and the jackets shine like jewels, with embossed foil lettering like an expensive wedding invitation. Gatefold double LPs, multi-hued singles, and weird specifications (a six-inch single by Agoraphobic Nosebleed is in the works) are the standard at Hydrahead -- with final retail costs still slipping below the average for major and independent labels.

"Hydrahead has the fire and the focus of the early Earache roster," says Gordon Conrad, a former publicist for Relapse and Earache who's now with the New York label M.I.A. -- and who last year more or less started up his own small label, Escape Artist, to put out the debut EP by Isis. "And it's got the same underground collector buzz as the early Revelation stuff. Aaron does all this special packaging and limited editions, and there's a rush to get his stuff right when it comes out. Because if you're two weeks late, you could get a `standard pressing' -- which 99.9 percent of the time is better than anyone else's limited-edition releases -- but if you get in there early enough you could get this ultra-deluxe package that you'll never, ever see again. Because people love them so much, they won't give them up. There's a craze around his releases."

"I think for me part of my interest in records and in hardcore goes back to my interest in comic-book collecting and toy collecting and all that stuff," says Turner, whose living room/office is piled and plastered with unopened Todd MacFarlane figurines and assorted sci-fi memorabilia. "Like when I get a record that totally rocks and is packaged in some way that's really inspiring and lends to the record, that just makes the whole thing that much stronger, that much more a complete entity. From the beginning I wanted the label to have its own personality, to have a common thread through the sound and aesthetics. I think over the past year and a half it's really started to come together, and that's become obvious to people who have bought three or four of our releases in that timespan."

Coming in the next month alone is the aforementioned single, "PCP Torpedo," by Agoraphobic Nosebleed (with whom Turner's Isis shares keyboardist/programmer Jay Randall); an album of Led Zeppelin covers on CD picture disc by neo-hardcore/metal stalwarts Coalesce; two more volumes of the Sabbath series featuring Botch, Cave-In, Neurosis, and Soilent Green; a limited-edition pressing of a split single by Dillinger Escape Plan and Vermont's Drowning Man; and an album by Southern indie-metal vets Buzzov*en. Hydrahead is also beginning to move in on the grindcore scene, and in typically overachieving fashion, Turner has started by landing Discordance Axis, who're generally considered the cream of the grind crop.

"My earliest influences were pretty much rock and metal, classic shit like Zeppelin and Hendrix," says Turner, whose CD changer contained Burning Witch, Colossomite, Jeff Buckley, and Portishead when we checked. "I'm a guitar player, so naturally that was the stuff I was drawn to when I was young. And metal was a huge part of my teenage years. Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer, all that shit. Especially in the indie-rock scene, it's like they look at metal as some sorta idiotic primitive form of music, and therefore they can't appreciate it. But the newer breed of underground metal bands and hardcore bands -- I guess they're hardcore bands, but they're really playing metal -- has sort of helped break that up. And I'm hoping Hydrahead will help do that as well."

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