Founded in 1993 by Aaron Turner (of Isis and Mammifer, among more), Hydrahead made a very big impact on the underground music scene of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Their releases ranged from experimental and noise to sludge and stoner and were some of the most interesting and invigorating albums we had experienced in a long time. The quality of their record releases coincided with the later revival of vinyl in music, bringing people of the digital generation back to the analog domain.
Selecting between the different Hydrahead releases was a quite difficult task, and if I was going to write about every record the label ever released I would never be finished. So below you will find 14 releases from the label (in no specific order), all of which I consider to be essential. And I will try to write about more albums in a follow up feature, since just 14 of them cannot be enough when you are dealing with the richness of the Hydrahead discography.
Converge – Caring and Killing
Even though this is more of a compilation, it is also one of the releases that got Converge on the spotlight. Encompassing most of Halo in a Haystack, the band’s contribution on the Boston is Burning and Soundtrack to the Revolution splits, as well as previously unreleased tracks, one could clearly see what Converge would later go on and become. Tracks such as “Fact Leaves it’s Ghost” and “I Abstain” are just on a league of their own.
In These Black Days: A Tribute to Black Sabbath
I do not usually find much interest in tribute releases but this one is certainly a different animal all together. Firstly, the cover versions are just unconceivable, such as the EyeHateGod jam and the Neurosis version of “Children of the Grave.” But, this tribute album was also one of the first steps for bands that would dominate the extreme music scenes for the coming years. Converge, Coalesce, Botch, Cavity, Cable, Jesuit (members of which would go on to participate in acts such as The Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge) and Overcast (whose members would then join bands such as Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage) contributed for this release and it definitely is a very different take on how to approach tribute albums.
Cave In – Beyond Hypothermia and Until Your Heart Stops
Cave In went through different phases. That much is obvious. But for a band to travel from extreme metalcore and post-hardcore to alternative rock and even verging on space rock is quite something on its own. In their debut album, Until Your Heart Stops, the band unleashed their dark hardcore sound, entering themselves to the newest generation of hardcore bands. If you are not familiar with that side of Cave In, then you are simply missing out and you should definitely listen to their debut album, along with their Beyond Hypothermia compilation. And just as an extra treat in Beyond Hypothermia, you will get a sick Metallica medley! These two albums are darkness and chaos from a band that most people would describe as easy listening and not as extreme. It definitely gives a different perspective.
Botch – We Are The Romans
American Nervoso opened the path for Botch, and We Are the Romans took everyone by surprise. Alongside The Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch brought a more extreme and complex outlook of hardcore/metalcore. The insane vocals, harsh guitars, and complex rhythms are the pillars of this album, but still they do not render this album difficult to listen to. Unfortunately We Are the Romans would also be the last album that Botch would release. Since then the members of the band have been active with other acts such as Narrows, Minus the Bear, These Arms are Snakes and Russian Circles.
Sunn O))) – ØØ Void
Named after the legendary Sunn O))) amps, this drone doom duo took the first steps in the subdivision of Hydrahead (Hydrahead Noise), and they have been unstoppable since. The impact of the drone band in the extreme and experimental scenes is undeniable. And whether you like them or not, you cannot but accept that their effort in creating claustrophobic spaces and intense ambiances is at the very least impressive. Their latest albums, such as Monoliths and Dimensionsand Oracle, are filled with absorbing moments, and their collaborations with other great experimental acts such as Ulver, Boris and Nurse with Wound have been legendary. But it is within ØØ Void and Flight of the Behemoth where the essence of this band truly lies.
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity
This band does not really need much of an introduction. Back when they were first starting out along with bands such as Coalesce, Converge and Botch, The Dillinger Escape Plan still stood out. The complexity of their songs and their hyper-aggressive outlook was and is still to this day unique. After the release of Calculating Infinity, The Dillinger Escape Plan released other excellent albums, from their sophomore full-length, Miss Machine, and the Faith No More inspired, Ire Works, but I will always miss their earliest incarnation.
Discordance Axis – The Inalienable Dreamless
Discordance Axis lasted a total of nine years, and within that time they released a plethora of splits, the two most interesting of which were with Melt Banana and Corrupted, and three full-length albums. Their Hydrahead debut was Jouhou, which brought the band to the spotlight, but no one was able to predict what would be coming next. The 23 minutes of The Inalienable Dreamless is without doubt one of the standards against which any grindcore albums are and will be judged. Unfortunately it also marked the end for Discordance Axis, but it was such an end that you cannot even be mad at them for breaking up. At least some of the band’s members went on to form other acts, with vocalist Jon Chang becoming part of Gridlink (who also recently broke up, shit!) and drummer Dave Witte contributing in a variety of sick acts including Burnt By The Sun, (Ph)a(n)tomsmasher and Municipal Waste. Check how peaceful the cover of the album appears to be...it is a lie!
Knut – Bastardiser
This Swiss extreme hardcore/sludge band has been flying a bit under the radar. That is unfortunate, but quite understandable when your sound is so dark and suffocating. And their debut album, Bastardiser, is one of the most perfect examples of what psychopaths (meant with the utmost affection) can achieve when they have access to instruments and recording equipment. Even though the album was initially released in Europe by Snuff Records, Hydrahead re-released it in the US in 2001, and thank fuck for that. Since then Hydrahead has supported the band and released all of their following full-lengths, of which I seriously recommend Challenger and Terraformer without any hesitation. But you should get Bastardiser first because it represents their most darkest and most furious moment.
Isis – Celestial
Another band that does not need much introduction, in this case, is Isis. One of frontrunners of the post-metal subgenre began their journey through a slightly different light. Even though their sludge and doom identity is still there, and post melodies are found within Celestial, the album entails a much colder and dimmer ambiance. The Godflesh-ian ghost hovers over the songs of this album with monumental tracks such as “Celestial (The Tower)” and “Swarm Reigns (Down)” unleashing all of the band’s anger straight to the listener. From that point on Isis have been constantly transforming with every release, and as is the case with every other Isis full-length, Celestial is unique.
Cave In – Jupiter
Cave In entered their mature stage fast. Really fast. Jupiter came just a couple of years after the release of their debut album, Until Your Heart Stops. The band left their early days extreme metalcore phase behind and went on to a more alternative path. Once you get over the initial shock that came from that change you cannot but get hooked in this insane masterpiece. After Jupiter, Cave In followed up with a similar sound, but even they were not able, until today, to replicate the magic of that album. Even though Antenna and White Silence are both excellent releases, one can only hope that they will soon be able to produce something equivalent to their sophomore stroke of genius.
Pelican - Australasia
The Chicago based post-rock/metal band took their first steps with their self-titled EP back in 2001. Australasia finds the band following the same heavy sludge path with long songs and heavy riffs. From the mournful melodies of “NightEndDay” this record will not let go off you, as the intriguing compositions of “Angel Tears” and the sonic trip that is the title track, Australasia is what early day Pelican were all about. And if you want to hear what a fucking proper heavy riff sounds like, you should just take another listen to “Drought.”
Keelhaul – Subject to Change Without Notice
Keelhauling was known as the act of dragging a sailor on the side of the ship as it was travelling. Now that really seems like a seriously fucked up way to punish insubordination. That fact alone is enough to get you interested in a band named after that action. Unfortunately no matter how amazing the third album of Keelhaul, Subject to Change Without Notice, was, it was not enough to get people interested in them. Their combination of sludge and mathcore puts them in the same league with bands such as Knut, early Cave In and Coalesce, and Subject to Change Without Notice revealed that the evolution of this band had reached its purpose. Their humorous outlook was revealed six years later when their next album was released, with the very sardonic title, Keelhaul’s Triumphant Return to Obscurity. One thing is for certain though: Keelhaul have earned and deserve your attention.
Mare – Mare
Mare is one of those interesting “what if” situations. The band, formed by former The End vocalist Tyler Sermick-Palmetier, was not one of the most active acts around, having released just one EP in its seven-year existence. But it is that single twenty-four minute EP that could be just the first step for a band trying to reach greatness. Their combination of doom, hardcore, and post-rock might not seem such a big deal today—when a huge number of bands are mixing together these genres—but back in 2004 Mare were just ahead of their time. It is a shame that we will never find out what the extreme music scene would be like if Mare had carried on.
Big Business – Head for the Shallow
Back when it was released, Head for the Shallow was like a breath of fresh air. Heavily influenced by The Melvins and combining sludge, heavy metal, and punk into one coherent product Big Business were taking off. From the whistling on the intro of “O.G.” this album meant business: the band having no breaks and hitting head on. Three more albums, Here Come the Waterworks and Mind The Drift (both released via Hydrahead), and their most recent, Battlefields Forever, but I still believe that it was their debut album that made the difference. And it is no coincidence that when The Melvins were looking for a new bass player, they turned to Jarred Warren. And, what the hell, they thought they should also get Coady Willis to play in parallel with Dale Crover. That alone shows what type of band Big Business is.
The demise of Hydrahead in 2012 was something unexpected for the public and devastating for music fans. That alone speaks about the state of the music industry and if independent record labels, such as Hydrahead, are still not able to survive and even (in rare cases) make a profit then that is something quite worrying. It is not just the case of some start-up label not being able to make ends meet, we are talking about one of the pioneers of the experimental and extreme music scenes of the 1990s-2000s—a label that seemed to be ahead of its own time. Other great independent labels such as Neurot Recordings and Constellation Records are still going on and putting out great albums, and Turner and Mammifer bandmate Faith Coloccia have also launched SIGE (since 2011), so there might still be some hope. But it is quite a long shot that any will be able to fill the void that Hydrahead has left behind.