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The Boston Phoenix Maximum Metal

Relapse bring on the noise.

By Carly Carioli

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  In 1990, 18-year-old Matt Jacobsen and his 23-year-old partner Bill Yurkiewicz put out their first single -- "Flesh Ripping Sonic Polka," by a friend's obscure hardcore band, Velcro Overdose. Seven years later, Jacobsen and Yurkiewicz have built Relapse Entertainment from a for-fun singles imprint into the postmetal label group (two imprints, Relapse and Release, plus stateside distribution for the European label Nuclear Blast), with a roster that includes multimedia industrialists Neurosis, grindcore standard bearers Brutal Truth, and most recently Today Is the Day and Unsane, a couple of bands snatched away from Minneapolis's Amphetamine Reptile (the former "it" label for noise rock). Along the way, they've also become an outpost for fringe artists who've funneled the spirit of extreme noise terror into avant-garde forms, from the oblique musique concrète of Japanese static machinists Masonna and Merzbow to the pastoral ambient-dub experiments of former Napalm Death drummer (and occasional John Zorn sideman) Mick Harris to Trial of the Bow, a duo comprising former death-metalists who now find themselves bestsellers on the new-age charts.

If there's a thread running through Relapse's wildly divergent conglomeration of misery, it's the desire to champion new, unsettling sounds for an audience who were weaned on the irreverence and dispulchritude of extreme hardcore and its even uglier scum-metal cousin, grindcore, but who have outgrown those genres' rote conventions. On the label's recent Release Your Mind, Volume 2 compilation -- a three-CD, three-hour-plus overview of the amorphous corner of the subrock underground Release has carved out -- there's nothing resembling heavy metal, or even a band. What you do get is a sense of where the search for the most extreme music went after grindcore. Most often detached from the use of conventional instruments, it's mostly electronic (electrical might be a better term), encompassing hums and feedback loops, household appliances, found sounds, homemade gadgetry, toys, spoken word, synthesized drones, and construction equipment. The results range from abusive, misanthropic fogs of cyclical white-noise squalls that can fry your speakers at even moderate volumes (the third disc, with the likes of Atrax Morgue and founding Anthrax/Brutal Truth member Dan Lilker's Throbbing Gristle-grade industrial project, Last Satanic Dance) to spaced-out ethereal landscapes tinted toward foreboding and menace (exemplified on the second disc by James Plotkin, the Brian Eno of the doom generation) to the gothic/tribalist new-age-leaning ambient clarity of Amber Asylum, Trial of the Bow, Tribes of Neurot (Neurosis's alter ego), and Mick Harris's seance-like Lull.

At the other end of Relapse's fractal spectrum are albums by the most gnashing, brutal, and patently offensive grindcore bands on the planet, a cartel of scumlords who're still finding new ways to appall all decent-minded persons of reasonable taste while having quite a few yuks along the way. Mortician, a drum-machine-powered basement-recording duo, lean on extended horror-movie samples; their utterly bleak, crushing churn is so devilishly honed that it takes on a sonic purity all its own. More programmed grindcore is on the way later this month from Worcester's Agoraphobic Nosebleed, a band featuring former Anal Cunt dude Scott Hull, whose Honky Reduction Relapse staffer Gordon Conrad aptly describes as "a 25-round beating in 22 minutes," including "Bones in One Bag (Organs in Another)."

Along with new, revitalized efforts from established cult faves Today Is the Day (who are in the process of moving from Texas to Massachusetts) and Unsane (who had a brief fling with MTV heavy rotation last year while still on AmRep), Relapse has also broken open a new middle ground that's redefining the boundaries of heavy metal -- some of it right in our own backyard. Weymouth's Nightstick covered both Pink Floyd and Lydia Lunch on their debut. Their just-released follow-up, Ultimatum, pounds primordial psychedelic grooves to dust, making Fu Manchu and Kyuss sound like a bunch of fussy stylists by comparison. Three versions of the title track use a turgid, repetitive bass riff as a launching pad for exponentially weirder tonal explorations. On one version this riff is undercut by Witches and Devils-era Ayler-style sax bleats; on another, it's Gulf War samples and a shifting guitar milieu that comes off like a cross between Spaceman 3 and Hendrix's "Machine Gun."

These vaguely related tangents -- industrial, noise, ambient, grindcore, psychedelia -- have been part of the secret postmetal canon for more than a decade, but Relapse is the first to consolidate them, with the distribution power and zealous cross-promotional panache to make an impact. As Jacobsen puts it, "There are no other metal labels that have expanded in the way we have."

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