Hydra Head Records: A Personal Recollection

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Gary Copeland, courtesy of Torche
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By Paul T. Bradley

This week, Hydra Head Records founder Aaron Turner announced the label's closing. The L.A. metal imprint -- by way of Boston and New Mexico -- is home to first-rate acts including Torche, Botch, Cave In, Harvey Milk and, occasionally, Converge. Co-founder Aaron Turner says that they'll stop putting out new music after December and then continue clearing out their back catalog for debt-servicing purposes.

I'm originally from Boston, and there was a time when Hydra Head catered specifically to a small scene of Massachusetts hardcore kids, of which I was more or less one. Some of us, either bored by the monotony or the territoriality of the Boston punk scene -- with its collection of tired punk tropes and alcoholic anomie -- turned to the quiet post-industrial Merrimack Valley 30 minutes north of the city. The Valley was where they had the empty VFW halls and barns willing to host the first free all-ages shows by now-nationally-known bands like Converge, Cave In and Piebald.

Courtesy of Hydra Head
Cave In
Sure some of that early stuff holds little more than nostalgic value for me today -- like Piebald's whining about girls, backed by chunky hardcore. Converge and Cave In, on the other hand, aged with ferocity and still sound as timeless as Black Flag.

Aside from the silly giant pants and prep-core haircuts of the time, there were even sillier speeches about militant veganism, straight-edge, and staying true to the scene. But Hydra Head as a label never completely identified with all that, they merely put together sonically aggressive alternatives to puffy chested punk and hardcore. To balance the thinking-man's metal of Botch and Turner's own band Isis, they put out one-offs by absurd acts like Anal Cunt and rarities by experimental hip hop group Dälek.

Hydra Head, like other upstart DIY labels at the time, helped foster the scene I grew up around. Their attitude seemed to be, "If AmRep and Dischord Records can do it, so can we." They put up shows where they could -- even church basements on the fringe of Harvard Square -- and wrestled with terrible sound and spectator injuries.

Thankfully, similar scenes were popping up everywhere in the early '90s -- buoyed by a healthy need for thoughtfully loud and thrashy music. Over nearly 20 years, Hydra Head plucked bands from those scenes and fully evolved into an international niche label, producing unique and beautiful vinyl in the process. Having the good sense to leave Boston and settle in L.A., Hydra Head holed up in Glendale, and owners Turner and Mark Thompson co-founded the venerable record shop Vacation Vinyl in Silver Lake.

Courtesy of Hydra Head
Each Hydra Head purchase is a unique physical work of art, regardless of sonic contents. And the colored-vinyl / art-work laden releases often came with scene-y swag like patches and stickers. Sadly, it may have been the attention to detail and bang-for-the-buck that also sowed the seeds of its demise -- fewer and fewer metal nerds want to pony up for this kind of thing anymore. And unless you're flush with cash, it's hard to answer the question, "Why would I shell out for a $30 marbled-vinyl record that I could torrent for free?"

Even if Hydra Head was held together by safety pins and electrical tape, they had an impressive run for a label that catered specifically to those with an appreciation for aural dissonance. For a label that "Fit like a hairshirt," it sure was a comfortable one.

Even if it's too late to keep them afloat, maybe we can help Turner and Thompson climb out of debt by buying up their back catalog, which will remain available.

Thanks for the tinnitus, guys.

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