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From Rhythm and Blues to Death Metal

By Caspar and TK | Music | July 16, 2009 |

By Caspar and TK | Music | July 16, 2009 |

Welcome back to our continuing series on the best record labels. This week, we’ve got a hell of a combination. Please, do enjoy.

Stax1.jpgStax (Memphis, TN 1957 - 1975)

I love Motown - and if you’re going to attempt a comparision between the two greatest soul houses of their time, Motown undeniably had the best songs and the greater songwriters - but increasingly I’ve been attracted to the rough, ragged, sensual soul sound of Stax. I think Motown sometimes sounds too tidy, too polished. By contrast, Stax made a policy of keeping their songs jagged — songs were recorded in one go, and while strings sometimes came into play on their songs, there was often a back-to-basics ethos at play.

Stax was founded by two white people, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, who originally intended the label to produce country and fiddle music. When father and daughter Rufus and Carla Thomas came to the label, it became clear that rhythm and blues was going to be the way forward. Rufus and Carla’s first song together was ‘Cause I Love You’, which they recorded when she was just seventeen. He’s got a growl of a voice and she positively belts out her verses, and they meet beautifully on the chorus; the track has an incredibly danceable beat, with licks of bass and guitar amongst some sharp brass. Rufus Thomas went on to sing ‘Walking The Dog’, which is fantastically silly and excellent at once, while Carla hit the big time with ‘Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)’ and ‘B.A.B.Y’, which are both incredibly sensual. She also sings the female part in the Otis Redding face-off, ‘Tramp’. It’s a brilliant song because she plays the haughty madam and he the gumshoe suitor: it perfectly captures the essence of Stax’s everyman ethos.

Stax’s sound was resolutely lo-fi, with predominantly few string arrangements and a muscular rhythm section (the peerless Mar-Keys, who also doubled up as Booker T and the MGs). The Mar-Keys released the excellent ‘Last Night’, which you definitely know and will enjoy doing ridiculous sex-moves to when you play it: it’s that insanely catchy organ-and-brass stomper. You know the one It speaks of sex and fun, and it sort of describes the Stax methods: there’s musical proficiency there, but it’s a firm, no-nonsense song. Otis Redding, Stax’s greatest star, was the best proponent of those methods: there’s a minimalism to his songwriting, and a raw urgency in his delivery, and his singing never descends into tremolos. Listen to the sex-crazed demands of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, or the sensuality of ‘These Arms Of Mine’: he never overcooks it.

Meanwhile, unfussiness and common sense were held up as firm values at Stax. So many of the artists at the label were local kids, raised on R’n’B, who knew each other well from school, and whose easy camaraderie informed the songs. Famously, one of the trumpeters misses a cue on the call-and-response section in Sam and Dave’s ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’, and the song was released like that, with the gaffe plain to hear. It didn’t matter: the thing was the passion, the thing was the effort, the sweat and the music. Sam and Dave released many other songs for Stax, including the faultless ‘Soul Man’, with its thrilling call-and-brass-response chorus. There’s another thing at Stax: less of the backing vocals, and more brass responding. The brass has its own voice at Stax.

There are so many other great singers at Stax - like Mable Johns, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers, and in the 70s, Isaac Hayes - that it can often feel difficult to know where to start. Well, you could do worse than buying The Stax Story, which is what I’ve got: it’s a loving four-CD box set which provides a comprehensive and fascinating history of the label, and mixes live versions and rarities with the stone-cold classics, such as (to name a few more) Eddie Floyd’s ‘Knock On Wood’, Booker T and the MGs’ ‘Green Onions’, and William Bell’s sumptuous, keening take on ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. I also adore the latter’s duet with Judy Clay on ‘Private Number’, which is perhaps an exception to the roughness rule at Stax: soaring and glorious, it has strings and mightily overblown vocals. The CD of live versions on the aforementioned comp show just how rough-and-ready, how dangerous and sexual the Stax stars are — particularly the king, Otis Redding.

Stax wasn’t able to keep up with the 70s, in which soul disjointed and gave way to funk, but it now exists to distribute material from its wonderful, inspiring heyday. I think soul music owes it a lot of its menace and sexuality — and so much other soul music, from Wilson Pickett to Doris Duke via the Four Tops and Aretha Franklin, was influenced by the majestic low-down sound of Stax.

—Caspar Salmon

Roadrunner+Records+Inc+Logo.jpgRoadrunner Records (New York, NY, 1980 - present)
A lot has changed with Roadrunner, one of the premier record labels for metal artists. Originally a smaller, independent label based out of the Netherlands (it’s now a Warner subsidiary) called “Roadracer Records,” their original focus was importing American metal artists to Europe, providing bands like King Diamond and Annihilator, while also importing early Metallica albums as well. They’ve historically had an eye for quality metal talent, creating a niche that was previously ignored. While punk rock had a few labels spring up in the late seventies and early eighties, a label dedicated predominately to metal was somewhat unheard of, and Roadrunner filled that void perfectly.

The mid-1980’s saw the rise of more doom/gothic metal bands as well, and Roadrunner was quick to snap those up, signing bands like Type-O Negative (formed out of the ashes of Fallout and Carnivore, andone of their more notable successes in the metal scene) and Life of Agony. Eventually, they would lead the charge for metal acts into the 90’s, featuring such metal staples as Sepultura, including one of their seminal albums, Chaos A.D. They also pioneered the burgeoning death metal movement, releasing now-classic albums like Consuming Impulse by Pestilence and Slowly We Rot by Obituary. At the same time, they were keeping their hand in the punk/hardcore scene by releasing seminal hardcore/speed metal albums like Gang Green’s You Got It and OIder… Budweiser and Biohazard’s Urban Discipline (still one of my favorite hardcore/metal bands, partly due to their bizarre hip hop experiments).

“Refuse/Resist” - Sepultura

The 1990’s saw a radical change in metal in general, and it was reflected in the bands signed by Roadrunner. They still held onto the dark, death metal-esque bands like Cradle of Filth, but also made moves towards signing some of the more modern metal and metalcore bands, leading them to bands like Slipknot and speed metalists Machine Head. While they lost some of the bands that put them on the map — Sepultura would eventualy move on, as would Type-O Negative and industrial/electro-metal band Front Line Assembly, they still managed to score several solid acts that made them one of, if not the premier metal label.

As the label grew, more popular acts were drawn to them, and in the 2000’s, they managed several impressive signing coups, grabbing up bands like metalcore maniacs Hatebreed, Killswitch Engage, and prog-metal prodigies like Pajiba Music favorite Dream Theater and Sweden’s Opeth, who released their ridiculously good Ghost Reveries and last year’s Watershed on Roadrunner.

“Ghost of Perdition” - Opeth

Unfortunately, despite being named “Best Label” by the Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards, the takeover by Warner Brothers has led to a decline that was already in process, in terms of the quality of the bands signed. While they still manage some brilliant metal bands, including the recent signing of metal godfathers Megadeth, they’ve also branched into more popular, radio-friendly and unfortunately, crappy bands like Nickelback and Staind (excluding US distribution). Much of this is likely due to Warner’s corporate influence, which is becoming so intense that Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls has begged the label to release her, claiming they are stifling creativity. Palmer, whose sublimely brilliant Who Killed Amanda Palmer? is a Roadrunner release, even went so far as to release a song called “Please Drop Me,” wherein she laments being “tired of sucking corporate dick.” God, I love Amanda Palmer. A big part of her criticism stemmed from the label wanting to digitially firm up her midriff in the video for “Leeds United.”

“Leeds United” - Amanda Palmer

As such, Roadrunner stands at a crossroads. Will they re-discover their indie roots, and somehow find a way to stop having to play ball despite the dark shadow of Warner Brothers? They still have some amazing acts that they distribute, including several that, while they don’t have the North American or USA distribution rights, have garnered them millions of overseas fans — not the least of which are metal gods like Lamb of God, releasing their most recent Wrath outside the US, and metalcore bands like Atreyu.

Lamb of God - New Music
“Laid To Rest” - Lamb of God

They’re clearly still drawing quality talent, and the question will be where they’re able to take that talent — or rather, where that talent will be allowed to go. Regardless of what their future holds, Roadrunner Records will always be known for being one of the labels to give metal a voice.

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TK Burton is an Editorial Consultant. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.