the sweetest 'ache

many years ago, when profiling the inestimable sir jimmy of tassos for a once-reputable independent music review website, we remarked in passing that (aside from matinee recordings) the best 10 labels ever were probably stax, tamla motown, rockney, people unite, postcard, ron johnson, subway organisation, earache and sarah. that list was not scientifically assembled, was numerically inaccurate (the tenth should probably have been decca, for quite properly having turned down the beatles), and indeed in 2007 it omits other perfectly feasible candidates like boy better know, relapse, and atomic beat, but we feel it still covers most of the bases.

so now, just imagine how ace it would be if just one of those unutterably splendid concerns released not one, but two, six-cd "best of" box sets for a tenner each. that's right - a dozen cd albums, 210 tracks, for not much more than the price of yer average third division football match, but without the inevitability of either a home defeat or a late opposition equaliser.

well, it's happened, even if not of all you will be cavorting round the maypole at the news that the label in question is earache and the boxes in question have the decidedly unprepossessing monikers of "metal - a headbanger's companion" and "metal -a headbanger's companion, vol. 2". nevertheless, if there was ever an excuse to investigate at low-ish personal cost more of the bands who've been rendering some of us giddy for nigh-on two decades, this has got to be it, surely ? and any record label whose strapline is "eight million records sold, no ballads" have to be doing something right, don't they ? well, let's find out - it's time for a marathon.

box one, disc one: "death metal" (17 tunes) ***1/2

track one is deicide's "homage for satan": we have it on good authority that this assault on the senses was the 7th best single of last year, and it so was. indeed, don't tell the terrorizer mag cognoscenti, but it's almost too exciting to be death metal. after that, as you'd perhaps guess, the disc also has its fair share of decidedly suspect numbers, but this is made up for by the early-90s five-piece napalm death in full flow with "suffer the children", chugging bolt-thrower fan fave "world eater" and vegan gods carcass's "incarnated solvent abuse", from the record hailed by many as their first great album, "descanting the insalubrious". we have previously established that the first great album was actually the one before that, "symphonies of sickness", itself somewhat underrepresented in these 12 discs, but that's probably beside the point. a solid start.

box one, disc two: "grindcore" (20 tunes) ****1/2

as you could probably predict, things markedly improve with this one. funnily enough, it can't quite compare to the "grindcrusher" cd which earache released in 1989, their "take the subway to your suburb" and still probably the ultimate summary of a scene then at its peak - for example, carcass's "pysosified", which we get here, is a groggy, malformed mess of goregrind compared to "grindcrusher's" all-conquering slowcore steamroller, "exhume to consume" (also taken from "symphonies of sickness", natch). yet amongst this set there are several fairly blinding floor-fillers.

prime amongst these is track one, napalm death's "scum" (title track from the lp re-issued earlier in the year - see here). we have said before that, in every positive way, this song brings all things c86 to our mind, just as much as the other great new british bands who went on to be associated with that movement. from its raw, opening bars, as the rhythm meanders menacingly, ineffably towards its two, flickering bursts of blast-beat madness, "scum" - which bookended early soup dragons or the weddoes on radio one then just as well as it does on our stereo now - is hungry, political, resonant of a time and a place when we began to think we could achieve anything. it's a song about hiding behind the cathode ray tube: "you should be living / but you only survive". its bleak fabulousness, its very existence, should shame any of the denizens of the hawley arms into never making any more records, ever again.

similar emotions are engendered by bolt-thrower's stinging, if not particularly grindcore "through the eye of terror", a number we first came across in peel session form when it appeared on strange fruit's "hardcore holocaust" album amidst unlikely bedfellows like the stupids and doctor and the crippens. midlands marvels unseen terror lollop into view too, with "charred remains", a song that epitomises their raw, detuned crossover charm. nice to see hellbastard represented as well, with the obituary-influenced (we reckon) "justly executed". by now, earache had extended its tentacles far from its native nottingham and so kosher americans chip in too, with a brace from a.c. that includes "no we don't want to do a split 7" with your stupid fucking band" we namechecked here, and the original version of terrorizer's "dead shall rise" (the only tune on this disc that also lit up "grindcrusher"). and there's even the blinking of an eye to spare for napalm's micro-symphony "you suffer", still the best sub-five second song (of surprisingly many) ever written. and still longer than brutal truth's "collateral damage", which appears a few tracks later.

box one, disc three: "metal / rock" (19 tunes) **

ook. as you'd expect, cd3 represents a bit of a comedown. to be fair, it starts with carcass's "keep on rotting in the free world", the epitome of their late-catalogue, perfectly clubbable but straightish down the line rock which began to emerge once they finally ditched the conceit of every song being about bodily dismemberment. a veil should be drawn over most of the rest of the disc, although by ending with dub war's stirring "nar say a ting" (dub war's sometimes-excoriating metal / reggae hybrid once having pitched earache as close to a uk top 40 hit as we think they ever got) it does at least open up renewed hope for the second half of the first half.

box one, disc four: "industrial" (15 tunes) ****

and this is good - no really. after the worrying sludge of most of "metal / rock", "industrial" is a timely reminder of where earache used to really be worth its weight in gold, all the ways it was dedicated to seeking out the new and different, like when it released one of the most satisfying genre crossover comps ever, the hammer techno vs grind collison that was "hellspawn". anyway, disc four justifies its existence through ultraviolence's ultra-repetitive "hardcore motherfucker", made before they lapsed into lame europop-nonsense with the "superpower" album, old's bouncing, glimmering "glitch" (which also appeared on earache's "corporate rock wars" back in the day), "hellspawn" cut "day of suffering" (death metal kings morbid angel remixed by the berzerker, no doubt to their own utter perplexion) and contributions from earache mainstays godflesh and scorn (scorn being one of the evergreen mick harris's infinite solo projects). good to see the poppier meathook seed, yet another band featuring the living legend that is shane embury, getting a run-out too.

box one, disc five: "punk / hardcore" (21 tunes) *****

as it includes heresy, napalm, early extreme noise terror and hellbastard again our opinion on disc five is probably redundant, but for the record, guess what. we think it's ace. heresy's muffled and militant "vision of fear" and "nausea" take us back to the very origins of the label, when it was still pretty much a front-room operation; the 16 seconds of feverish activity that is napalm's "the kill" still leaps from their every live set; and yes, ENT's "murder" still features the least-pussyfooted opening line in rock n'roll history - "450 million animals are murdered in britain every year" - and follows it with two minutes of belligerent, heavenly thrash, not too far away from their wonderful most recent record, that reflect their righteous anger at full hurricane speed. our record collection is also repped by dillinger escape plan's "i love secret agents", which turns up the math-sophistication.

but the icing on the cake is tune 21, intense degree's "skate bored": about as far away as you can get from either mathcore or sophistication, and a first digital outing for another track which originally featured in peel sesh form on "hardcore holocaust", as i.d. refined their semi-punk, semi-metal vision. it is beyond doubt that intense degree's stuff is worth a re-release: all we've got is a vinyl copy of "war in my head", one tune off "grindcrusher" and the hat-trick of numbers on "north atlantic noise attack". we'd be happy to tape these for anyone interested!

box one, disc six: "leftfield" (14 tunes) **1/2

there are plenty of limits to our musical tolerance, the outskirts of that tolerance probably being (b)reached by a cd that starts with an 11-minute cult of luna tune and finishes with seven and a half minutes from crotchduster. after the stellar heights of discs four and five "leftfield" is curiously unrewarding listening (curious, because usually "difficult" listening is the most invigorating of all) - the highlights of this one are probably old and scorn of disc four fame popping up again. still, the very existence of a leftfield disc reinforces why earache need props for never having been afraid to diversify and stand up for more than "just" metal: as a general rule, the further their artists have been from "just" metal, the better it's worked.

box two, disc one: "extreme metal essentials" (20 tunes) ****3/4

extreme yes, metal yes, essential yes. wow. again, the compilers, despite now presumably having been locked in some underground bunker for some months, know exactly how to get the party started, and that's by bowling us over immediately with carcass's "heartwork" and then napalm death's "mass appeal madness". the former is carcass's chrysalis moment, when they first bloomed as proper melodic metal and ditched the goregrind - the latter is napalm death's retort to those who might have had them do the same, a defiant turning of their backs on the bands who wanted to embrace the corporates. "clever marketing to dominate / screwing those who gave you your big break / and when the bubble bursts / we'll just sit back and laugh" sings barney greenway, as napalm retreat to stripped-down, growling grind. and so it came to pass.

what is slightly odd about this seventh disc, though, is that it reminds us a bit of listening to "the kids in the club": each song on its own is fairly amazing, but if you listen to all of them in a row you start to hanker for a change of scenery. nevertheless, we'd struggle to pinpoint a duffer amongst these: for example, bolt-thrower and terrorizer are represented, the cathedral number isn't quite as foppishly rustic-pyschedelic as some of their later stuff, and even massacre and vader turn out perfectly respectable tunes to keep up the levels. having said that, we're starting to feel a bit sleep-deprived ourselves now. anyway, only five or six hours to go.

box two, disc two: "cult rock classics" (19 tunes) **

this is a really interesting one, because virtually all the tunes are new to
us, with the exception of extreme noise terror's eco-anthem "raping the earth" which sits sublimely in the middle. but are they any good ? well, not really, no, even if usurper's "kill for metal" out spinal-taps itself and mistress's "fucking fuck" is probably an appropriate introduction to them, shld you fancy checking out their recent feto records album.

box two, disc three: "the new rock breed" (18 tunes) ***

for the second disc in a row, we are in uncharted territory, because we are some distance out of the loop on new metal bands, and because this is about the only title here that is out of bounds to all the groups that john peel originally introduced us to. now without wishing to sound too uncharitable, the problem with the new rock breed is that a lot of them don't sound particularly fresh, or vibrant - even huddersfield's evile, who have a decent sound, end up overstaying their welcome when they insist on drawing out what would have been a solid 3 mins into an overwrought four and a half.

the exceptions to the overindulgence are virginia's municipal waste, whose "the art of partying" is an energetic reassembling of proper hardcore tradition - m.w. actually have much of the nyc-style hardcore of the early 90s about them, which any right minded person will tell you is, as a rule, superior to much of the hardcore of today. and scousers s.s.s., whose "the beast", while sadly not betraying much evidence of any english accent, shows that some of the new kids on the block are happy to inject a little pace rather than falling back on muddier, less concise metal (check out their pretty solid "short sharp shock" debut, also on earache, for more). even better, both tunes are 2007. light and shade is provided by the way that cult of luna and with passion slip in a little bit of thoughtful, melodic instrumental action, but it's hard to compare this disc - as a whole - with "grindcore", for example, and have it come off favourably.

box two, disc four: "live metal destruction" (12 tunes) *1/2

hmmm. the guys in the bunker are having to eke things out now, as well as obviously starting to struggle for themes. can any cd with napalm death's "siege of power" be bad ? surprisingly, yes, because while there are a handful of decent tunes here (the drumming that heralds the start of carcass's "jigsore corporeal quandary" is as ever a sterling, stirring moment), most of the productions are muddy and none really add to the lustre of their recorded counterparts. mortiis' "parasite god" intrigues slightly, because the synths and percussion put one heavily in mind of new order's "movement" until the guitars eventually take over completely, but the only number that really works in live form is probably fudge tunnel's "gut rot", simply because fudge tunnel's full-on unsane vs. shellac sound has always had that prosaic bulldozer quality to it, which the mud and sludge suit.

box two, disc five: "metal remixed" (14 tunes) *****

ah, blinding - so this is where the rest of "hellspawn" got to. some really exciting propositions here, which include more bulldozing from fudge tunnel, ultraviolence teaming up electrifyingly with lenny dee (who we've most recently been listening to for his collabs with the london techno underground and stay up forever collective) and delta 9 taking on napalm death's classic "breed to breathe" single. scorn get remixed to reasonable effect by meat beat manifesto, and ewigkeit come up, in tandem with scott brown, with a possibly storming nu-trance sesh (albeit that, much like the young tradition did, fiercely divides opinion here at in love with these times, in spite of these times towers). er, we also seem to have the berzerker's rejig of "day of suffering" from box one, disc four again, which will bemuse morbid angel yet further. but it still works pretty well, and we guess that by now the compilers have long forgotten what songs they allocated to the first few cds, or indeed probably what day it is.

box two, disc six: "sickest ever metal" (21 tunes) ****

not, as you'd expect, 21 a.c. numbers: there is only one of those (unpleasant, but some distance from their sickest). the cd actually kicks off with napalm death's perfectly weighted "the kill", which is really about cheated, defeated expectations and broken promises - or as many of them as you can fit in to about 16 seconds of music - and as such is sad, rather than mad or bad. also, as you may have spotted, it already turned up a few discs ago. there are other star turns - unseen terror's "burned beyond recognition", most obviously - but this is actually quite an eclectic little disc, mixing plenty of lo-fi grinding like some early O.L.D. (before they got all club-friendly) and sore throat's enjoyable "truth" with the unallayed steamrolling that is godflesh's "avalanche master song" and even the conspicuous jazz-thrash of john zorn's painkiller.

oddly, carcass's "exhume to consume", which we noted should have been on box one disc two, belatedly turns up now. which is nice.

summary and conclusions.

as these compilations take us back down there and back again (memory) lane, we can't help feeling (with the exception of the deicide ditty that started this whole epic listening exercise), that it's the songs from the first decade or so of earache that really hit home. but then it's far from impossible that a second decade of sarah records would only have paled in comparison to the heady hundred from '87-'95. and with more than 200 songs here, some included more than once, and more discs than not meriting 4 or 5 festive ilwtt stars, the strike-rate of the premium picks we've precis-ed seems just fine to us.

we'll continue to applaud anyone who give us value for money, whether it's trim giving us bonus cds with mixtapes, indie labels doing firesales or even anglo-american conglomerates like earache removing any excuse not to roadtest their product. so thanks be and praises to them all.

oh, and here's wishing you a very happy christmas and - really - thanks for still reading.

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