In vinyls twilight hours, a savior arose. It’s name? The Hellactopters.
‘The future belongs to the analog loyalists. Fuck digital.’
– Steve Albini*
Cast your mind back, back to earliest of the 1990s, where the mainstream music outlets had eliminated their stores of vinyl, filling their shelves instead with the more commercially viable Compact Disc technology – almost a decade old by this time. The mainstream labels concluded that by marketing the Compact Disc format, that they could gouge music fans for an additional 33% on the purchase price of a full length album. Manufacturing costs were lower, shipping less expensive, bonus tracks could be added, and remastering presented an opportunity to declare the old as new.
A swathe of the indie record stores followed this reallocation of floor space reasonably quickly, and through 1991 and 1992, records increasingly became a footnote – regaled to clearance bins and second hand racks. Those we frequented – Melbourne landmarks such as Missing Link and Extreme Aggression on Flinders Lane, Au Go Go on Little Bourke St, and even the burgeoning Heartland Records (the sole survivor of all those mentioned) all adjusted their offerings – some more significantly than others. Some of the of the stores bore the namesake of labels – Redeye Records from Sydney cut their last 12” in 1991, and Waterfront Records pressed their final vinyl release in 1993. By 1995 record fairs were often stalled by idiots, asking absurd prices for what often amounted to garbage.
Collector, “Hey, uh, looks like someone took a knife to this record. It’s unplayable.”
Idiot record fair stall holder, “It’ll never again be in print. 50 bucks.”
That’s what you think…
This isn’t to suggest that the ancient platters from the halcyon underground days of the 1980s were completely out of reach, or the exclusive domain of opportunists. The contingency was to buy collections from friends and associates who had decided that their days of stockpiling the devil’s music on the feted 12” format, should go the way of the dinosaur. It was they who offered up collections at authentic second hand prices.
Though many of us adapted to the CD format, even embraced it in certain contexts (hello Cold Meat Industry perfection), the vinyl flame was never fully snuffed out, despite the probability of new vinyl productions becoming more of an aberration than an expectation.
During the latter half of the 90s, where the glimmer of vinyl viability was at its dimmest, my mind reverts back to the thrill of the first Hellacopters release – ‘Supershitty To The Max’. And to qualify that statement, it wasn’t that I was in love with that record – it’s still my least revered of their studio suite – but it was for me the first noteworthy indication that my beloved vinyl format could again be a force to reckon.
Which brings us to the point of this article, where I make it my goal to convince you (perhaps me too), that it was the Swedish rock ‘n’ roll overlords, The Hellacopters, who played the most significant hand in the vinyl revival. That they not only kept the spirit of vinyl alive, but they led a revolution… some pun intended.
Much of what I’m outlining here is anecdotal, and in part skewed by my geographic location of Melbourne, Australia. And while the years between the stores increasing the commercial viability of their floorspace by scaling back, even eliminating records, the so-called ‘Death of Vinyl’ as it is commonly referred, is a misnomer – production never completely stopped – and was limited to an approximate time-span of five years.
It wasn’t just Australia that was awakened by the Hellacopters lo-fi homage. The band conjured a sonic swirl that resonated across Europe and the United States as well – their records forged in a host of territories and in significantly different editions. No less than four alternate sleeve designs adorned their debut, and if this is the sort of stuff you care about, the troupe even managed to win themselves a Grammis award. I’m sure you can do the math as to what this Swedish accolade is equivalent to.
And as my personal experience was almost exclusively framed by niche artists and labels, it’s not surprising that I’d attribute the first revivalist market for vinyl records to The Hellacopters.
The three broad and blurry genres who maintained my interest during the formats seasons in the abyss comprised Black Metal, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Industrial/Noise. Each of which played a notable role in sustaining the ever shrinking number of pressing plants, all but completely abandoned by the majors. The interesting thing about each of these abrasive manifestations is that it was only the most ardent artists who’d get their visions pressed to wax. It wasn’t all encompassing, generally reserved for the zealots. Those artists whose label deals centred around their access to a vinyl pressing of their conjurations. Everything else was peripheral.
My role, outside being a collector, was that I worked for a music distributor. Key Osmose Productions artists, Moonfog, Malicious Records, and AvantGarde Music, among others, shipped their wares to Australian shores, and as the 90s wound on, the vinyl release cycle became sparser and the loyalists increasingly expected to accept some particularly standard picture disc offerings, in lieu of the conventional black vinyl/sleeve configuration. This is perhaps one area that bolstered the Hellacopters. In addition to their broader appeal, they did fall into a stylistic groove with the roster of labels like Man’s Ruin and Sympathy For The Record Industry – one of the most dedicated and unyielding companies, who never stopped making records. If you looked at their timeline, you’d never know there was a slump in interest for vinyl. The Hellacopters’ scene was already in full force, their rambunctious tones tapped in, bringing a desired ruckus to the people.
Indie record stores across Australia maintained a tentative interest in vinyl, but I’d argue this was more through specific customer demand than a faithful commitment to the format. The Black Metal and Industrial releases, all generally limited in number, could be trafficked to these retailers, but it was definitely a case of supply trying to force demand. Again, this is where The Hellacopters were discernible. Once their ‘Supershitty To The Max’ LP on the newly formed White Jazz label was issued for global distribution in 1997, there were a host of ready made audiences for this band. Those who wanted to know what former Entombed mainman, Nicke Andersson had gone on to, and those who already loved and supported underground Rock ‘n’ Roll among them. It was at this stage that stores started demanding copies of this platter of Rock ‘n’ Roll overkill, and in noteworthy numbers. While Australia is no doubt a heartland for exemplary and gritty Rock ‘n’ Roll, the band quickly positioned their rock action as designated for one ultimate format.
And along with label mates Gluecifer and Scandinavian contemporaries, TurboNegro, these acts achieved an additional feat. They captured interest from audiences who were still assimilating to a world without vinyl, as well as new fans who identified this as the only medium with which these sounds should be expressed. The Hellacopters managed to promote an idea that vinyl was where you’d get the complete assemblage of material, making the investment worthwhile. Adding killer bonus track/s such as ‘City Slang’ on their ‘Payin’ The Dues’ LP – their noble tribute to Sonic’s Rendezvous Band being one example. French label Osmose Productions had dabbled in this approach, along with hand-numbering and a more overt focus on limited editions, but this wasn’t as effective – satiating, rather than amplifying the collector’s experience.
And no matter how tenuous the link between those three genres I cited earlier and the correct format for these channels of communication, it was the Black Metal scene that most assuredly pushed the vinyl record into the new millennium. End All Life Productions surfaced toward the end of the 90s, and their initial intention was to issue vinyl pressings of cult releases that had otherwise only existed on CD format. Mutiilation, Judas Iscariot and Moonblood all featured within the French labels inaugural wave of offerings, and as was de rigueur by this time, in limited numbers. While the label’s modus operandi made them synonymous with arcane recordings from the deepest chasms of obscurity, the levels of demand for these releases, well exceeded the founders expectations. That people bought ‘Vampires…’ for $20 USD upon release, only to see this LP to change hands for up to $1500 a decade later, was definitely not by design. If the Black Metal stock exchange opened with ‘Deathcrush’ by Mayhem, End All Life inadvertently seeded its advancement.
EAL was one of the first European metal labels to make vinyl their exclusive medium, though they were not without contemporaries. Northern Heritage from Finland was most readily aligned to the EAL blueprint, despite issuing CDs also, both labels achieving a progressive conservatism, in contrast to the German label Iron Pegasus, who made their first releases available a year prior, but were positioned in a more antiquated and orthodox frame that lacked the barbarity and what was evidently a new dawn for extreme metal. And while this turn of the century shift was overtly a European phenomenon, two extremely important American labels followed suit soon after. Hells Headbangers from Ohio, and Nuclear War Now! from San Francisco – the latter especially, demonstrating that no detail is too small to be concerned with, and that the aesthetic of a release was as equally potent as the noise emanating from the grooves in weaponizing extreme metal from the past and the present, giving life to the ultimate versions of underground gems both known and esoteric. Oregon label, The AJNA Offensive also warrants mention. They laid a manifestly aesthetic hand to vinyl issues of Tormentor’s ‘Anno Domini’ and ‘Pure Fucking Armageddon’ by Mayhem.
But what does any of this have to do with The Hellacopters? The most luminous star in a constellation remains just one of the many that comprise the celestial sphere. To say that the Swedes were indeed one of the most radiant would be accurate, but to say that they alone reign over the glory of the night sky would discount the energies that surround them.
It would also depreciate the artists who demanded vinyl, the labels who acquiesced, or straight up believed it’s what their artists’ malignant intentions should be communicated through. And of course, the fans who made their allegiance known by supporting this so called revival.
We can conclude then, that these Swedish hellcats deserve acknowledgement, but to deify them as the exclusive architects of vinyls salvation? That would be misguided.
Was it End All Life, or labels of their ilk? People who threw their everything behind the format? Nah, way too niche. If not rock ‘n’ roll, Black Metal or some other underground violation, then what was it? Arguably, each of these entities conspired together to accomplish, was to position vinyl as commercially viable once more; to identify that there were enough zealots to bolster its ongoing production. By effect of contagion, these artists and labels inflamed collectors who never strayed, and beckoned those who were yet to be initiated. They increased demand from the pressing plants. They positioned companies like GZ Media as the location to get vinyl pressed. They rekindled the interest, enthusiasm and the viability. Bands and aspiring label managers alike now had a roadmap, and The Hellacopters definitely played their part in designing its template.
*This quote is from the back of Big Black’s 1987 masterpiece, ‘Songs About Fucking’. While it’s a perfect fit for a piece of this nature, I’d like to point out an oft confused distinction. Vinyl is an analog format, where the majority of studio recordings made in the new millenium were digital. Digital recordings, analog format. And no black magick in between.