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What's In A Label? Apothecary Picks Ten Purveyors Of Fine Metals

Written by: Auntie Sahar
Published: June 13, 2020

While I'm sure pretty much any Metal Storm user could stop and name ten of their favorite bands if given time to think about it, it's less often that we really stop and consider a bigger, more overarching factor in the metal community: the record labels that serve as hosts to these bands in the first place.

So yeah... what is in a label, anyway? Let us refer to some sagely words The RZA dropped almost 25 years ago.

Damn, Apothecary, you really gonna quote the Wu Tang on a metal article?

Yes, short sighted genre elitist, I think I just will:

"Sometimes people gotta come out and speak up
And let people understand
That, you know, you gotta read the label
You gotta read the label
If you don't read the label, you might get poisoned"

Indeed, a record label can serve as many things: a mentoring, almost parental structure playing host to up and coming artists, an important tool for better compiling and showcasing bands from various scenes or styles, a vehicle for easier and cheaper merchandise distribution- or, just as easily, a group of predatory vultures with proven track records of consistently making absurd demands in their extended contracts and routinely fucking artists out of their money. Within the entirety of the music industry, labels both friend and foe alike can be found. Fortunately, within the context of metal, the labels under disciplined command, free from corrupt opportunists, and that don't ask too much from their signed bands in terms of creative or financial demands appear to be much more the norm than the exception (although there have certainly been notable cases in which the opposite has been the case over the years).

Read on for ten unordered Apothecary picks of some of the most formidable, visionary, and all around respectable labels out there, chosen from nearly a decade's worth of hunting for the best the international metal community has to offer.

I, Voidhanger

Our journey begins with the Italian I, Voidhanger Records. Broadly speaking, the focus here is on extreme metal, particularly black and death, of either a highly atmospheric or Avant-garde nature, at times both. As longtime followers of the label could probably attest, there's an expectation of a certain sound that arises whenever one notices a new album released through the label. A reasonable expectation that it's either going to feature highly layered, nuanced music with a distinct sense of ambiance on the one hand, or be otherwise experimental/deconstructionist on the other. Primarily a metal label, there have nonetheless been some recent additions to the I, Voidhanger roster that fall more into some gray area of "not predominantly metal but still carrying strong metal undertones," such as At The Altar Of The Horned God or the upcoming debut from Neptunian Maximalism. This has helped to expand the reach of the label beyond the atmospheric, experimental brands of black and death metal it's commonly known for, and hopefully it's a trend they'll continue to explore into the foreseeable future.

Standout bands: Mare Cognitum, Panegyrist, Esoctrilihum.

Transcending Obscurity

Next up, we hop a few thousand miles East to India's Transcending Obscurity Records. The bands that get particular attention and signing here aren't too different stylistically from what I, Voidhanger goes at, normally leaning more in the atmospheric or ambient directions and at times being quite experimentally focused. This isn't always the case, however, and TO just as equally hones in on some, shall we say, more "conventional" sounding bands. While you may find something on the label as abstract and forward thinking as, say, P.H.O.B.O.S. or Arkheth, you can just as easily find others that stick closer to a more classic approach, such as Henry Kane or Down Among The Dead Men. Transcending Obscurity ultimately has quite the broad approach in terms of focus on both scene and style, not really zeroing in on bands from any one particular country and running the gamut with releases from death, black, and doom metal bands alike, in addition to some worthwhile grind and crust punk efforts as well.

Standout bands: P.H.O.B.O.S., Jupiterian, Drug Honkey.


We move back West and then a little further North, coming to Finland's Svart Records. I'll always remember this label first and foremost as the one that turned me on to Oranssi Pazuzu (who have since moved on to Nuclear Blast, but I'll always think of them as more of a Svart band than anything). Here the national focus narrows a bit, as, while there are some exceptions, the majority of the artists on Svart's roster are Finnish. The label has a particular penchant for music of a highly psychedelic and/or folk-heavy nature, and has done an excellent job over the years on shedding light on this aspect of the Finnish metal community, which for a long time has had a strong inclination toward these two genres. A considerably smaller label than some of the others on this list, both in terms of country and stylistic focus, Svart nonetheless offers some highly satisfying discoveries in the realms of doom metal, trippy psychedelic metal, dark ambient, and neofolk.

Standout bands: Dark Buddha Rising, Hexvessel, Gravetemple.


Equal parts American and Icelandic, in its early years Mystískaos appeared as much more of a musical collective than a record label. In time it has evolved into being both as well as perhaps neither. Originally founded around early 2016 or so as a visionary partnership between Chaos Moon's Alex Poole and Wormlust's HV Lyngdal, at first Mystískaos kept a tight knit circle, focusing specifically on psychedelic black metal and dark ambient music and only adding new artists in which members from other bands already in the collective were involved. From about late 2018 to present, however, and especially following the demise of Fallen Empire Records, which Mystískaos has more or less inherited, there has been a significant broadening of the collective and expansion into more of a full fledged label. Today Mystískaos boasts ten members, eleven if one chooses to count the Skáphe/Wormlust union as its own entity. While still a small number, it is a significant growth from the four they started out with upon the initial foundation. While the Mystískaos focus is still mainly on eerie, psychedelic-tinged black metal, this too has broadened recently with the addition of new recruits such as the technical, almost mathcore-ish black metal of Serpent Column and the crust punk/war metal sound of Arnaut Pavle.

Standout bands: Skáphe, Wormlust, Andavald.

Iron Bonehead

Now we get into the more aggressive side of our label adventures, and first up in this area is Germany's Iron Bonehead Productions. These guys do not fuck around, seeking out some of the most punishing and all out unrelenting artists the metal community has to offer, typically in the realm of blackened death metal. There are of course some exceptions to this general trend, and a few bands on the roster that (relatively speaking) serve as more relaxing, restrained alternatives to their more bludgeoning label mates, such as Kawir or Ringarë. In addition, Iron Bonhead has also stepped up to being something of a third party vendor for some of the more kvlty artists in the black metal community who only release albums on LP or cassette, issuing CD versions of efforts from Mystískaos as well as Crepúsculo Negro in recent years. On the whole, however, it remains a mandatory go to for listeners seeking out the more ferocious, unhinged bands that metal has to offer.

Standout bands: Autokrator, Khthoniik Cerviiks, Death Karma.

Nuclear War Now!

San Francisco's Nuclear War Now! Productions isn't too different in its focus than Iron Bonehead, and similarly zeroes in primarily on bands in the blackened death metal style. The difference is that these bands at times tend to be a bit more on the experimental and atmospheric side, perhaps not to the extent one can see with I, Voidhanger, but still enough to serve as a defining factor that gives the label its distinct edge. While Nuclear War Now! does still have bands of quite raw, stripped down, and abrasive nature as its predominant feature, there are nonetheless others lurking here and there on the roster that offer more dynamic, ambient driven, and nuanced listen as well. All things considered, the label does a pretty fine job at striking a balance between the two.

Standout bands: Antediluvian, Chaos Echœs (RIP), Ill Omen.


Philadelphia's Relapse Records will be the last in the "aggressive labels" segment of our adventure. Like Iron Bonehead and Nuclear War Now!, Relapse is similarly focused on absolutely punishing, filthy jams, but seems to pay more attention to such artists more in the grindcore, sludge, and industrial departments than to blackened death metal. Perhaps the "biggest" label featured in this article, in the past decade especially Relapse has been at least partly responsible for getting some bands who are now pretty big names in the metal underground more in the spotlight. While it also includes some bands on the more mellow, groovier end of the spectrum, such as ASG, Bongzilla, and Horseback, it remains an outpost for dirty, hard hitting metal and -core derivatives first and foremost.

Standout bands: Primitive Man, Full Of Hell, Author & Punisher.

Crepúsculo Negro

Like Mystískaos, California's Crepúsculo Negro (otherwise known as the "Black Twilight Circle") skates the delicate line between musical collective and record label. Over time it has appeared much more as the former, featuring bands from the Southwestern United States that take an overarching theme of Mesoamerican history and mythology for lyrical inspiration and that almost all include founding member Eduardo "Volahn" Ramirez as either a studio or live member. Nonetheless, it includes a dimension more akin to a traditional record label as well, even if with a relatively small number of bands, maintaining its own Bandcamp, issuing releases (frustratingly often on cassette only), as well as other merchandise. Over time various bands have come and gone from the ranks of Crepúsculo Negro, their respective releases and tracks subsequently vanishing off the Bandcamp for reasons never fully explained, such as Arizmenda and Shataan. Boiling down to it, Crepúsculo Negro is easily the most isolationist and secretive of the labels included in this article, but they nonetheless remain a powerhouse of brilliantly composed, folk-tinged black metal.

Standout bands: Volahn, Kuxan Suum, Axeman.

The Flenser

Here I'm bending the rules a bit as The Flenser's status as a metal label is debatable. But what the hell, I enjoy what comes out of them enough to merit their inclusion here. Along with Transcending Obscurity, The Flenser may be the most broadly focused label in this article as far as genre and style is concerned, and a wide array of sounds can be found among the bands on their roster. If any general trend can be noted, however, the bands featured on The Flenser usually have some kind of experimental leaning and are, more often than not, grounded in some type of industrial or electronic foundation. There is also a pleasant diversity among its bands as far as the intensity scale is concerned, as The Flenser includes bands as relaxing and atmospheric as Kayo Dot and Have A Nice Life on the one hand and others as pounding and rhythmic as King Woman or Succumb on the other. There's quite a lot to discover in the more abstract realm of the metal community, and The Flenser remains a definitive label to look to for exposure of this realm.

Standout bands: Have A Nice Life, Street Sects, Wreck And Reference.


I somewhat think of Ván Records as the German equivalent of I, Voidhanger. The stylistic focus between the two, on ambient-heavy brands of black and death metal, is very much the same. If any real difference can be noted, it's that Ván appears to have more of a focus on extreme doom as well, especially via bands such as The Ruins Of Beverast, Faal, or Mourning Beloveth. Additionally, while not solely focused on German bands, Ván has also done a great job at highlighting the grandiose, "epic saga" type atmosphere at the heart of a lot of German metal, particularly via older black metal bands such as Nagelfar and Verdunkeln. But this idea extends outward as well, and plenty of the non German bands on the Ván roster also conjure such auras. Whenever I see a new album released through Ván, there's an immediate feeling that comes to mind that it's going to be an excellently paced, immersive listen, and the label has done a wonderful job at cultivating this reputation over the years.

Standout bands: The Ruins Of Beverast, Urfaust, Wolvennest.

This article was ultimately harder to put together than some may be thinking, specifically for the challenge of narrowing my picks down to ten, if for no other reason. The record labels mentioned above are by no means whatsoever the only ones in the metal community offering in depth exposés of local scenes, particular styles, and treating their featured bands with financial and creative respect. As such, I feel I would be remiss in not including a sort of "Special Mentions" section for some of the other labels out there I love, but that didn't quite make the mark for my main picks. Warm shout outs to...

> Debemur Morti Productions

> Dark Descent Records

> Southern Lord Records

> Prophecy Productions

> Ritual Productions

And many more I'm just too stupid to think of off the top of my head at the moment.

What say you, dear reader? Are there some labels here that I should be decapitated for failing to mention? What are some of your favorites? Feel free to get the conversation going below.

Comments page 2 / 2

Comments: 36   Visited by: 136 users
14.06.2020 - 17:50
Bad English
Tage Westerlund
Written by Auntie Sahar on 14.06.2020 at 16:37

Written by Evil Cooper on 14.06.2020 at 12:17

I'd add the wonderful Polish label Pagan Records (Furia, Above Aurora, Mord'a'Stigmata and many more). And maybe I didn't see them, but Norma Evangelium Diaboli and W.T.C. must be remembered for their amazing (and atrocious) work. Another great Polish label is Godz ov War (Odraza and Biesy just came out and I think they will get into a lot of 2020 lists). Agonia Records is great too (well, Poland is such a great scene, but they have lots of non-Polish bands such as Forgotten Tomb, Acherontas and Aosoth, and will publish Hail Spirit Noir new album).

I'll dig into some of these when I have the time then, the Polish scene has indeed been particularly hot lately, especially for black metal.

Its equal as islsndic, only in poland new band dont Come so often and whit so good debutes as in Island last years
I stand whit Ukraine and Israel. They have right to defend own citizens.

Stormtroopers of Death - "Speak English or Die"

I better die, because I never will learn speek english, so I choose dieing
14.06.2020 - 18:48
Naturmacht tends to sign some good stuff as well. Bands like Grima, Havukruunu, Enshine. I think they also have some sort of subscription on bandcamp, which lets you stream/download all their releases for a few bucks per month.
15.06.2020 - 00:12
Pvt Funderground
Written by Bad English on 14.06.2020 at 10:03

Black Mark

That label deserves to die completely for mistreating their releases.
Crackhead Megadeth reigns supreme.
16.06.2020 - 10:16
Great article, Apothecary, thank you very much! There´s a lot of joy here. I´m looking forward to discovering some of them I didn´t know about.

It´s really important Profound Lore to be on the list (Portal is one of the most important discoveries of the century and PL has edited (almost) all of their albums, and Sumac started here) and the same goes for Norma Evangelium Diaboli with Deathspell Omega as some of you said before (and they´ve also got the amazing Teitnblood!!) or Debemur Morti with Blut aus Nord (and Ulcerte now) and Southern Lord with Sunn O))).

Alongside with Gorguts (and if you allow me, The Body) the previous bands are the most influential extreme metal bands in this century.

Mystiskaos is one of my favourites labels now with some really interesting bands like Skaphe and Wormlust.

Thank you all for your recomendations!!
31.07.2020 - 14:31
gloom cookie
I pretty much listen to anything KScope, InsideOut and Bad Elephant Music put out, but that's just me being a prog dweeb. Outside of that realm and the usual suspects like Season of Mist, Svart Records has definitely gotten on my radar.
7.0 means the album is good
31.07.2020 - 18:44
Auntie Sahar
Drone Empress
Written by Milena on 31.07.2020 at 14:31

I pretty much listen to anything KScope, InsideOut and Bad Elephant Music put out, but that's just me being a prog dweeb. Outside of that realm and the usual suspects like Season of Mist, Svart Records has definitely gotten on my radar.

Svart, whoop whoop! I figured you'd relate to at least one of the ones I picked here, Prog Dweeb
I am the Magician and the Exorcist. I am the axle of the wheel, and the cube in the circle. “Come unto me” is a foolish word: for it is I that go.


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