If you've bought a metal album any time in the past three-plus decades, there's a good chance you've had your eardrums shredded by Metal Blade Records. The global music outlet for all things heavy started in 1982 as a tiny passion project by founder Brian Slagel in Agoura Hills. The young Southern Californian developed that project into one of the biggest metal labels in the world, and to celebrate that, Slagel is releasing a book that chronicles Metal Blade's musical genealogy and family of artists—a roster that includes everyone from Cannibal Corpse and Cattle Decapitation to King's X and Whitechapel.
For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records delves into the origins of the label and early recordings by Slayer, Metallica, Ratt, Bitch, GWAR, and so many more. The book, which hits the shelves next month, features a foreword by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and comes with a companion cassette soundtrack featuring early Metal Blade bands such as Armored Saint, Malice, Cirith Ungol and others.
Despite his success, Slagel didn't begin this journey with the goal of forming a record label. Instead, it started with music journalism. "I started the first heavy-metal fanzine in the USA, The Heavy Metal Revue," Slagel says. "It was during the time of the new wave of British heavy metal, and I was a big fan. Since I was in LA, we wrote about Ratt, Mötley Crüe and other bands from the area."
According to Slagel, his fanzine caught the attention of U.K. heavy-metal magazine Kerrang!, which tapped him to be its LA correspondent. He also began working for the music magazine Sounds. "I thought music journalism would be my thing, but it took a left turn with this whole label thing," Slagel says.
Metal Blade Records' story goes back to the first Metal Massacre compilation, released to showcase the LA/OC area's bounty of heavy-metal talent, including Bitch, Steeler, Ratt and a little-known band named Metallica. The record was such a success Slagel formed his own company, which not only pressed recordings, but also presented world tours. As the label celebrates its 35th anniversary at Affliction Clothing's Seal Beach headquarters, Slagel recalls the pivotal role Orange County played in the development of the label and the contemporary metal scene it helped to spawn.
"In LA, once Mötley Crüe and Ratt started to go more glam and we had this rush of glam bands, Long Beach and Orange County became the place for the heavier stuff," he says.
The most legendary show Slagel remembers seeing in OC was Slayer's first. It was in 1983 at the now-gone Woodstock in Anaheim. "[The band] were wearing makeup and played some covers and originals and were fucking amazing," Slagel says. "After the show, I approached their managers and asked if they wanted to be on our next Metal Massacre compilation, and they said they had heard about it and, yeah, they would."
Although Metal Blade Records has a reputation for being purveyors of metal music, there have been the occasional bands that might not make sense. Many punk and crossover bands, such as early COC, DRI and Cryptic Slaughter, were released through a subsidiary. But most surprising is the label's connection to the Goo Goo Dolls.
Long before the song "Iris" became one of the biggest hits of the 1990s, the band from Buffalo, New York, was friends with a guy at Metal Blade. "We got a copy of some of [the Goo Goo Dolls'] demos, and it was just fun-sounding punk rock, kind of like Bad Religion," Slagel says. "To prove how . . . dedicated they were to playing live, early on in their career, they opened up for one of our bands, Cannibal Corpse, in Buffalo.
"We worked with them for eight years; they were always cool guys, just a really cool punk band," Slagel continues. "But then Kevin Weatherly, the radio director at KROQ, played this ballad they wrote, and next thing you know, it blew up into this massive hit, and it was wild."
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Another odd match for Metal Blade was shock-rock punks and kings of sleaze the Mentors. "Not only did we help put out the first two Mentors records, but I also helped to produce them," Slagel says. "I was in the studio with those guys; I knew them well, and to say El Duce was a character is putting it mildly. He was one of a kind and was hysterically funny. When he was sober, he was a great musician."
Slagel likes to push the envelope with bands, especially with acts such as Cannibal Corpse and GWAR, whose brutality and sweat-dripping, blood-spattering live shows have drawn the ire of goody-two-shoes activists for more than a decade. Slagel shrugs off such controversy, seeing such antics as humor and artistic freedom. "I grew up with Alice Cooper and KISS, bands pushing the limits. Bands should be allowed to have a voice and should be able to say what they want," he says. "But the one thing I would not be involved with in any way at all would be any sort of racism. I don't think it's right, and we won't support anything racial in our music ever. Other than that, we love bands doing their thing."
Running the label is hard work: Slagel is constantly on the road or putting in long hours, then seeing bands late into the night. "Heavy metal is kind of a 24/7 thing to me, and with the time zones, it can be all day, all night work," he says. "Plus, it's even more hectic when I travel to see bands or be in the studio with bands or other events. I am always pretty busy, but it's fun because it's what I love to do and the music I love."
Slagel believes his greatest achievement is helping so many metal musicians share their music with the world. "I love the fact that we have helped so many bands earn a living with their music, raise families, buy homes and tour the world," he says. "It has been an honor, and I hope we can keep this going with Metal Blade for a long time. It has been a blast."