In recent months I’ve been noticing more and more quality sludge/doom coming my way that had a common element, they were all released by Black Bow Records. The label wasn’t one I had been overly familiar with before, so I did a little digging and found out that it’s run by Jon Davis of Conan. Black Bow is set to have one of their busiest release years ever, and with an increased focus on digital releases you can expect that the label will continue to pump out quality sludge, doom, and any other type of heavy music that’s focused on the worship of the riff. To find out more about what is quickly becoming one of the top labels for this type of music, we asked Jon Davis some questions and our staff has provided a round-up of some of the noteworthy releases Black Bow has put out so far. Please note this is not an all-inclusive list, but we did cover as much as we could, so we encourage you to dig even deeper and check out their whole roster! –Chris Dahlberg
Transcending Obscurity (Chris Dahlberg): Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. When did you decide to start Black Bow Records, and were you intending on signing other bands from the start or mainly using it for Conan releases?
Black Bow Records (Jon Davis): Hi man, it’s good to be involved in this so thanks for asking. I decided to start Black Bow in August 2013 when Bast came to record with Chris at our studio, Skyhammer Studio. They didn’t have a label in place for that release and I thought that it would be cool to help them get the recognition they deserved. The album was mastered, I put it out and here I am driving them on a UK tour, sat backstage currently in Brighton. It’s pretty funny.
I then spoke to my friend Kenny, in the band Fister, and he had a split with Norska available for release so I decided to release that. It has snowballed from there really. I didn’t set the label to release Conan material but there were a few things available for re-release and I decided to work on them too.
TO: You have a number of releases lined up for early 2017, with releases from 1968, Battalions, Deadwound, Grim Ravine, Witchapter, Nula, and Desert Kingdom coming out between February and April. With this much already finalized, is 2017 going to be your busiest year yet? What’s allowed you to take on so many more bands compared to the past few years?
Black Bow Records: I think in terms of numbers of releases yes, this will be my busiest year. However, I am starting to pull back a bit on vinyl and CD releases unless the band is actively touring. I am signing more bands than in previous years, this is true, but I am basing that decision on very simple things i.e. do I think they are awesome? If the answer is no then I politely decline. We all know that it’s cool to release on vinyl, and CD and also digitally. I personally love the convenience of digitally available music so decided I would push that side of it a little more this year.
TO: You place an emphasis on bands that worship tones and riffs, and while each group on the roster heads in different directions I can hear some commonalities between many of them that would appeal to the same type of listener. With this in mind, what’s the most important aspect a band needs to appeal to you and fit with your vision for Black Bow?
Black Bow Records: The most important thing for me is that the band plays good music and does not promote any politically questionable content. I’m not overly political, but I don’t want to release music that is going to make me look like I am trying to put some sort of message forward, I literally am in this for fun. Secondary to this is if the band is cool and friendly and if they present themselves well to me on the first approach. Most do. I like to see bands touring, or at least playing decent shows, it is important for bands to put their music out there and I usually see how busy a band is when I am weighing them up.
TO: One of the things I really like about your label is that many of these bands I hadn’t come across before. How do you find talent? Do a lot of bands find you through your demo submission process or do you keep an ear out and find underground acts that haven’t been discovered yet?
Black Bow Records: Currently the main way that I find bands is from them contacting me. That is how it always has been really, it just happens more now. Usually through my email address is best, or come and speak to me at a show too. I am very lucky that there are a lot bands out there that are both awesome AND interested in working with me, I guess they like my no nonsense approach, so things are pretty busy currently.
TO: You’ve put out releases on CD, vinyl, cassette, and digital in the past. So far a lot of 2017’s releases are focused on digital. Is this a direction you’re expanding on, and is there a particular physical format that you prefer to do releases on when budget allows?
Black Bow Records: When was the last time you shared a new band / recommended music to someone in any other way than using digital media? I have been sending people links to YouTube clips / Bandcamp pages / iTunes links for years now. I LOVE that we have music available so easily now through digital platforms. I use Spotify on the tour bus, I use Spotify on the plane, I use iTunes at home (also vinyl of course). I use Bandcamp for checking out other bands, always buying stuff to support them, imagine where we would be without it? I don’t really have a preference on format. For me I get the same buzz either way. Pressing on vinyl and CD takes some organizing, so neither is an easy option.
TO: Out of the material you’ve released over the past few years, which do you feel has been most successful to date?
I would say that Bast and Slomatics are doing pretty good, but all the bands on my label have benefitted from the relationship through exposure and also by just being associated with the label to some extent. A lot of the bands that I choose to work with are at the early stages of their careers so it makes me very proud to see them progressing onto bigger and better things (Bast / Slomatics playing Roadburn for example).
TO: It looks like a lot of the UK bands on the Black Bow roster have recorded their material at Skyhammer Studio, which you are also involved in. Is this something you encourage when bringing bands on-board to the label, or have most of the bands chosen to do so on their own?
Black Bow Records: Skyhammer Studio is a recording studio built within a converted coach house on my land. Chris Fielding (Conan bass player) is the producer there and attracts bands to him. I prefer to release music that has been recorded at the studio as I wanted to support the studio and promote it, using the music as an advert. Until recently I would mostly avoid working with any band who had recorded elsewhere. However since the studio is now fully operational and is doing very well, and the label has developed an identity all of its own, I decided to venture further and start working with releases that have been recorded elsewhere, especially using digital releases. Skyhammer Studio is now a very popular studio, lots of bands want to record with us. We charge the right amount and provide a great service to the bands that record here and I think that GREAT service, I still feel like I will concentrate my efforts for PHYSICAL distribution on bands who record at Skyhammer, but I am not as fixed as I once was.
TO: With how often you’re out on the road with Conan, how challenging is it to maintain and grow Black Bow Records?
Black Bow Records: I think it helps actually. People see me playing in Conan and maybe want then to speak to me about their own band, and before you know it we are working on new material or a new release. I LOVE speaking to other musicians, I am pretty business minded and I like helping people. Therefore, I feel like I am pretty good at working out where a band is, where they want to be and being honest about if I can help them. I think people respect that. Therefor, growing the label is actually pretty easy. I have lots of potential releases and I KNOW 100% that Chris creates great music. Moreover I have a great team of people helping me with the label – Sarah Weighell looks after my postage, merch and stock in the UK and Renata Castagna looks after my postage, merch and stock in the USA. I’m pretty lucky to have these two awesome people on my side.
TO: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Black Bow Records?
Black Bow Records: Nothing aside from thanks for all the support. I’m a work at home Dad who runs this label in amongst other music related activities and I think I am one of the luckiest guys alive to live the life that I have, so thank you for every download, stream, purchase.
Highlights from Black Bow Records’ Roster
1968 (United Kingdom)- Fortuna Havana (Rock/Doom)
1968 is probably the most rock oriented band on the Black Bow roster, but in appropriate fashion they pull this off by rocking out in as heavy of a fashion as possible. On their newest four song EP ‘Fortuna Havana’ the group shows off a fairly wide range of influences, channeling classic acts like Blue Cheer and Cream alongside some doom sounding riffs that up the heavy factor significantly. With each song 1968 heads into slightly different territory while still weaving a cohesive sound, and when the title track comes around to finish off the EP their sound reminds me of a cross between Torche/Red Fang and Audioslave/Soundgarden, which is a combination I didn’t even know I wanted. It certainly helps that lead singer Jimi Ray has a soaring voice that at times reminds me of Chris Cornell, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear a true rock singer fronting a band with this type of sound. -Chris Dahlberg
Battalions (United Kingdom)- Nothing to Lose (Sludge/Doom)
Originally released last year, Black Bow Records has re-issued Battalions’ debut full length ‘Nothing to Lose’ while the band prepares to record their second album. Some of the other Black Bow bands head into extremely slow, abrasive territory, but Battalions focuses on the almighty groove and incorporates a significant amount of hard rocking leads into their take on sludge/doom. The vocals definitely have that sludge feel though, with harsh shrieks and screams that cut through the sound like a rusty nail that’s going to give you tetanus through your speakers. But what will draw you into Battalions the most are their riffs, and each song is one monster groove after the next. At times they’re reminiscent of Eyehategod’s bluesy grooves, while others up the straight up rock ‘n roll vibe, but no matter where these guys go they catch your attention with a perfect balance of gritty and melodic tonality. -Chris Dahlberg
Deadwound (United Kingdom) – Identity Shapes (Sludge/Hardcore)
If you like your music to be heavy, grim and filthy, then Deadwound have you covered. With songs that are brutally dirty, the band still manage to include a bit of melody here and there, adding to the crushing heaviness of their overall assault. A punky energy is noticeable sometimes too. It goes to show that just because you’re playing crushing music doesn’t mean you have to be one-dimensional about it. As a debut release this is more than enjoyable enough to whet the appetite for whatever it is they release next. I’ll be keeping an eye on Deadwound, that’s for sure. -Nigel Holloway
Grim Ravine (United Kingdom)- The Light is From Below (Sludge/Doom)
Grim Ravine has only been around since 2015, but they sound like a band that’s had a lot longer to hone their craft on debut ‘The Light is From Below’. Their sludge/doom sound skews towards the bleaker, abrasive side of the spectrum, and while there are still some slow, lurching grooves driving the material forward what’s likely to catch your attention the first time through are the melodic leads that are layered over top of them. The band caught me by surprise with this, as they initially lead you to believe that they’re going to let the bottom heavy, dense tonality of the guitars and bass drive their material forward in a similar manner to much of the genre, but shift unexpectedly to incorporate melodies that are incredibly bleak and desolate. It’s an approach that makes the group distinguishable from similar bands that simply keep the distortion to max for an entire album, and when you have melodies that are emotionally heavy like this mixed with crushingly intense moments you have an album worth returning to. -Chris Dahlberg
Intensive Square (United Kingdom) – Anything That Moves (Progressive Metal/Death Metal)
You don’t have to get a single minute into Intensive Square’s ‘Anything That Moves’ before you start making the obvious Meshuggah comparisons, but this Cardiff-based quintet has a lot more to offer than mere imitation. Sure, they’ve got world-smashing groove and frequent, impressive moments of hyper-syncopation, but Intensive Square pulls it off with a lot more personality, mainly in the form of dynamo vocalist Chris Haughey, as well as a squealing saxophone played/throttled by guitarist Barnes. Other bands might lean on a gimmick like that too heavily, but Intensive Square uses it sparingly and effectively. Frankly, if you go into this expecting to be ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason,’ but with saxophones, get ready to be very, very surprised. -Eric Seal
Nula (Serbia)- Kenoma (Sludge/Groove Metal)
You’ll notice that the majority of the Black Bow roster is based out of UK, which makes sense as that’s where the label is headquartered. But this year it seems they’re starting to branch out a bit more, and one of the newest additions is Serbia’s Nula. This is another act that incorporates elements of doom, but heads in some very unexpected directions with them over the course of their three song EP ‘Kenoma’. Initially the band is focused on grooves and heads into what some might consider groove metal territory, but it comes off as more nuanced and diverse than the lowest common denominator that sometimes plagues the genre. From there the instrumentals branch out even further, reaching levels of thick atmosphere that are reminiscent of Neurosis yet never losing sight of the almighty groove. With gruff vocals that add an extra kick to the material and three songs that are able to provide very different styles, Nula showcases their ability to craft bludgeoning grooves and a somber atmosphere that’s sure to hook you. -Chris Dahlberg
Tides of Sulfur (United Kingdom) – Extinction Curse (Sludge/Death Metal)
The UK has been exporting some heavy as fuck death metal bands that incorporate sludge metal into the mix to dial up the intensity to a 11. Welsh trio Tides of Sulfur broke out with a mighty debut last year, titled ‘Extinction Curse’. The riffs here are not just monolithic, but addictive, groove laden and down right hypnotic. The album also offers drearier arrangements backed by almost murmured cleans that can suck the colour out of any room. Tides of Sulfur’s sound tends to lean a bit towards the hardcore end of the sludge metal spectrum and it brings to mind bands like Black Tusk, albeit with a crushing death metal element added to the mix. With every single track sticking out as unique pieces to be remembered, calling this a strong debut would be an understatement. Oh and did I mention how heavy this album is. -Shrivatsan R
Un (United States) – The Tomb of All Things (Funeral Doom)
Funeral doom has always been something that has been massively respected over the years, but I’ve yet to come across a band as delectable as Un. As their debut record and only full-length currently out, ‘The Tomb of All Things’ is a wet dream of anybody who wants their metal to come in stretches of over ten minutes, be heavier than the center of a fucking black hole, and be so goddamn brutal that it’s Satan’s fucking ringtone. Un has created something that’s by no means one of a kind, but I’ll be damned if I can count a number of times that I’ve kicked back and drifted off to the unwelcoming world that Un has painted with ‘The Tomb of All Things’, and it’s a journey I’m sure I’ll take many times yet. -Vinterd
Witchapter (United Kingdom)- Spellcaster (Sludge/Doom)
Witchapter is a brand new trio based out of the UK, and their debut EP ‘Spellcaster’ showcases a surprisingly wide range of influences over the course of three songs. I’m so used to sludge/doom that establishes an identity early on and delivers slight variations to that style over an entire EP or album, so it’s great to see these guys shake things up a bit. Opener Veilled Aggressor hits with fast, dense riffs that remind me of a cross between Black Cobra and High on Fire, while the second track slows things down and heads into slower, smoky riffs that have a bit more of a Black Sabbath or Electric Wizard vibe. Witchapter then integrates all of these together on closing piece Everywhere I Look I See My Grave, which is a slow dirge filled with bleak melodies and crushingly heavy moments. Add in the extremely abrasive screams of the vocalist, and you have material that stands out. Props to Black Bow for grabbing these guys so early. -Chris Dahlberg
Black Bow Records | 1968 | Battalions | Deadwound | Grim Ravine | Intensive Square | Nula | Tides of Sulfur | Un | Witchapter