Founded in 1990, and based in the Philadelphia area since 2000, Relapse Records is celebrating its 21st birthday this month. Though Relapse’s presence in the city was stronger for the several years it had a storefront on South Street (2001 to 2008), it’s still here and here to stay.
Despite the endless industry reports about the decline of record sales and the grim prospects for labels, Relapse is thriving. They’ve had almost 600 releases since 2000—about 35 this year alone—and 75 percent of sales currently come from physical releases. Based in Upper Darby, Relapse has 15 staffers and three interns, along with minions in Portland, Ore., New York City, the Netherlands and Japan.
“Don’t believe the myth,” advises Rennie Jaffe, Relapse’s vice president of Business and Legal Affairs. “People in our world still want something physical. There’s always been a collector’s mentality, like in the old days when everyone amassed metal cassettes. People want to hold and be a part of this music.”
The desire to create a community is how it all started, when a 17-year-old Matt Jacobson founded Relapse in his Colorado basement by releasing a 7-inch for his friend’s band, Velcro Overdose.
“I wanted to reach as many people as possible,” says Jacobson, who recently moved to Oregon and now runs the Portland office. “I wanted to expose people to and inspire them with the music that inspired me.”
The community’s foundation, of course, is the Relapse sound. From Death—who’re arguably the first death metal band ever—to the more melodic hard-rock of Red Fang and synth-master Zombi’s Italo-horror flick music, to Neurosis’s sludge-metal and Brutal Truth’s combative grindcore, Relapse is tenaciously diverse. But there’s definitely an underlying thread that unites the bands.
“They have to be heavy or dark,” explains Jaffe, who’s on the committee that decides which bands are signed. “They don’t need to be brutal, but many are. Metal music’s where the virtuosos are, and there are legit virtuosos in Relapse bands. Many begin as disaffected dudes just fucking playing guitars, but they eventually become masters of their instruments. We’re interested in next-level musicianship here.”
For the uninitiated, the Relapse roster might be demanding. Even if some brave soul manages to get beyond the sometimes absurd (Agoraphobic Nosebleed) and violent (Dekapitator) names, the unhinged barbarity and bleakness and the arduous technicality could frighten newcomers unwilling to be challenged.
“Relapse bands don’t provide casual listening experiences—they’re cerebral and challenging,” confirms an unapologetic Jaffe. “But they tap into genuine human emotions—rage, anger, darkness, beauty, or all those at once. This honesty resonates with people.”
Despite the negative stereotypes surrounding metal from the beginning, and the challenge the entire aesthetic poses to mainstream music, new pockets of appreciation are emerging. This year, two Relapse releases were featured as full album streams on NPR Music: Tomb’s Path Of Totality and Red Fang’s Murder The Mountains .
Relapse’s greatest breakthroughs so far have been Mastodon’s Leviathan and Dillinger Escape Plan’s Miss Machine , both of which blasted onto the Billboard 200 in 2004. They’re expecting an even grander “coup”—a word Jaffe uses frequently to describe Relapse’s few flirtations with mainstream success—next year with the third album by Baroness, a Savannah, Ga.-based sludge-metal outfit that’s already earned a sizable and diverse following.
“Baroness is the complete package,” Jaffe explains, sounding more like a fan than a VP. “They have a focused aesthetic and stellar guitarists who write hooks with metal technicality. Their first time in Philly, I couldn’t get them a show at First Unitarian Church, so they played a record store in Dowington. Next year they’re gonna be way too big for the Church.”
Times are changing quickly, and, just as they’ve been for the last two decades, Relapse Records remains at the forefront of the always-expanding metal world. And it’s all happening right here, unbeknownst to many, just at the edge of our lovely city.
We’re going to say it: This moment RIGHT NOW is the most exciting in Philadelphia’s storied music history. Truthfully. No exaggeration. Gamble and Huff be damned.