An Interview With Ars Magna Recordings

Ars Magna Recordings is a veteran underground metal label that’s been plugging away with quality releases since 2005. I find them to be underappreciated, especially now that they’ve put out one of the best albums I’ve heard this year, Ptahil’s “Pan-Daemon-Aeon.” Ars Magna’s mastermind, Rob, candidly answers a few questions about himself, the inner workings of the label and their newest releases, and sets the record straight on their reissue of Molested’s legendary “Blod-Draum.”

Sit back, grab a bourbon, enjoy the read and check them out at http://www.arsmagnarecordings.com/.

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DIAG:  Let’s start with you: tell us about yourself, who you are, where you’re from, what got you into metal, and some of your favourite bands.

AMR:  It was a dark and stormy night in 1971 yet, somehow, the air was still as if entombed…it was then that I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota; I lived in the area until 1997 when I moved to Columbus, Ohio where I’ve basically been since. I’m married to a total babe who, as of this interview, has been largely unsuccessful in her attempts to end my life. We’ve got two kids, both boys, and two cats. I’d have to say that KISS is who started my path to Metal. From birth until the age of 6, our next-door neighbor’s kids and I were always together. Their daughter and I were born a couple months apart and our mothers were friends, so it just all clicked. Their older sons were big KISS fans and, as I looked up to them, I became a KISS fan too. We moved away from them right before I entered 1st grade. Two houses down from our new place was another kid whose sister used to babysit my sister and me. He was a KISS fan and was blown away that a kid as young as me would know about KISS, so we became fast friends. Things continued along those lines, picking up KISS records as I was able, and listening to a lot of the music my dad was into (classic rock and classical) until 1983 when Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil was released. I bought that cassette and the accompanying poster on site and never looked back; I was instantly fucking blown away and became completely obsessed with Crue. It’s that album that I really credit with getting me into Metal. That was the first time that I completely identified with something and, from that point forward, there was no turning back. I was absorbing anything I could get my hands on and was an avid reader of Circus, Hit Parader and any other mag that featured my idols. After that point, there were three distinct gateways that opened to me in terms of newer and more extreme music. The first was when I first heard Metallica. Ride the Lightning was like setting off a bomb in my head…Metallica moved into the spot that was once occupied by KISS and Motley Crue. Around that time I was exposed to Metal Church, Anthrax, Exodus, D.R.I., Suicidal Tendencies and the like. Around this time, there was a radio show hosted by JJ Jeffries that constantly exposed me to new material. After being immersed in Thrash for a few years, I heard more extreme material from the likes of Napalm Death, Possessed, The Accused and Death on that show and the obsession with Death Metal began and lasted through high school and into early adulthood. The final gateway was hearing Cradle of Filth and Satyricon through a friend I met at a local show and that propelled me into my love of Black Metal. Nowadays, I listen to just about everything with the exception of country. I’ve never been able to get into that shit at all.

Listing favorite bands is a tricky one. There are the all-time favorite bands like Edge of Sanity, Alice in Chains, Immolation and Funeral Mist (to name a few). Then there are those who had albums that will always be in rotation and/or my top 25 like early Iron Maiden, Entombed, Ratt, Emperor and a shitload of others. Bands I’ve been listening to quite a bit of lately are Tardigrada, Vomitory, Cruciamentum, The Great Old Ones, Bosse, Disma, Behexen, Chaos Moon, Ptahil and Cantique Lépreux.

DIAG:  Have you ever been in a band or musical project yourself?

AMR:  The only project I’d say I’ve officially been a part of is Canis Dirus with Todd who ran God Is Myth Records. We released two albums on Moribund over the past decade but will probably go no further. Many, many moons ago I did vocals on a 2-song demo with two friends from the Minneapolis Metal scene but it was recorded on a 4-Track in a basement, sounded like shit and ended there. They both went on to very solid careers out there and are still involved in several well-respected groups in the Minneapolis area…perhaps it’s time for a reunion based solely on their name recognition! HAHAHA!

DIAG:  Now tell us a bit about why you decided to start a label, how Ars Magna Recordings came to be, and your early releases.

AMR:  Well, the idea for Ars Magna actually started in the early/mid-90’s when I was doing a cable access show in Minneapolis called The Dark Hour. We were one of the first independent shows playing underground Metal music…it was essentially MTV for Death Metal. In addition to playing videos the labels would send us (there weren’t many back then), we would use video footage from horror movies and play underground albums and demos while flashing the bands contact info on the screen. We would also interview bands that were touring in the area, so we got to interview the likes of Entombed, Morbid Angel, Immolation, Internal Bleeding, Grave, Incantation, Cradle of Filth and many others. It was cheesy as hell but it was what initially got me involved with the underground. I wanted to start a label then but didn’t have the knowledge, connections or funds so I tried starting a distro. I worked with Richard C. (Wild Rags) who sent me a large package of tapes I could sell but it ended up going nowhere because, frankly, aside from a couple friends, I didn’t have a great deal of contacts in the area that were interested in buying tapes from unknown bands, so that died as quickly as it began.

After I moved to Columbus I did a little work with Extremist Records out of Akron, Ohio who I got to know while doing The Dark Hour. During my brief time with them, I signed Emancer to Extremist to release their debut so that sort of rekindled the idea of starting my own label. In 2004 a contact I had sent me some material he had been working on just to get an opinion. I liked it a lot and pitched the idea of releasing it; he agreed and in 2005 the debut from Animus became the first release for AMR.

I was always on the lookout for new material, both as a fan and from the label standpoint, and my next few releases (Valhom, Zargof and Black Hole Generator) were a result of networking on Myspace. Honestly, Myspace was great for Ars Magna in that I made several contacts on there that I either ended up working with or who pointed other projects my way. As crappy as that site became, I have good memories of it from that standpoint.

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DIAG:  Ars Magna is generally viewed as a black metal label, but you’ve released a variety of different styles. How do you select the artists you work with?

AMR:  While I would describe AMR primarily as a Black Metal label, I will release anything that comes along that makes sense. Every release I’ve done is something that I really believed in and really enjoyed listening to. If someone contacts me about working together on a release, I generally need to hear the entire recording before I will begin talking about an offer. In some cases I’ve sat on a release for weeks, listening to it several times before making an offer to a band. That extended review period has actually bitten me a few times where band ended up being signed by another label and going on to be quite popular. While that can be one of those things where I wish I wouldn’t have moved so slowly, it’s cool because that’s my process and it probably ended up working out better for the band in the long run as they were picked up by a label with more resources than I had.

DIAG:  Your most recent releases are a CD reissue of Wolvenbloed’s 2015 “Verleden Tijd” and Ptahil’s newest album “Pan-Daemon-Aeon.” How did those come about?

AMR:  I was contacted by both bands about releasing their albums and it all just went from there. I’ve been a fan of Ptahil for some time and think they’re criminally underrated. [Agreed – Voidhanger] The thought of working with them was interesting before I even heard the album. Once I did, it was a done deal. I love Pan-Daemon-Aeon and think it’s their strongest and most diverse material to date. The atmosphere on the Wolvenbloed material pulled me in almost instantly. That combined with a few of the riffs on Verleden Tijd that stuck in my head for days was enough to green-light that project, as well. They’re still fresh in terms of when I released them so some of the initial excitement is still there but, overall, these are two of my favorite AMR releases. [My reviews for both are floating around here at DIAG; check ‘em out. – Voidhanger]

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DIAG:  The Procer Veneficus boxset “A Summerhaze Array for August Nights” (co-released with God is Myth Records) was unique in that it included leaves and incense. How did that release come together?

AMR:  This was a release that Todd/God Is Myth wanted to do something special with. From the moment he heard the material, he knew he wanted it to have special packaging. He asked me if I would be interested in doing a split-label release with him and provided a general idea of what he was thinking. I thought it sounded like a cool project and was a departure from what I had traditionally worked on as well as being an interesting addition to the releases I had coming up shortly afterward (Trist, Chaos Moon, Valhom). Much like Canis Dirus, it was Todd’s brainchild and I was asked to be involved.

DIAG:  In 2009, Ars Magna reissued Molested’s “Blod-Draum” to some controversy due to Dan Swanö’s remastering job. What are your thoughts on this release?

AMR:  This is one release I wish I could go back and change. Molested was this amazing band that I didn’t feel received the treatment they deserved. Hell, to this day, I’ve still never seen an actual copy of the original Stormvold aside from the cardboard promo I have. It appeared that there was no support behind that band at all. Once I finally decided to try to do this and was able to get in touch with Oystein Brun, he was agreeable to my ideas and I wanted to make this thing fucking amazing. To that end, I went to two of my favorite artists in the business: Travis Smith for artwork and Dan Swano for remastering. This is where things went south. Oystein didn’t have the original master recordings for Blod-draum so we agreed to see what Dan could do with a CD of the original recording. Dan was honest upfront and said there wasn’t much he could do but I asked him to try it anyway…after all, this was DAN FUCKING SWANO!!! I was working with the mastermind behind one of my all-time favorite bands and my favorite album (Unorthodox) and I had always wanted to hear Blod-draum remastered so I had to give it a shot despite his warnings. When it came back, it was exactly as Dan said it would be…noisy. By this time, Travis was done with work on the inserts for the album…based on including that remastered version. Travis had already gone well above and beyond what he had agreed to do for this release, so the thought of asking him for more changes wasn’t ideal. More importantly than all that, I didn’t want to disappoint Oystein, or stray from the original vision of this release, so I left it up to him whether we included the remastered version or not. He heard it and signed off on it and we moved forward. I generally don’t give a fuck about status/celebrity or who played what on what album or what band you’re in, etc. but, in this case, I got completely caught up in working with 3 people that I fucking respected the shit out of and let that excitement cloud my judgment. Long story short, I knew we should probably scrap that version but I moved ahead; a bad call that I still regret…mainly because people attribute that noisy version to Dan when, really, he was perfectly honest throughout. The last thing I want is a bad decision I made to reflect poorly on one of the few people I do hold up on a pedestal of sorts. Lesson learned there, for sure. Oystein was eventually able to obtain the old material and completely remix it for the latest reissue through Dark Symphonies/The Crypt. It sounds amazing and is pretty much exactly what I had hoped for originally. [It’s worth noting that the Ars Magna version remains the only reissue of the “Stormvold” MCD and the band’s two demos, so it’s still well worth getting. – Voidhanger]

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DIAG:  To date, Ars Magna has only been involved in one vinyl release, the Marblebog / Vorkuta split back in 2009. Can we expect more vinyl from Ars Magna in the future?

AMR:  I’m not opposed to doing more vinyl releases but it would need to be the right material at the right time and right now I’m not really looking at any projects in the near future.

DIAG:  Which Ars Magna release are you most proud of? Any releases you would do differently?

AMR:  As I mentioned earlier, I would love to be able to go back and do things differently with the Molested release, but I’m still proud of and stand behind the project overall. I know some people didn’t like the new cover but I don’t give a shit about that. It’s a cool concept and Travis did a great job.

I would also like to redo the artwork on the Chaos Moon / Frostmoon Eclipse / Benighted In Sodom split. It was done in a rush to try to get the CDs ready for their US tour and I basically ran with what they gave me with a couple slight tweaks from Todd/GIM to clean it up a little. Those are three great bands who I consider good friends and that release deserved something more in terms of inserts.

As for which release I’m most proud of, that’s pretty difficult to answer. I’m proud of everything I’ve done, really. Some of the releases have had great artwork; some of them helped the band get their name out there and signed to larger/more active labels for subsequent releases and some others have led to really solid friendships with the artists. So, yeah, I’d have to say I’m pretty damn proud of all of it. I could probably find something with each release that could be improved upon in some way, but I guess that’s part of the beauty of it. Every release is a learning experience in some way and, hopefully, you can see slight improvements each time out.

DIAG:  What release has garnered the most attention for Ars Magna, and what release do you think deserves more attention than it gets?

AMR:  Haethen’s Shaped by Aeolian Winds easily garnered the most attention for us, both in terms of exposure and copies moved through sales and trades. Much of that attention is due to the fact that Fallen Empire (a GREAT label that everyone should check out if they haven’t already) released the vinyl version and that the band impressed the hell out of people on their live dates. Seeing Haethen live the first time actually pulled me out of a fairly significant down period in terms of how I was feeling toward the label and the scene in general. It was one of those moments where you’re standing in awe of what you’re witnessing and you’re reminded of exactly who you are and why you’re there. That was the first time I had heard them, I was blown away and we talked about working together after their set.

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As for releases that I think deserve more attention, I would selfishly say all of them. I guess I’m most surprised that Carrion Wraith, Vollmond, Black Hole Generator, Lux Divina and Haethen didn’t receive more attention than they did.

DIAG:  Here at DIAG we talk horror movies quite a bit; are you a fan? If so, what are some favourites?

AMR:  I love horror movies. My favorite is the Subspecies series. Radu is such a fucking savage and Anders Hove did such a great job with that character. Other favorites are the Hellraiser, Halloween, Friday The 13th, Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw franchises. John Carpenter’s The Thing is also a beloved classic. Some which aren’t as big budget (for lack of a better term) that I’ve really enjoyed are Inside, 28 Days Later, Mum & Dad, Wolfcreek, Frontiers and Martyrs (though I think it’s a little overrated by some people). There are tons of others but I’m drawing a blank on them at the moment. Also, while I don’t really consider them horror per se, I also really enjoy Shaun of The Dead and Zombieland and will watch them any time they pop up on cable.

DIAG:  Here comes DIAG’s obligatory favourite alcoholic beverage question. Go.

AMR:  Whiskey. There was a long period where Jack Daniels was about all I would drink but, over the past couple years, I’ve been partial to Bourbon. One of my favorites is the green label Heaven Hill; very affordable with excellent flavor for those who want a solid drink without spending a lot.

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DIAG:  Finally, what’s coming next for Ars Magna?

AMR:  Very hard to say at this point. CD sales are down everywhere and it’s really beating the shit out of a lot of us who run small labels. Some of us joke that running a label is a labor of love and debt…both are definitely true in my case. I’d like to say that Ars Magna will keep forging ahead despite it all but that’s easier said than done. I’m swimming in stock and have all but run out of room to hold it all. I’ve had a few people, whose opinions I value, suggest that updating the website could help in reviving sales to a degree. With the help of my wife I built and have been maintaining my current site using FrontPage, but it’s just become so damned outdated. There’s no budget to pay for a new site so I have been slowly trying out different options available for building your own (WordPress, etc.). While I definitely need a new site, I’m not so sure that’s the answer. My goal is to have something ready by fall but we’ll see what happens.

In terms of releases, I’ve talked about a couple possibilities with people but those are a long way off at best so it’s far too early to even mention them here.

Aside from actual AMR releases, I’ve been booking/promoting shows under the Ars Magna banner in the Columbus, Ohio area off and on for several years and I expect that will continue at least into the near future.

So, like I said when I started the rambling response to this final question, it’s hard to say what’s next for Ars Magna. I wouldn’t say I’m at a crossroads quite yet, but it’s definitely nearing that point. Whatever is next, I’m lucky as hell to have been able to contribute in some small way to the music that has basically been the soundtrack of my life. It’s been an honor and a thrill to run a label, no matter how small, and to be a part of the creative process on some level. As cheesy as it may sound, I’m very grateful for the experience and, even more so, for all of the amazing music I’ve been exposed to and all of the incredibly talented and dedicated people there are in this scene.

Anyway, the monster riff in the middle of the Urgehal track “Goatcraft Torment” just started so this seems like the perfect way to end the interview…waxing nostalgic about Metal when a killer riff slaps the shit out of me and tells me to shut up and listen, which is something we all need to do…shut up and listen to the riffs.

To Voidhanger and the crew at Drunk in a Graveyard, thank you for the opportunity and keep up the good work!!!

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You can find Voidhanger on twitter talking about black metal, squirrels, and his secret unabashed love for Blair the Bear.

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