The Online Record Store That Saved My Life!
by TK Smith
In the south of Sweden, next to a farmers field, is a small brown house with a big blue “Record Heaven” sign posted in plain view. When I first saw it I got chills, the kind you get Christmas morning right before the chaos begins. I found Record Heaven online back in 1997. I was cruising around the internet looking for an obscure band when I stumble across the RH website. I was so mesmerized that I spent several days revisiting it, making notes and reading about obscure bands many of which I’d never heard of. Next to each record image there was a short paragraph describing the music. This was most helpful. I’d never ordered anything from Sweden before and I was a bit leery at first. But after several orders and the high level of customer service, I was sold. This summer, 13 years later I was finally walking into the actual building that built my record collection and introduced me to bands like Abramis Brama, Lucifer Was and Siena Root. After greeting RH president/owner Johnny Christiansen I was allowed into the “vault” where all dreams come true.
Johnny and I are twin brother of different mothers. We both came from a Hard Rock / Heavy Metal background and worked our way back to obscure ‘70s psych and garage rock. Granted he has a much broader and sophisticated taste of music especially when it comes to the European flare but I try to catch up. What I am most impressed by is his willingness to share his hobby with fans around the world. He has a tremendous passion for the unique and unusual, even showing me a picture of this outrageous psych Polish band. He is extremely knowledgeable and cuts the bullshit when separating the good, from the better, to the best. As we sat in his office we talked about the nature of the music business and his dedication to new music. He is constantly on the look out for new or up-and-coming bands. His label Transubutans Records has hosted dozens of gems and he’s looking to expand that end of the business. I had a few questions about his and Record Heaven’s amazing journey together, which I emailed later - his answers are below.
The Cutting Edge: How did Record Heaven begin as a company and who where the main owners and operators?
Johnny Christiansen: The tale of Record Heaven started back around 1980. The owner then, Michael Ivarsson, used to buy a lot of records, and got the idea of starting his own mail-order business. So, after many trips to England to buy records he opened his first store (Michael would hang on to Record Heaven until 2005). In the early 1990's RH began to produce albums as well, mostly progressive bands in the beginning like LANDBERK and LUCIFER WAS. I think that Record Heaven is amongst the longest lived record stores in Sweden these days, which is fun as we do only carry prog, metal, psych etc....leaving the top 100 behind.
TCE: How did RH become involved with the Sweden Rock Festival? Several of your releases have the SRF branding on them.
JC: Well, Michael had good contacts with the Sweden Rock Festival guys, and at one point, I think he wanted to try out something different after running his store for around 25 years. The Record Heaven Records label was actually closed down, and they started Sweden Rock Records instead. At this time the music became more focused on melodic rock and classic rock style. They released around 15 albums, and are no longer in business these days.
TCE: How did you become involved with RH?
JC: Well, I met this fellow back in 1984 called Richard, and we hung out together pretty much. One day he phoned me and asked me if I could work at his work for a month. He worked in the Record Heaven store, and they needed someone who could type on a typemachine. As me and Richard had done heavy metal fanzines in the past, he knew I could do it, and do it fast as well. So I came in, said “hello,” back in 1991, and have not left since then. I remember a whole new world opened up for me. I was a heavy metal freak, then suddenly got exposed for all this 70's music as well. I quickly started to listen to all those bands I never knew of, and found many musical jewels amongst those...
TCE: When did RH branch out into it’s own label? Can you tell us about Transubstans Records and any other labels you have started under RH?
JC: Well, as mentioned earlier, Record Heaven Records was in the grave, and could easily have picked up the name again, but I gave it a thought, and as Record Heaven Records had been focused more on the melodic hard rock / classic rock style, I would not like my label to be associated with that. For my own taste it was more psychedelic and the sound of Sabbath, so I gave it a new name. So to this date we have put out around 60 albums over 5 years and we have 3 sub-labels as well, dealing with acid folk music, garage rock and heavy metal. These labels have not released too much music though. Transubstans is our main label, but I want people to know what they are buying when they are buying a Transubstans release, before they have heard it.
TCE: Who has been your most successful artist and why?
JC: Well, this is a really hard question, and it depends on....are we counting sales ? I would like to see it from another perspective, bands who have had all odds against them, but still managed pretty well. It is superb that a band like GOSTA BERLINGS SAGA have got so much press, and they are totally unpretentious. Also FIRST BAND FROM OUTER SPACE have been the band who managed to get many positive reviews. Of course we have LUCIFER WAS, who continues to get really great press as well, but yet still manages to be totally unknown. I think most of our bands are great.
TCE: Are you interested in signing new artists?
JC: Yes, of course, we are always looking for new artists to sign up. There are plenty of great bands / artists out there who never get a chance to reach out. As the market is getting more difficult to establish yourself, you need to catch up with time. Unfortunately there is a limit of what we can handle over here, and have so far preferred to work with Scandinavian artists, even though we got a few offshoots.
TCE: What is your mission and/or goals for the future of RH?
JC: Well, I just hope to be able to hang on with what I am doing right now. Discovering good music, releasing music, distributing music. This is my work and my hobby. In the future we would like to be able to help the small indie / DIY bands a little more than we do today. We are these days trying to set up a distribution/web shop for smaller record labels and artists who are looking for a place in Scandinavia to sell their music. So far the response has been very good.
TCE: Last year you added more to your distribution chain. Is distribution part of the future of RH? I recently discovered you were now distributing for the Freak Emporium website in the UK.
JC: Yes, we are doing more distribution these days than we did a year ago. There is a difficulty for smaller bands and labels to reach out. The competition on the internet is huge, and not only a bands needs to struggle to be heard / seen, but also needs to find a secure platform to sell their products, and this is where Record Heaven enters the picture. So we are both importing and exporting a lot of records in the prog / classic rock genres, and it's sub genres. We are always open for co-operation with bands and labels worldwide. For Freak Emporium: it was a sad day when I saw their announcement that they were shutting down. They were one of the web stores I was really sure would survive anything that came their way.
TCE: How has the economy and different media delivery outlets changed the way RH does business? What sells better LPs or CDs?
JC: Not so much. There is a lot of vinyl coming out these days, and it seems like a little boom. I still sell more on CD than on vinyl. But on the other hand, vinyl is a lot more expensive to ship in the mail, so that could be the reason. About the economy, it’s a little down, especially in the USA. In the past we had a lot of US customers, and we still have quite a few, but not as many as before. But the dollar is much lower than it was 4-5 years ago. I think the fact that we deduct VAT for US (& Canadian) customers keeps a lot hanging around still.
TCE: Will you always be seeking out and promoting products for fans of obscure music?
JC: Yes, this is what I like most. I am quite weird in my own taste, as I prefer to discover obscure and small bands nobody knows about. And I also like to spread the word of these bands. If you would hand me 2 CDs, a known band I never heard of from England, and a totally unknown band from Hawaii, I would immediately grab the Hawaiian band...ha ha….
A very special thanks to my friend Johnny for his time, effort and endless patience.
Below are six “must have” releases from Record Heaven’s Transubstans Records including Brutus, Blowback, Marulk, Sideburn, Mangrove and Siena Root.
The Brutus debut is pure 70’s hard/stoner rock right down to splitting the tracks into an A/B side configuration. Taking some of the best bits from Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Cheer and Graveyard, this Norwegian/Swedish ensemble take hard hitting heavy blues and brew it into a pot of mesmerizing gumbo. Singer Jokke has a frayed vocal style, somewhere between Chris Cornell’s whine and Ozzy nasal pitch but the effect is wickedly sinister. Produced by Henrik Lipp (Union Carbide Productions) in Gothenburg, the disc is surprisingly warm and benefits from a thick dirgey vibe, grinding riffs and plowing bass. First track, “Hypnotized,” embraces a plodding bass that eventually introduces a rattling drum which increases tempo when the guitar powers on. Guitarists Kim and Johan have a balanced talent of going dark and doomy with flash solos and mind-bending psychedelic passages.
When the tempo kicks up in songs like “Feel Free” and “Swedish Lady” the five-piece become completely nuclear. Amongst the power-surge of Brutus is solid groove we’re talkin’ late ‘60s / early ‘70s thunder groove. A perfect example is “Solution,” a big and beefy hip shaker with cowbell and attitude. “Golden Town” cries out with the soulful lyric “Mama, it keeps me drifting away / Leading me to deception” over a slithering blues lick while the seven-minute desert drifter “Spirit of Time” finds it’s home in a hypnotic swell spiced with melodic phrasing and sonic depth. Our favorites land at the record’s end with the swing of “Hey Mama” digging the bouncing bass and high-hat tap and the Humble Pie-like finisher “Swamp City Blues.” It’s not only refreshing to hear a band respect classic blues rock but do it so well that it sounds right inline with records done during that vintage era.
Eight Hundred Miles
Joining the ranks of Sword, Wolfmother and Clutch comes Örebro’s Blowback. The band is fully fueled by your dad’s record collection and claims modern bands Dozer and Witchcraft as influences. Personally, we hear a lot of Led Zeppelin, especially in second track “The Big Black Hole.” Not only are the riffs big and fat with plenty of Pagey overtones but the echo on the vocal goes back to early Plant. The whole blues/rock concept may seem over done but here it’s perfectly executed. The guitar tone is hollow with a ‘60s reveb giving the songs a ghosting almost ethereal quality. The effect it has on “No Soul,” the sludgy “Away From The Planet” and boogie-fide “Dead Man’s Blues” prove the foursome gets their best results by keeping it simple. Though Seb and Stefan keep the guitars ever present, it’s Hanke’s drumming that really stands out. From the bashing flurries in the Clutch-like “Fool” to the elegant fills in “The Only Thing I Have” his playing interlaces seamlessly with Chrille’s bass. Producer Dan Swanö (Katatonia, Therion, Opeth) lends a hand in building the bands sonic excellence. The hooky “Water In My Wine” and aggressive “Crossroad” use the dry production to give extra pop and snap to the recording. Center track “Butterfly” is the showcase piece for Stefan’s powerful voice from primal screams to an emotional John Garcia (Kyuss) timber. A killer disc not to be missed!
Not only does the new Marulk host a dramatic, classic cover but houses nine blistering tracks of retro heavy rock blues. The power trio of Danne Palm (vocals, bass), Thomas Jäger (guitars) and Esben Willems (drums) write songs that are organic with plenty of old school boogie. First track “Daylight & Rain” sets things in order in the shadow of early Status Quo. It helps that Palm sound a lot like Quo’s Francis Rossi but it’s also in their dedication to boogie riffs and rolling rhythms. 60% of the record is sung in English, the other 30% in Swedish. Honestly the Swedish penned lyrics are more interesting with “Följer Ett Spår” leading the pack. The song has an urgency about it like Grande Rock-era Hellacopters. “Nosferatools.” has a ring of AC/DC then slows down into a Kiss bump and grind while “Slumberwaltz” is the heaviest track on the record with a darker Blue Cheer vibe. The bluesy “Hey Sister” has a nice groove with a catchy chorus followed by the acoustic led “The Alarm” which picks up a few pointers from early Yes. Crossing over into a more folk-based flare “Is This Home?” Like Zeppelin, the band balances traditional elements with their tougher material. “I See You In My Dreams” shifts gear again with some surprisingly excellent slide. The ramshackled punk and roll “Potemkin” closes out the record becoming a raging guitar freakout with Palm screaming out, “we gotta get out to the Motor City.”
The Demon Dance
Sideburn’s third opus The Demon Dance is one of those volume 11 stunners that hold you captive from the first cymbal crash to the acoustic outtro. In the thirteen years they’ve been together their hair has gotten longer, the beards are bushier and they’re still committed to celebrating the holy triad of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple in their music. Pushing the boundaries of power trio the band have moved from a traditional stoner outfit to a heavy rock group full of finesse and technique. Third track in “Song For Hope” is the clearest example as it brings in a nice symphonic element reminiscent of Trampled Under Foot with a gorgeous mid-section. Guitarist Morgan Zocek exudes riffs ‘o plenty going from the darkest dark in “Doomherren” to the melodic strains of “Rainy Days.” Making comparisons to Spiritual Beggars and The Quill in their respect for ‘70s rock, we would add Bigelf into the mix as their use of organ increases their wall of sound. Bassist Martin Karlsson handles the keyboards giving songs like “Wings of Sorrow” and “Hold Me In Your Light” its mammoth presence.
Singer/guitarist Jani Kataja has one of those swelling melodic voices that’s not quite Plant but leans toward both Glenn Hughes and Dream Theater’s James LaBrie. “Fallen Sun” seems to be where he shines with his Dio-era Sabbath take on life’s pain-filled journey. The bursting “Dyin’ Day” follows with a surging push built on a driving riff while the title cut “The Demon Dance” stokes a rhythmic bass line that crashing into a Slayer-like chugging guitar. When Kataja bellows “Another people dieing sleeping in their sorry souls /never more to wake up /all grown cold” the group make the transition from good to great! Another Zeppelin moment comes in the 7-minute “Shapes” where the band plays acoustic against electric with a Kashmir feel in color and texture. The more they extend this piece- the cooler it gets. Personal favorite is the bluesy “Shinning” with its Free-like groove, kinda like Woman with a quicker tempo. The guitar sound is dirty with little-to-no feedback, just straight into the amp with all the power of a charging rhinoceros. Brilliant!!!
This album grows leaps and bounds with each listen. The hyper-sonic power trio fuel their fire with huge slabs of Sabbath, Zeppelin, Trower, Cream, and Mountain. Formed as a side project to Sideburn, Jani Kataja (bass, vocals) and Fredrik Broqvist (drums) joined forces with Magnus Jernström (guitars) to build a wall of rock so solid and heavy that the earth shakes just mentioning their name. Endless Skies teeters on the fine line between hard rock and stoner yet takes the listener to both sides with ease and brilliance. Songs like opener “Universal Time,” the drum-filled “River of My Soul” and power-hungry “Electric Eye” reverberate a classic respect for merging riff and melody that captivate instantly. Yet there’s plenty of open spaces that allow the songs room to expand or contract. Two instrumentals - the quite, desert “Back by the Mountainside” and the more grandiose “Quivering Ground” are prime samples of moving along the stoner highway with sludge in the bass and drum, then giving way to the guitar’s strong hooks.
“Pieces of Our Yesterday” has a larger than life, atmospheric sound that rattles like an lumber Panzer. The guitars are chunky and spit out solo shards with lethal accuracy. The rumble carries on into title track “Endless Skies” with a nod to Fu Manchu, Kyuss and Mustasch. A killer riff and bludgeoning drums has the track notched as a prime mover. Kataja voice is overwhelming as he powers into the chorus. Even when the band slows into “Time of Sorrow” the voice becomes the vehicle that the other instrumental rally around. It’s here we also hear the dexterity of the bass and it’s winding, heavy thump riding the rhythm of the guitar. Like Bad Company, Mangrove debuts with it’s own signature song in the jazz/blues-baked “Mangrove.” Fuzz-laden, trippy and addicting, the track basks in a glorious chorus and ‘70s chord structure. This is not one to be missed.
Appropriately titled, Different Realities is indeed an alternative direction for Sweden’s ’70 retro outfit Siena Root. Fans may need to put in the necessary amount of time with this record to truly appreciate the fullness of the musical landscape contained within. Where their past three efforts were shorter bursts of muscle and bump, this 10-track platter moves in a more progressive, folk direction with some very fierce pieces injected in for dynamic effect. Tempered to perfection, the ten-minute intro track “We Are Them” is a seductive charmer that reflects Curved Air’s Air Cut, Rush’s debut and Gentle Giants’ Octopus finding the right mixture of hard rock, classical and even jazz. In essence this record could easily fit into 1973’s prog circles and is actually designed so. A disclaimer on the jacket states “This is an album of two musical pieces. For ease of navigation, they are subdivided into ten shorted tracks.” The track list splits the song titles into A “We” (English) and B “The Road to Agartha” (Swedish) a very Yes thing to do. We are keeping our fingers crossed that this merits a vinyl release and therefore captures its full glory.
Most of the record is instrumental with every song constructed to embrace emotion. “In the Desert” is an intoxicating trace with melodic Spanish guitar overcome by a haunting flute. You can almost smell the reefer. Immediately “Over the Mountains” swallows it up whole and the tempo blast into a Trower-inspired rock jam that goes cosmic and then funks it up midway through. The refrain, “As We Return” closes side one with elements of Deep Purple and the push/pull effect that Siena Root have made their own. The ghostly vocals are beautifully sculpted around the song’s rhythmic structure and recall Geddy Lee or Budgie’s Burke Shelley. Side two can only be described as heavy world music embracing Moroccan beats, Japanese folk and Middle Eastern instrumentation. This is where it gets trippy. The flute takes over as the prominent instrument with hurdy gurdy, bansuri, sitar, monochord and even kazoo playing their parts in this musical journey that is as much about discovery as it is transcending. Another ten-minute jam closes the opus bringing back the electric guitar and wah-wah for a mind altering odyssey of psychedelic beauty.
Website: Transubutans Records, Record Heaven