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Equal Vision Records – Indie Label To Watch
March 15, 2005
by Matthew Scrivner

The other night I received another one of those CD samplers in the mail. Yes, the ubiquitous marketing tool of record labels that you always see crammed into the 50-cent discount pile at Biffs Used Record Emporium, generally containing the half-baked hits of bands like Moms on LSD, Sex With Elvis, and Buttery Death Monkey. Curious yet forgettable, these poor anthologies are amnesiac documents of dead rock-n-roll dreams, the plastic disc inevitably destined for beer coasters or pop-art sculptures in community college weekend art classes.

But the sampler CD from Equal Vision Records blew my mind away, my figurative brains splattered behind me as I stood there stunned, listening to song after song that was so consistently strong, so consistently balanced, so consistently... consistent, that I found myself speechless. I am rarely speechless.

Oddly enough, it also blew my wife’s mind away, and she and I don’t exactly see eye to eye on music. An example of this is the Maroon 5 that is consistently blaring from her smurf blue Kia Sephia. I love my wife, but before we were married, she couldn’t tell Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles apart. As such it was a big surprise to me that the following dialog occurred while listening to the Equal Vision Records 2005 sampler:

Her: Who is this? I actually like this!
Me: [stunned silence caused by hypnotizing, layered guitar]
Her: Helloooo! Yoo-hoo, wife asking you a question!
Me: [looking at the back of the cardboard sleeve] uh, Circa Survive?
[Ten minutes and a few more songs pass]
Her: I like this too, is this the same band?
Me: [more stunned, mind-blowing silence]
Her: [throws a newspaper at me] Hey!
Me: No, it’s a different band entirely. I think this one is Alexisonfire
Her: Oh. This is good too. Can I borrow this CD?

So that you understand how significant this is, this conversation would normally involve shouting to turn it down, and one of us acting conveniently aloof. What does it mean if two adults who cannot regularly agree on what CDs to bring in the car end up liking the same thing at the same time?

It means Equal Vision Records is doing something right.

It means they have found in the bands they are representing that perfect mix between edgy underground ass-kicking and mainstream accessibility. It means that there is a little something for everyone, but not in the same way that giant corporate conglomerates produce a little something for everyone. It means that many of the bands on the label seem to strike a balance between originality, creativity, and newness on one hand – and catchy, head-bobbing, rock tradition on the other.

I spent some time talking about the label with Greg Sieme, the director of New Media and Online Marketing & Promotion at Equal Vision. It turns out the secret to their success is simplicity and commitment.

“Equal vision is still only nine people who are extremely dedicated to the artists and people we work with,” Sieme explained. But dedication is only one ingredient in the recipe. The nine people share a vision that insists on honesty and integrity. “We don’t want to rope people into unfair contracts or do any funky stuff because we really consider it a family.” Sieme further clarified that running a label is about the mutual relationship with the artists; without the artists there would be no label, but without a label, the artists wouldn’t be able to quit their day jobs and pursue music full time.

Promotional material provided by the label fills in another piece of the success story. It clarifies that in recent years, many independent labels have embraced the corporate mindset of “sell, sell, sell” at the cost of quality and integrity. While Equal Vision certainly has profit in mind, “it values much more the DIY ethics that started the label in the early ‘90s.” Steve Reddy, the owner of the label began his leadership role with Equal Vision in a New York City apartment in 1993. But over the past ten years, due to the overwhelming success, including record sales soaring 400%, the company has moved to a warehouse in Hudson, New York.

But the label story does not end there. Apparently Reddy, and a few of the other employees at the label are practicing Hindus. A close examination of the Equal Vision Records logo confirms that it is indeed a picture of Krishna, the deity whose existential dialog with the warrior Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita outlines for humanity a message of devotion and love. While the religious path of its employees may be of questionable relevance to the incredible success of the company, Reddy’s belief system could suggest to music fans and business owners that a spiritual vision of peace and equality for humankind has the potential to translate into sound business practices that include profit for not only the label but the artist.

So, how is all of this manifested in the music?

Take for example the latest release by Armor For Sleep, What To Do When You Are Dead. The band has melted down all the best elements of emo, rock, hardcore, and who knows what else, and forged a release that has a consonance, emotional impact, and a clarity of sound that is genuinely heartfelt and breathtaking. On the other hand, they capture an original tone that is edgy, brutal, stimulating, and consistently above the mass-marketed “new rock” out there right now like The Used. Beyond this, there is a conceptual consistency of ideas throughout the record tying the songs together with more than merely teen angst – each of the tracks seem to be dealing with the possibilities of death and the afterlife. Admittedly this would otherwise be grim and angsty fodder for the cannon of rock-n-roll depression, but singer Ben Jorgensen strikes a powerful balance between grief and humor, suffering and transcendence, and his vocal style strikes me as less of the whining, manic snivel of similar front men. Stand-out tracks on the record include “Stay On the Ground,” a fast-paced, catchy froth of distortion and rhythm. I was impressed by the honesty and originality of this band, and am pleased to recommend them.

Another release, found a little farther outside of the mainstream is Art Damage by the band Fear Before the March of Flames. To be frank, this is a hard band to wrap words around. They seem to be barely containing a total volatility, barely concealing an eruption of violence in their music, and each song is itself an ode to destruction as much as creation. The record is eye ripping and visceral, a sonic blister for ears made somnolent by the bootlicking consumerism of the mainstream. Fans of the Blood Brothers will find similarities, but FBMF seems to be both more brutal, excruciating, and explosive, as well as more complex, layered, and intelligent. The fact that a band of this type decided to sign with Equal Vision is testament to the support that this company must have for the individual artistic vision that even unique groups like FBMF seem to have.

My current favorite release on Equal Vision is from the band Bear Vs. Shark. Their record, Right Now You’re In the Best of Hands was released back in 2003, but remains a strong contender as one of those few albums in recent years I’ve found that successfully merge disparate elements of emo, indie, and punk into something new without it coming out contrived or overdone. The record is smart, unpretentious, and occasionally moving. My favorite track is “Buses / No Buses,” a song that is both angry and gentle, upbeat, and at the same time subtle and quietly intense.

These three releases are only a few of the exceptional materials currently available from Equal Vision. Other bands of note include Alexisonfire, Liars Academy, Vaux, The Snake The Cross The Crown, Codeseven, and Circa Survive.

Implicit in their label name, and exemplified by the quality and quantity of artists represented, Equal Vision Records is an impressive front runner of quickly growing names in the independent music world. Keep an eye on any release that they sponsor – it will doubtless be a powerful, original exception among the musical mundane.

(Matthew Scrivner is a staff writer for 2 Walls Webzine.)


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