This new column looks at labels critical to heavy metal's development and highlights some of the can't-miss releases they've produced. We're starting off with the venerable Relapse Records.

One of the key labels in extreme metal, and perhaps the one that has done the most to bring extreme music to the largest number of people, Relapse Records are nothing short of an institution. Their roster, which spans over three decades, is second to none and includes countless iconic releases by acts who pioneered subgenres from across the heavy music spectrum.

Founded in 1990 by Matthew F. Jacobson in his parent’s basement in Aurora, Colorado, Jacobson’s passion for tape-trading inspired him to set up his own label to release Flesh Ripping Sonic Polka, a 7” by Jacobson’s friends Velcro Overdose. Joining forces with William Yurkiewicz, who also ran his own label, Relapse progressed rapidly, putting out now-classic full-lengths by Deceased, Incantation, and Disrupt all within its first two years.

Throughout the 90’s and 00’s, everything that Jacobson and Yurkiewicz (who would eventually take a background role in the label) touched turned to gold. So much of the label’s output in this era has become epochal, ranging from masterclasses within respective genres to pioneering projects that dragged metal kicking and screaming into the future. They even found time to run Resound, an in-house catalogue/magazine, the long-running Contamination tour/festival and Release, a subsidiary label that put out experimental and noise projects.

Following a comparably quiet few years at the beginning of the 2010s, Relapse is once again firing on all cylinders. Just this year, they've seen exemplary releases by Amenra, Wolves In The Throne Room, King Woman and Yaitja. These new additions all compound atop the label’s mighty back catalogue, which is already stacked to the rafters with classic albums and underheard gems.

For this list, we’ve compiled eighteen of the key albums released on this legendary label. There’s so much quality in the annals of Relapse’s history that this means that of course some released have had to have been omitted, including brilliant albums by Dying Fetus, Brutal Truth, Inter Arma, Cephalic Carnage, Baroness, Tombs, Human Remains, Cough, Red Fang, Necrophagist, and countless others.

This list attempts to chronicle not just the finest albums, but also plot a trajectory of how Relapse and extreme music in general, has moved over the last thirty years.

—Tom Morgan

IncantationOnward To Golgotha (1992)

Onward To Golgotha is death metal incarnate. From its Heironymous Bosch-meets-H.R. Gieger artwork to its brilliantly sacrilegious titles (“Rotting Spiritual Embodiment”, “Christening The Afterbirth”) Incantation’s debut epitomises the genre’s twisted sensibilities. Most iconic is its eerie, cavernous production, brilliantly captured by Steve Evetts in his first production credit.

The whole aesthetic of Onward To Golgotha is in fact so well-realised that it has come to define the the sonic parameters of ‘old school death metal’ in our collective imaginations. Although Incantation and Relapse’s relationship would eventually turn sour, Onward To Golgotha is an undeniable genre masterpiece - the very first released by the then-fledgling label.

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Exit-13Ethos Musick (1994)

Along with future death metal stars Incantation, Suffocation and Deceased, Relapse’s early years also saw releases by politically-motivated grindcore and crust punk bands such as Disrupt, Destroy! and Exit-13. Exit-13 was the project of Relapse co-founder Bill Yurkiewicz, which he fronted alongside members of Brutal Truth.

The project’s second full-length, Ethos Musick is a strange and idiosyncratic cut of abrasive grindcore, rife with samples, sound effects, and jazz breaks that at times recalls the unpredictable mania of Mr. Bungle. Its outré weirdness showed that Relapse was not afraid to release uncompromising, warped new takes on heavy music.

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AmorphisTales From The Thousand Lakes (1994)

The influence of Amorphis’ second album can be heard in countless branches of the history of metal. The Finnish band’s incorporation of their homeland’s native melodies and lyrics based on epic poetry had a clear impact on the development of folk metal, while the kinetic riffs of “Drowning Maid” and melodies of “Black Winter Day” laid down foundations for the then-burgeoning melodic death metal genre.

Relapse signed Amorphis in 1991 as the competent, if unspectacular, Abhorrence. The fact that the band (who’d already renamed by the time the label had offered them a contract) then developed far enough in just three years to craft Tales From The Thousand Lakes is testament to Relapse’s incredible foresight and taste.

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MerzbowPulse Demon (1996)

Possibly the most extreme album ever released on Relapse, Merzbow’s infamous Pulse Demon is an all-out noise assault, an ear-shredding melange of nightmarish distortion, feedback and obfuscated screams. It’s sound taken to its furthest outer limits - a distant colony of the musical galaxy ruled by violence and horror.

As equally influenced by grindcore and death metal as dadaism and surrealism, by his own admission, Merzbow’s vision in this era was directly influenced by releasing on “a death metal label”, as he described Relapse. This means the label not only released, but was also a key influence on what is often regarded as the greatest noise album of all time.

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Today Is The DayTemple Of The Morning Star (1997)

Another contender for the list of all-time great extreme music albums - Today Is The Day’s Temple Of The Morning Star is one of the most willfully-abrasive pieces of musical nihilism ever spewn from the void. The Nashville band’s avant-garde approach to extremity encompasses everything from sludge metal to noise rock to grindcore, while also making extensive use of unpredictable and chaotic sampling (check out the outrageous introduction to “High As The Sky”).

Further evidence that Relapse have long had their finger firmly on the pulse of heavy music, Temple Of The Morning Star is a confounding postmodern horrorshow, a blur of dissonance that’s also a grim and miserable artistic statement.

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NileAmongst The Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka (1998)

A landmark in technical death metal, Amongst The Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka announced Nile as fully-formed masters of their art. The band’s famous fascination with Ancient Egypt is on full display, along with a potent air of Lovecraftian influence. It’s a fascinating melange of influences drawn from across history, art and literature, all piled atop some brutal and often mind-blowing death metal song craft.

Slated to be released on Visceral Productions until the label folded, Amongst The Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka is a highly ambitious debut album. Alongside the intense riffs, neoclassical solos and filthy vocals, Nile also make liberal use of goblet drums, flutes, gongs and even a choir of Tibetan monks. This cacophonous concoction is endlessly fascinating, and adds up to one of the most compellingly singular technical death metal albums ever made.

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Soilent GreenSewn Mouth Secrets (1998)

An idiosyncratic album that falls somewhere in the middle of death metal, grindcore, sludge and southern rock - Sewn Mouth Secrets is a deceptively complex album characterised by its blend of relentless technicality and effortless groove. Soilent Green elegantly slip between these two modes, extracting viscous, Sabbathian blues grooves from the most ferocious and pummelling metal riffs.

The New Orleans band would go on to release two more albums with Relapse, before eventually signing to Metal Blade. All are solid and somewhat underrated albums. However Sewn Mouth Secrets is Soilent Green’s finest hour - thirteen tracks of raw, elemental and exhilarating extreme metal.

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The Dillinger Escape PlanCalculating Infinity (1999)

Calculating Infinity is the musical equivalent of the gears of some great computer jamming, its cogs splintering and fracturing, its CPU turning white-hot as it attempts to perform the impossible task of the album’s title. The dissonant, guitars judder and stutter, the vocals bark like a digitised dog, the drums pound out complex time signatures like an A.I. replicating music it’s never heard before.

The Dillinger Escape Plan would go on to spread their wings and in the process became legends, but their 1999 debut remains their most intense, explosive and frankly insane release. Calculating Infinity is a genuine landmark, an endlessly inventive album which upped the ante for heavy music - and has become one of the brightest jewels in Relapse’s stacked crown.

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NeurosisTimes Of Grace (1999)

Talking of the jewels in Relapse’s crown - Neurosis’ masterwork Times Of Grace is another shining adornment. The Oakland band’s body of work is effectively flawless, and their trilogy of albums comprised of 1996’s Through Silver In Blood, 1999’s Times Of Grace and 2001’s A Sun That Never Sets makes for an incredible hot streak - a trilogy of albums to rival any in the history of music.

It’s tough to say which is the finest of the three, however Times Of Grace encompases everything that’s great about Neurosis as a whole. Steve Albini’s production perfectly matches the band’s organic aesthetic, and gives the already-cinematic soundscapes a hauntingly grandiose quality. It’s a dazzling and wholly engrossing collection of songs, one that dragged heavy music into strange, expansive new territories.

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BreachVenom (2000)

A bold fusion of post-hardcore and what would eventually come to be termed post-metal, Venom is a cold, menacing and thrilling album by Swedish legends Breach. Blending the noisy dissonance of Unsane and Helmet, the scratchy angularity of Hoover and Circus Lupus and the dramatic soundscapes of Neurosis and Mindrot, Venom is simultaneously mechanical and elemental - like a hulking machine emerging from the permafrost.

A clear lineage can be drawn between the icy trudge of tracks like “Helldrivers”, “Heroine” and “Penetration” and the emergence just a few years later of bands like Cult Of Luna and Rosetta. Venom is yet another prime example of a genre that an album released on Relapse was instrumental in laying the foundations of.

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Pig DestroyerProwler In The Yard (2001)

An album that has lost none of its feral power, Prowler In The Yard is grindcore at its gory best. The visceral riffs, neck-snapping grooves and hallowed vocals are matched by a profound artistry - Pig Destroyer’s merging of the supposedly ‘low’ art of grindcore with ‘high’ art poetic lyrics and disturbing thematic ambitions.

Featuring brilliant titles (���Strangled With A Halo”, “Junkyard God”), a warped narrative tale of love and obsession and imaginative compositions highlighted by the brilliant extended tracks that close the album - Prowler In The Yard is a work of almost-literary transgressive art. Relapse have released some fine grind albums, however few match the brilliance of Pig Destroyer’s 2001 masterpiece.

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NasumHelvete (2002)

On the subject of grind brilliance - Nasum’s Helvete is another exemplary stab of relentless extreme metal mayhem. The Swedish band’s penultimate album (Nasum split after frontman Mieszko Talarczyk was tragically killed in the December 2004 tsunami) Helvete is packed with Nasum’s signature razor-sharp guitars, smart songwriting and searing, calculated intensity.

Helevete captures the band at their most confident and well-realised. The production is especially crisp and brittle for a grindcore album, which adroitly mirrors the confidence in their abilities that Nasum clearly possessed at this point in their career. The album sees the band thrillingly expand on their artistic scope - check out the grooves that close “Scoop”, or the anthemic, Refused-esque choruses of “Relics”. Helvete is Nasum’s finest (half) hour, a grindcore album for the ages.

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MastodonLeviathan (2004)

Probably the Relapse band that went on to achieve the most success (critical and commercial), right the way back at their 2004 breakthrough Leviathan it was clear Mastodon possessed some sort of genius. Leviathan is simply one of the most enjoyable metal albums ever created, providing something for everyone - downtuned grooves, chaotic riffs, conceptual ambitions and crossover-friendly melodies.

Yet what’s so great about Leviathan (and all over Mastodon’s best work), is how the band intertwines these different facets of their identity. There’s no set ‘radio’ tracks, the Atlanta band just write great songs that are as effortlessly likeable as they are unpredictable and singular. Leviathanwent on to become Relapse’s biggest selling album, and Mastodon would leave the label and ascend to further heights. However, their 2004 epic remains their most colossal and enduring achievement.

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Car BombCentralia (2007)

If Leviathan represented all that metal in the classical mode was capable of, Centralia pointed the way towards a wild, disjointed future. Released at a time when ‘mathcore’ was beginning to incorporate bold new textures and ideas (see also: Psyopus and Ion Dissonance), Centralia is a deeply strange, expertly crafted and extremely heavy debut full-length from New York’s Car Bomb.

A genuinely unpredictable album, Centralia’s eleven tracks glitch, judder, accelerate and fracture with a wilful disregard for expectations or conventions. Hints of melodies creep through the carnage, compounding atop the alien guitar theatrics and frenetic, virtuosic drums. Car Bomb dragged metal into the future, and their Relapse debut still stands up as a potent work of ahead-of-its-time metallic art.

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Genghis TronBoard Up The House (2008)

Another future-minded release from the same era as Centralia, Genghis Tron’s Board Up The House landed amidst the height of the risibly-named ‘cybergrind’ movement. Often held up as a high watermark of the non-movement, Board Up The House is best served by a lack of generic definition, and instead appreciated as a bold fusion of synthetic and organic textures that mirrored heavy music’s arrival into the digital age.

Board Up The House is like being trapped in a nightmarish cyberscape, being harangued and chased across the electronic landscape by a swarm of bots and viruses. Genghis Tron’s squelchy, synthetic textures merge with the pummeling artificiality of the drum machine rhythms in service of a varied and distinctive metal album that has lost none of its scintillating power.

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Agoraphobic NosebleedAgorapocalypse (2009)

A monstrously entertaining and very modern grindcore album, Agorapocalypse feels a bit like a victory lap for the genre. Lead by Scott Hull of Pig Destroyer fame, Agorapocalypse serves as the ultimate grindcore greatest hits package, delivering venomous stabs of carnage rife with head-scrambling technicality and acerbic socio-political commentary.

Featuring seven and eight string guitars, the Drumkit From Hell plugin in place of live drums, and brilliant vocal interplay between Katherine Katz, Jay Randall and Richard Johnson - Agorapocalypse uses some offbeat contemporary methods to up the ante on the generic grind hits. It’s a brash, cynical and virtuosic album, and one of the most purely ‘fun’ releases in all of Relapse’s by-this-point extraordinary back catalogue.

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King WomanCreated In The Image Of Suffering (2017)

Kristina Esfandiari’s King Woman project uses the doom metal genre to explore complicated themes surrounding her upbringing in a conservative Christian church. She uses the droning, lumbering pace of the genre to conjure her own form of freeing spirituality, the kind Esfandiari was denied during her own oppressive upbringing.

Created In The Image Of Suffering sees her channel her fury and frustration, in service of one of the most compelling albums of Relapse’s modern era.Once compared to “a doomy Mazzy Star with Black Sabbath influences”, King Woman, and specifically Created In The Image Of Suffering, is a decidedly contemporary proposition - weaving together differing strands of cultural history to create a work that adroitly explores identity and catharsis.

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Primitive ManImmersion (2020)

Similarly concerned with the state of the contemporary world is Primitive Man’s ferocious Immersion. A terrifying howl from the void, the album landed right in the middle of the chaotic summer of 2020 and seemed to echo all of the worst horrors that we were collectively experiencing. Its noise-leaden misery takes doom and sludge to its nth degree, becoming something oozing and viscous, enveloping all in its path.

Ethan McCarthy’s lyrics are harrowing, abrasive and despairing, yet fall short of straight-up nihilism. His words lament the suffering of the world, acting as a requiem for a broken, beaten-down planet. There’s a deeply-felt morality buried beneath the primal trudge of “Menacing” and the piercing noise of “∞”. This is properly transcendent extreme music, free of the shackles of genre, and feels a little like the culmination of everything Relapse’s extraordinary output has led to.

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