In the 1985, Digby Pearson started Earache Records from his bedroom in a shared house in Nottingham, as a means to champion bands in the UK’s burgeoning underground scene.
Using money from the Thatcher government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme – a project which gave unemployed people £40 a week if they started their own business – Pearson channeled his cash into the label and gave extreme music a home.
“To make it perfectly clear, I am not a fan of Margaret Thatcher – nor were the bands,” he told The Independent almost three decades later. “Their songs railed against her kind of corporate values – even if the screaming, deafening lyrics were unintelligible.”
In the years following Earache's first official release – The Accüsed's 1986 album The Return of Martha Splatterhead – they helped spearheaded the grindcore scene and brought crust, metal and thrash into their roster. In later years, the label curated stages at Glastonbury and Boomtown festival, and even briefly teamed-up with Sony subsidiary Columbia, leading to some of the heaviest major label releases of all time.
They’re an iconic institution, and defining their history in just a handful of albums is a hell of a task. But, after spending hours combing through their gargantuan back catalogue, we present their 10 best releases.
Napalm Death – From Enslavement to Obliteration (1988)
Grindcore forefathers Napalm Death released their groundbreaking debut Scum in 1987, but their follow-up, From Enslavement to Obliteration, is the superior album. The first release to feature bassist Shane Embury and their final recording with guitarist Bill Steer and vocalist Lee Dorian, this 1988 album expands upon their scathing social and political polemic, wrapped up in short, unforgiving blasts of sound. This release still sounds insanely brutal and manic 35 years on.
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness (1989)
If we were picking the best Earache record of all time, then Altars of Madness could well be it. Morbid Angel may not have invented death metal, but with their debut album, they raised the bar so high that the genre is still frantically straining to reach its majesty to this day. Trey Azagthoth’s endless tornado of riffs, David Vincent’s inhuman, throat-ripping vocal performance and the arcane and obtuse themes of the album create the perfect storm of extreme metal excellence. Indeed, Immortal Rites, Maze of Torment, Chapel of Ghouls are songs that have passed into legend, making Altars of Madness a true classic.
Godflesh – Streetcleaner (1989)
It’s difficult to convey just how forward-thinking and alien an album like Streetcleaner sounded when it was released in 1989. Justin Broadrick left Napalm Death after recording the first side of their 1987 album Scum, swapping grindcore for something far more unsettling. In Godflesh, his inspiration was found in dank, smog-heavy filth of inner city, Thatcherite Britain and the dissonant sonics of Swans, Sonic Youth and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Streetcleaner, their first full-length album, helped define industrial metal, and would inspire the likes of Fear Factory and Devin Townsend. Three decades on, it still sounds perversely menacing.
Carcass – Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious (1991)
While they would go on to add huge strokes of melody to their sound and inspire many modern metal bands with their 1993 classic Heartwork, we still believe that Necroticism is the finest Carcass album. While not as immediate, yet certainly more challenging, this release feels like the perfect line between the band’s grindcore past, a perfection of their death metal influences and more progressively-minded elements. The result is a sonic mix that remains unique to Carcass, even when placed alongside releases from the modern day. Plus, is Corporal Jigsore Quandary their finest song? We're saying yes.
Sleep – Sleep's Holy Mountain (1992)
Sleep’s Holy Mountain is a seminal album and remains the stoner metal genre’s singular finest moment 30 years after it crept out of sweet smelling haze. The band’s second full-length is still genuinely astonishing; heavy (obviously), woozy, psychedelic, chaotic and beautifully melodic, Sleep manage to ape all the things you love about Black Sabbath and mould them into something far nastier in less than an hour. Matt Pike’s riffs sound like they’re being played by a redneck Tony Iommi, bassist and vocalist Al Cisneros whines, sneers and pummels his way through the songs like he’s trying to be Geezer Butler and Lemmy at the same time, while drummer Chris Haikus batters his kit with such ferocity it feels like it’s constantly on the verge of collapse. It’s a record that sounds like a bourbon hangover, an acid trip and a hit on a massive, fuck off bong all at the same time.
Entombed – Wolverine Blues (1993)
Swedish death metallers Entombed had already established something of a singular style with their excellent first pair of albums – Left Hand Path (1990) and Clandestine (1991) – but with Wolverine Blues they defined a style of death and roll that would go on to inspire an entire sub-genre over a decade later. With a guitar tone that sits somewhere between Kyuss and Discharge, a filth-stained, grotty production that sounds like putting your face in a festival toilet, the late L.G. Petrov’s iconic and gruesome grimace of a vocal style, it’s all perfectly realised here on this 1993 effort. The band would go on to continue to experiment with their sound, culminating in the odd, art punk of 1998’s Same Difference album, but looking at a track-listing which contains songs like Rotten Soil, Demon and Out of Hand, it's impossible to argue against Wolverine Blues being their definitive statement.
At The Gates – Slaughter of the Soul (1995)
What’s incredible about Slaughter of the Soul is that, no matter how many times it has been ripped off by other bands, this Swedish band’s iconic fourth album remains head and shoulders above those who’ve attempted to ape their potent blend of pace and savage melodies. Frankly, none of those melodic death metal or metalcore chancers have ever got close to achieving that. This is more than just an essential signpost for where metal would go, it’s a perfect record with precisely zero filler in its 34-minute running time.
Iron Monkey – Our Problem (1998)
It could be argued that Iron Monkey’s second full-length album is actually the heaviest and most abrasive album on this list, which is quite the achievement considering the company it keeps here. Our Problem is a disgusting record, full of junk-sick sludge riffs, vertigo-inducing rhythmic drops all topped off by the terrifying, vocal performance by their legendary late frontman Johnny Morrow. It sounds exactly how you’d expect a bunch of angry, nihilistic, working class, British northern kids who listen to Black Flag, Eyehategod and Melvins to sound. The band were misunderstood and dismissed at the time this masterpiece was released, but today Our Problem is correctly looked back on as a cult classic.
The Haunted – Made Me Do It (2000)
The Haunted’s self-titled 1998 debut album gained attention from metal fans who were beginning to tire of nu-metal’s simplicity. But on their follow-up Made Me Do It, this Swedish metal band went about fashioning themselves into the finest functioning thrash band on the planet. As enigmatic as original vocalist Peter Dolving was, his replacement Marco Aro felt like a much better fit for the band, complementing the tight, relentless riffing of Patrik Jensen and Jonas Björler with his glorious sandpaper bark. Hollow Ground and the legendary Bury Your Dead remain some of the finest songs the band ever recorded.
Cult of Luna – Eternal Kingdom (2008)
By the time Cult of Luna’s fifth album arrived, people were starting to realise that this band were more than just another Neurosis clone, and instead were one of a small number of bands responsible for helping post-metal make some necessary evolutionary steps. With Eternal Kingdom, they introduced cleaner guitar stabs, icy synths and a classic prog feel to their sound, without watering down the crushing heaviness they were known for. This 2008 effort, like all of the Swedes’ albums, is an exhilarating journey. They’d arguably go on to make their best work after leaving Earache, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this record is a sublime piece of art.