Like smoke rising from its home hearth in Southern Quebec, the excellent Winter Sky Records has been slowly spreading its influence and name across the black metal landscape. They’ll have only been active for exactly a year this coming Tuesday but they’ve definitely made a mark already, releasing some top-notch artists and curated box sets – so for our next Label Spotlight we speak to label boss and all-around great guy Taciturne, then check out some of the incredible releases they’ve put their name to that still have stock remaining in the store. Which, if you’re Canadian, you can grab with free shipping on orders over $35 in celebration. Read on and support.
Hello Taciturne! Thanks for speaking with us today about your great label Winter Sky Records. First up, the obvious question: what made you want to start a cassette label?
– I started collecting vinyls a few years back, mostly Black Metal, and quickly realized it was expensive as hell. So I eventually turned to the next best thing: tapes. And I kinda fell in love with this medium. It’s the best (and worst) of all worlds for the music collector. Analog sound, enjoyment, art, nostalgia, holding something in your hands, etc. And we have to face the fact that the CD is a dying medium; you won’t find CD players in cars, computers, even home theater systems anymore. So that’s why I chose to use that medium. As to why I started a label at all, I guess the main reason was I had time on my hands. Plus, I felt some bands I had discovered and truly enjoyed needed more exposure and recognition so I figured I could help with that a bit. I enjoy art in many forms, so the DIY aspect of running a small cassette label speaks to me as well and serve as a creativity outlet.
Tapes do rule – definitely the best and worst. Now, from its beginnings in June 2018, Winter Sky Records has been active for just over a year – and what a year it has been. What are some of your takeaways from the first twelve months? If you could go back in time to the label’s inception and give yourself a message, is there anything you would tell yourself to do differently or to prepare for?
– It’s been a great year indeed! I’m glad I made a bit of a contribution to the circle that is extreme music tape collecting. If I could give myself some piece of advice, it would be: don’t try to do everything yourself. Profit margin on cassettes, especially for short runs, is really small and you have to sell quite a lot to actually start making money, taking costs and the bands’ share into account. Sucks to talk about money, but I’m not running a charity so to keep going I need at the very least to break even. And I thought at first I could save a few bucks doing everything myself. Turns out some things are best left to pros.
Hermóðr, Entheos, Tomhet, Gris, Höstblod, Neige et Noirceur… you have an incredibly well curated roster of releases. What do you look for when deciding what next to put out on your label, and how do you usually discover it? Do you have a certain criteria or standard that artists must meet to be released by Winter Sky?
– WSR is all about darkness and melancholy. Bands I approach or accept submissions from need to respect that aesthetic in every way. I like many genres of Black Metal (and Metal, or music more generally), but there’s a certain type of melody that speaks to me more and that’s what I want to promote. There’s also the collectible value I take into account; can I turn that album into a new piece of art that’s going to add something for the band and the fans, and how will I do that. I feel that as a label I have to go beyond just duplicating tapes and printing J-cards from the same template every time, although some labels that do just that found a way to create a cohesive look and sound for their releases to creates something bigger and of value when you look at the whole picture. For my part, I didn’t want to restrict myself to a narrow pool of artists from a very specific and niche genre to begin with. And of course, I need to like the album myself and want to add it to my collection. That’s the whole point really. Cool thing about running a tape label is you can trade tapes with other labels and bands, keeping that tradition alive.
A great tradition. Your biggest undertaking to date has been the Tomhet Fifteen Years Of Emptiness box set, which ended up looking utterly stunning. Could you tell us a little of the story of how this came to be, and some of the challenges you may have faced during the process of bringing it to life?
– Very happy with how that one turned out. It all started when Tomhet approached me to see if I would like to repress any of their previous releases as some had been sold out for a while. I thought that was a good idea, but I suggested we go bigger than that and release an anthology of their full lengths, at the condition we could release a new album at the same time exclusive to the box, to which they agreed immediately. That would leave me enough time to work on a design and get everything in production while they wrote their seventh album. Everything went pretty smooth design and production-wise surprisingly. Not too many delays, no major fuck ups. But it was a lot, and I mean a lot, of work getting everything ready and assembling the boxes. Hope people who supported us feel it was all worth it too, because I genuinely believe it was.
A nice idea that you had was the First Snow box set, which kicked off the label giving customers the option to grab your first six releases in a gorgeous custom cardstock case. How did that work out for you, and do you have anything else like that planned for the future?
– I wanted to find the best way to promote the label and all the first bands I approached that had agreed to trust me with releasing one of their albums on tape. Some of those bands were already pretty well established, but others weren’t getting all the attention they deserve or were just starting out so I really wanted people to give them a chance. So I came up with that idea of bundling them in a boxed set to encourage music enthusiasts to go for all six albums instead of buying just one or two. Had to design and assemble the box itself from scratch for various reasons, so that was quite the challenge! But reception was beyond my expectations: box got sold out in under 12 hours. Looking back I wish I made more, but starting a label is a huge risk and that’s really all I could afford. On the other hand, the fact it was limited to 20 copies gave me the opportunity of coming up with a different custom design for three of those albums, Höstblod certainly being the most well received.
Out of everything you’ve released on the label thus far, do you feel there’s any particular releases that have been slightly overlooked and deserve far more attention than they’ve gotten?
– Probably Absence of Life, and Entheos. The first is a new Depressive Black Metal act from Belarus, and they caught my attention in the sea of DSBM acts because they managed to do it very well in their own way. There’s a ton of (shit) DSBM bands out there, so that could explain why people were shy to give them a chance, but I wouldn’t have chosen to support them if I didn’t believe in them. As for Entheos, they’ve been doing their thing for a while, but their style strays away a bit from the sound of my other releases and is unique in a way that makes them hard to fit in anywhere. It’s definitely Black Metal in essence, with its raw aggressiveness and piercing emotional vocals, but the mix of various influences they throw in there, with bits of Doom, Prog and Post-Metal, makes it hard to categorize. The closer comparison would be Gris, but that’s greatly in part because they share members for the live outfit of Miserere Luminis (not sure I’m supposed to tell you that) as in reality Le Zahir and À l’âme enflammée… are too completely different beasts. They’re working on a third album, so hopefully I’ll be able to help promote it too. That being said, any band on my label not getting all the recognition they deserve is probably due to my lack of promotion skills and/or being an #attentionwhore. I’m more of an artist myself than a businessman.
If Winter Sky were to have some sort of overarching mission statement that encompasses its ethos and the direction you aim for with it, what would that be?
– That’s an easy one: An underground tape label with a DIY attitude mainly focused on certain aesthetics of the Black Metal sound and its many subgenres and offspring – a celebration of humans’ darkest feelings of melancholy, despair and desolation, and a hymn to the beauty of nature’s Fall demise and Winter respite.
And now, a quick couple of questions about yourself! How long have you been involved in black metal, and what started your journey down its darkened pathways?
– I’ve been into Metal music for about a quarter of a century, and I’ve explored many of its subgenres over the years. My first contact with Black Metal was in the end of the ’90s, with bands like Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir. You can guess that didn’t leave much of a mark on me. I enjoyed what they were doing, but thought that was all there was to Black Metal and it clearly wasn’t enough to hook me on it. Then years later, I saw the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, and it was a revelation. (Un)holy fuck! That’s Black Metal?! How the hell did I miss that? Been trying to make up for the lost time ever since. Might sound cheesy, but it’s the sound and aesthetic I was looking for all my life without knowing it. Other than the mainstream acts, that are doing their own thing that’s more or less Black Metal nowadays, it’s still a really niche genre that you have to get initiated to. It’s a small circle, and the whole “satanic/witchery” imagery feeds to it as well. Those who are in the know, know. I guess that’s part of the appeal as well, although I’ve never been one to look to fit in. Of course, Burzum led me to discover many other subgenres of Black Metal that go beyond just pure aggression, and bands like Agalloch and Hypothermia are what really seduced me.
I believe you’re also currently in at least one band – Janvier, the great debut album of which Winter Sky even co-released on vinyl (still available, check it out here) with Vendetta Records… plus CD via Wolfspell, and tape through Les Fleurs du Mal and Corde Raide some time before. How’s that going? Have you found it challenging to balance your time between all of your endeavours?
– Time. The one thing everyone has plenty of and still finds a way to be missing constantly. It’s a challenge for sure. Other than my adult responsibilities and keeping my two huskies entertained (which luckily involves a lot of hiking), juggling a band and a label is hard. But I’m not accountable to anyone for either, so I can take breaks from one or the other to focus my energies on what matters most at any given time like I did this summer by putting the label on hold while the band and I focus on getting ready for our first live gig at Skogen Fest II, alongside Cantique Lépreux and Nargaroth, no less. Regarding Janvier, we are very lucky to have had such amazing support from labels and fans around the world. I kinda started that project on my own just for kicks, but I’m truly grateful people got into it as well. We’re a full band now, and like I said we’re focusing on the show at the moment, but I hope we can find time in our busy lives to create a follow-up to the self-titled album in a near future. In the meantime, I recommend you check out Keys of Orthanc and Wounded Funeral, two of the other projects the guys in the band are involved in.
When you’re not actively involved in music, what else do you do with your life? Do you have any other interests, talents or hobbies, and have you ever found them useful or influential in some way towards Winter Sky Records / Janvier?
– I’m an avid art enthusiast so anything that revolves around it will eventually catch my attention. And other than work, the dogs, getting lost in nature, and music, I used to be quite a gamer. Still am in a way, but now I’m doing it more casually. As for all of that being of any use for WSR or Janvier, art and nature of course play a huge role for both. They serve as inspiration and drive at the same time.
Someone contacts you – they’re thinking of starting up their own cassette label. What advice would you give them?
Fair. One final question: are we ever going to see that Lords Of Chaos tape?
– God I hope not.
You know you want to. Anyway, sincerest thanks for your time, Taciturne; it’s been a pleasure. Total support to Winter Sky Records. Any final words for us all, before we take a look at some of your wares?
– Support the underground, and spread the darkness!
Artist: Neige et Noirceur
Album: Hymnes oubliés
Kicking off, the latest black gem to surface from Winter Sky – the cassette version of Hymnes oubliés, the 2017 compilation from Canadian solo ambient black mainstay Neige et Noirceur (“Snow and Darkness”). Equal parts majestic, mystical and harsh, this release sees myriad raw, ambient, synth, acoustic and atmospheric pieces all come together into a collection of rarities and unreleased goodness spanning the already productive 15 year life of the project. Although admittedly disjointed by its very nature, this is still all superb stuff and is not only borderline mandatory listening for fans of Zifond‘s work, but a solid jumping off point to pique everyone else’s curiosity about it to boot. If you want to purchase / hear the digtal you’ll have to head to the Kunsthauch Bandcamp below, but fuck that – grab yourself a tape from WSR here before they all vanish.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Album: 15 Years Of Emptiness
Here it is – the motherlode. The crowning jewel in the fortune that is the WSR catalogue thus far. All seven full-length Tomhet albums from Canadian solo practitioner Xaphan collected in one place, wonderfully presented in a hand-crafted box (see pic earlier in this article).
Every record here is truly great on its own merits: the alternately ambient and corrosive pulsations of the more primitive ’06 debut A Dark Serenity are not only compelling, but an ominous sign of the darkness to come. The expansive fury and grandeur of ’08 sophomore effort En Hiver‘s first half gives way to the icy synth wash of the entire second half; and it works well… before the project blossoms into the masterpiece that is 2010’s Astral Isolation. Captivating, ice-cold and solitary, it’s a fantastic album right down to the inspired cover of Misfits‘ ‘Die, Die, My Darling’ (yes, you read that correctly). The following album Caliginous from 2012 is noted as being “recorded in a mental hell”, a claim that is immediately given credibility right from the more noise-influenced introductory torture of opener ‘Contrachristian’ and which then goes on to manifest itself as the most tormented and turbulent Tomhet album yet; plumbing hitherto unseen depths of wretchedness and dysphoria (and Witch House, in the case of ‘…sounds like memories’).
Well, hitherto unseen but going even further on Caliginous II: nothingbutanxiety – his 2015 album continues these themes as it seems to document his own slowly crumbling personal breakdown. 2016’s Nightmares In Damask is then not only the first Tomhet album to feature live drums but slows down to utterly depressive levels; a miasma of DSBM self-destruction… which is where we find the brand new 2019 album Neoteric Emptiness, a black hole of despondency and self-loathing that physically alters your mood and general sense of wellbeing as you listen to it.
This set is a monolithic listen on its own, but very, very worthwhile as you experience the evolution of a great project (and possible mental disintegration of its creator). Somewhat ridiculously, there are still a handful of these stunning boxes left, so don’t fuck up – snap one up now.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Album: Call From The Forest
Here’s another favorite of mine. You may recall this gem was also released on UKEM Records in March; this edition is the North American version that sports a different (read: better, in my opinion) mix and the addition of bonus track ‘Frost And Stars’.
Beautiful, crushing melancholia is the order of the day here as simplistic drums underpin slow, emotive chord progressions and haunting synths lift you through darkened misty glades into gloomy transcendence. The distant, shrieked vocals are impassioned and overall quite good… just like like every other element. There’s really not much to fault here (apart from possibly the near-twenty-minute ambient outro ‘Fireside’, which will either be immersive or annoying depending on your mood and tolerance for such things).
To be honest, although hard to fault there’s also nothing to the anonymous duo’s sound that you won’t have heard before, either. But that doesn’t matter – because what they do, they’ve completely mastered. This crept up and took me by surprise on release; I’ve returned to it many times since and frankly can’t believe there are still tapes left for purchase. Help rectify that glaring error by picking one up while you can. A slow burner that will stay with you forever.
Rating: 4 / 5
Album: Le Zahir
This experimental Quebecois post-black / doom outfit are the very definition of intriguing. Originally released back in 2017, Le Zahir is one of those albums that command your attention for the entirety of your listening experience – partially because the five-piece are so dazzlingly good, and partially to see just what the hell they’re going to do next.
It’s a rich and incredibly textured album, jazzy rhythms marrying perfectly to psychedelia and a sense of bleak yearning that frequently detours into darker shades of post-isms. The compositions are technical, complex and easy to get lost in; heaving in continuous motion, exploding and fading away like sepia-coloured fireworks. There’s an interesting story behind the title too:
“The album title is based on a short story of the same title written by Jorge Luis Borges and published in 1949 in the book “The Aleph and Other Stories”. In the story, the “Zahir” is a person or an object that has the power to create an obsession in everyone who sees it, thus making the affected person perceive less and less of reality and more and more of the Zahir, at first only while asleep, then at all times.”
…which they use as a metaphor for the creation of the album. Oh, and it was also recorded in a Russian Orthdox Church. Intrigued yet? You should be – check it out below, tapes are still available.
Wonderful stuff. This is art.
Rating: 4 / 5
Yes, arguably the best work of prolific atmosphericist Rafn copped the Winter Sky treatment earlier this year, a couple of years after its original 2017 CD manifestation through Wolfspell Records.
I say best work because Hädanfärd sees the Hermóðr sound taken even further down pathways of introspection, resulting in a perfect storm of gripping emotion and haunting, atmospheric beauty. At first glance you might overlook it, as the man does churn out so much material whilst making only incremental changes to his sound each time that it could be easy to dismiss his work at large as boring, or simply ignore it. However, if you really listen this is a captivating album that moves to the rhythm its own breathing; peaceful, somber, sorrowful, and as intrinsic to existence as the essence of life itself. Right from the Burzum-esque opener ‘I Stillhet’ a spell is woven and settles over the earth; fuelled by unhurried, repetitious songwriting designed to entrance and mesmerise, plus a total grasp of his own talents and abilities. The addition of female vocals later in the album is inspired and works well, while his synth game is also utterly on point.
In a word, Hädanfärd is simply gorgeous and highly worth picking up on cassette. And whilst you do, be sure to pick up The Darkness Of December, too – also released on Winter Sky and which still has a handful of copies left in the store.
Rating: 4 / 5
Artist: Absence Of Life
Album: The Fall
Aaaand finally, to polish off this episode of “things you should buy from Winter Sky Records“, Belarusian depressive duo Absence Of Life are here to make you very, very miserable. With three tracks entitled ‘Pain’, ‘Despair’ and ‘Emptiness’ you may already have an inkling what you’re in for, but that probably won’t be of any consolation as your world crashes down around you.
As Taciturne said above, DSBM is often bogged down under the weight of its own cheese yet these wraiths manage to escape that fate through a sizeable helping of class and sheer volume of emotion. The dual vocals are impactful, the acoustic guitar and piano melodies tug at the heartstrings… I’d be interested to see what they could do with a full-length album if they really tear themselves apart, as this is pretty solid stuff. Tapes still available. Hails.
Rating: 3 / 5
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