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Strategic Thinking

Metal label Game Two bends record-industry rules.

The members of New Orleans's Southern atomic sludge lords, Sour Vein, have just about all the ammunition they need to become extreme-rock superstars in the next millennium. For beginners, they boast an impressive pedigree: Guitarist Liz13 once served as ax-woman for defunct doomsters 13; while vocalist T-Roy hails from the crust-core outfit Buzzov-en -- a band known as much for its fondness of whiskey and hard narcotics as for its unorthodox stage antics. (It's purported that the band once attempted to burn down Berkeley's famed Gilman Street club not once, not twice, but three times in a single evening.) The group also enjoys a rather prestigious fan base: The Melvins' Dale Crover, Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister and Corrosion of Conformity's Pepper Keenan all claim to be huge Sour Vein devotees. Right now, the only thing really standing between Sour Vein and world domination is a record deal -- and that appears to be right around the corner. No fewer than three prominent heavy-rock dynasties have courted the band, including Earache, the now-defunct Off the Record and Frank Kozik's infamous Man's Ruin imprint, which has gone so far as to offer the act an opening slot at its showcase in San Francisco later this month.

But when Sour Vein's as-yet-untitled debut LP is finally released early next year, it won't be the Man's Ruin trademark that's emblazoned on the back cover. Nor will it be that of the other two heavy hitters mentioned. Rather, it will be that of Game Two, a fledgling metal label owned and operated by Denver resident Conan Hultgren and Mike Knecht (aka "The Colonel") of Baltimore. The company has only fourteen releases to its credit, and its biggest seller, a seven-inch split featuring the bands Integrity and Mayday, has sold a mere 6,000 copies -- chicken feed to a major label or a well-funded indie. But Hultgren and Knecht have something more important to offer than size. For one, they have experience: The holder of an MBA from the University of Baltimore, Hultgren operated the Baltimore-based hardcore label End Game for three years, releasing recordings by As It Stands and Next Step Up, among others. And prior to his involvement with Game Two, Knecht worked for the East Coast mail-order distribution company Yodelin' Pig. More important, though, the duo has credibility -- a commodity that Sour Vein's T-Roy holds in high esteem. "I feel good about [doing this record with Game Two]," notes the singer. "They have a whole brotherhood thing going on that I like. We're all just friends helping each other out. I also like the idea that they actually care about the bands they put out, as opposed to some of these others labels who just seem to care about getting ahold of our CDs because they know they are going to sell. They take a real grassroots approach to the whole thing."

"I think we sort of have a reputation for being fair and cool," Hultgren concurs. "We put a lot of effort into our records and lose a lot of money for these bands. And it's the bands that know that about us and like that about us that approach us. If they don't like the way we do things, they don't bother with us. I guess you could say we're sort of like a metal label with a punk aesthetic."

Hultgren's statement may sound like an oxymoron to some, particularly those familiar with heavy metal's excessive past. But in recent years, the cheesy stadium mentality once associated with classic heavy metal has given way to a hipper, more informed strain of hard rock that is influenced as much by Black Flag and Saint Vitus as it is by Black Sabbath and Armored Saint. At the same time, heavy-rock fans who have grown tired of the predictable label approach of the Roadrunners and Nuclear Blasts of the world are now starting up labels of their own, much the same way punk rockers did -- and have been doing -- since the early Eighties. Tee Pee, Rise Above and Southern Lord join Game Two as among the most popular of these upstarts, particularly in Europe, where the so-called stoner-rock movement has reached near-epidemic proportions. In fact, though Game Two's owners have gone virtually ignored here in Denver, they are considered bona fide tastemakers among scenesters overseas, thanks in large part to their recurring presence in the pages of stoner-rock e-zines like The Netherlands' Roadburn and Italy's Stoner Rock Rules(to which Knecht contributes). Nevertheless, neither Hultgren or Knecht consider Game Two to be a stoner-rock label. Rather, it is, in the Colonel's words, "a 'put out whatever we want' label. Our only requirements are that it's got to be heavy and it's got to appeal to both of us. And more times than not, it's either heavy rock -- like in the what I'd guess you'd call stoner-rock vein -- or [slow, Black Sabbath-like] doom metal. I guess that's just kind of what we're into."

Of course, the duo has every right to forsake the stoner tag; Game Two started releasing records in 1994, a while before anyone had officially used the term. The idea for the label actually started germinating in 1993, when Knecht and Hultgren struck up a friendship through a mutual college acquaintance. "We were both going to school in Maryland at the time," Hultgren recalls. "Mike was going to Towson [University], and I was going to Loyola -- they were about ten minutes from each other. I had quit my hardcore label, End Game, because I was basically fed up with the whole hardcore scene and the attitudes that went along with it, and I remember being impressed by Mike's extensive collection of heavy music and his knowledge of Seventies rock in general. He was into all this stuff like Canned Heat and Humble Pie and Grand Funk that I had barely heard of before. We used to spend hours plastered to the couch, experimenting with various mind-altering substances and listening to records."

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