While band biographies, scene dissections, and oral histories abound, the stories of record labels themselves are often relegated to footnotes in the history of heavy metal. It's a shame, too, because that means a lot of entertaining, scandalous, and downright unbelievable stories have been left unremembered, and relegated to the dusty annals of history. We may never know what really went down in every contract or drunken argument, but with an exhaustively researched new book, author David E. Gehlke has done his best to shine some light on one of the most infamous heavy metal record labels ever. The Pennsylvania based writer started out as a scribe for magazines and webzines, and found himself coming back to the same topic time after time: Noise Records, the German heavy metal label arguably more famous for screwing over Celtic Frost than for helping to develop the legendary careers of Running Wild, Helloween, Kreator, and Vovoid. With that realization, the skeleton of Damn the Machine: The Story of Noise Records was formed.
At the center of it all was Karl-Ulrich Walterbach, a former hardline left-wing socialist who was arrested by the German police in the late 70s with a Molotov cocktail in his pocket (and spent 18 months in jail as a result). Once he got out, he launched a record label whose office was situated a mere 15 minutes away from the Berlin Wall. That label was Noise, who developed and encapsulated the percolating underground European metal scene. Alongside Walterbach's words, 75 exclusive interviews with band members, managers, and industry experts helped Gehlke flesh out the phenomenal story.
I called up Gehlke in hopes of digging up even more dirt on the chaotic rise and fall of Noise. Read on for our conversation, and to also get a peek at an exclusive excerpt from the book's chapter on Celtic Frost.
Noisey: To start off, at what point did you decide you wanted to tell the story of Noise Records?
David E. Gehlke: Noise was interesting because none of the bands liked being on the label. I know that's not a very unique thing— back in the 80s, there were very few good artist-label relationships. But it seemed liked the bands on Noise were a little bit more outspoken than most – this pertains to Celtic Frost, and Tom G. Warrior of course, who put out his book [Are You Morbid?: Into the Pandemonium of Celtic Frost] in the year 2000 about his time in Celtic Frost, and he just eviscerates Noise. So then you get to thinking, 'Is this label really that bad?' Then you find out that Helloween had a terrible time on Noise as well, so much so that they went to court to get off the label, and Kreator wasn't treated well, in their own words.
You mentioned Tom G. Warrior earlier on in the interview. It must have been difficult to be balanced when it came to situations where he was treating the bands very poorly.
For the longest time, bands have been so vocal about their dislike of these record companies, while these label bosses have sat on the sidelines and not said anything. And that includes Karl! Getting the bands was actually very difficult. I think the idea that some of them had was that this is a Karl-Ulrich Walterbach project… Getting both sides of the story was a number one priority, so when people say it's balanced, that's the highest compliment they could pay towards the book. As for Tom, [he] rejected my interview request several times actually. Finally last April, out of the blue, he sent me an email. He said 'Hey, how far along is the book, is it still going on, I'd love to talk.' Sure enough, I was almost done. Tom and I spoke for about two or three hours; he was candid, he was forthcoming, he was honest, he was very humble about things that went wrong, especially the [critical and artistic disaster that was 1988's] Cold Lake album
You discuss Hellhammer's early time in-depth. Undoubtedly, they were underdogs in many ways.
You're totally right about the underdog thing, because when Hellhammer got started, they were hated! Laughed at. The biggest band at the time was Krokus, you know! So you go from Krokus all the way to Hellhammer, and admittedly, Hellhammer couldn't play very well. They were sloppy, they weren't tight, their demos were very crude, and Karl took a chance on them. And Karl, especially from the image end of things… well, Karl hated Hellhammer musically. He thought they were garbage. When Tom and [bassist] Martin Eric Ain saw that they couldn't take Hellhammer any further, Karl was fine with pushing it to Celtic Frost. So Tom has always had that underdog mentality, all the way back to Hellhammer. But he doesn't need to prove himself anymore! He's done more for extreme metal than most guys could ever dream of doing.
Moving on, you see a recurrent theme of Noise behaving badly towards bands. Short-lived all-women band Rosy Vista is a very good example. He replaced their drummer, forced them to re-record complete parts, and then made comments about vocalist Andrea Schwarz's weight despite her struggles with anorexia. They say themselves at the end of the chapter, "I'm sure that Rosy Vista could have been a much bigger name if we had the chance to work with a less-incompetent record company." In that vein, was it ever difficult for you to write around Karl's decisions and not treat him like the villain?
Rosy Vista is a great example. I couldn't leave them out of the book. They had a very short career, they lasted only two or three years, but they were notable for being the first all-female band that Karl signed. And when you think about women in metal, at least in the mid 80s, we had Doro Pesch in Warlock, and Lita Ford more on the glam side, andLee Aaron, the Canadian singer. But yeah… Rosy Vista. That's an interesting one. It was tough to put it in there, particularly hearing from Karl making that side comment to the singer saying she 'was looking too heavy these days.'
Karl can be very tough on his bands, and he didn't sugarcoat things. The one thing that is noticeable throughout the book is that Karl is never friends with any of his bands. You think about other label heads, like Brian Slagel [of Metal Blade] is always friends with his bands. I would say they get along great. And Markus Staiger from Nuclear Blast has a great relationship with his bands, and if you go on down through the line. Karl was never friendly with any of his bands though. It was a sort of lack of personable interaction—that human element was always gone. Karl saw himself as a business guy, which was interesting because he has no business background whatsoever—he was into philosophy, and went to school for engineering. But, he ran the label like a business. And unfortunately that's how you have to run it, and those decisions got in the way of that human element.
Voivod is the quintessential Canadian band, and it was interesting to see at the end of their chapter that they had a good time on the label—they were able to get out their deal, and were happy with their relationship.
I think that was a very good working relationship. This is a universal fact: Voivod's most definitive albums are on Noise. Killing Technology  , Dimension Hatröss , and Nothingface , which was released by MCA/Mechanic in North America, but Noise had it for Europe. There were no issues between [Noise] and] Voivod. Karl let them do whatever they wanted. Even Michel [Langevin, drummer] stated they wanted to sign to Noise because they saw themselves as a European band in many respects, because they were French Canadian and they were fascinated by the Cold War, and they wanted to be in Berlin. They wanted to be by the wall, and Karl flew them over and that's where they recorded their classic albums.
How would you characterize Noise's particularly bad period in the 90s?
What happened was, was Modern Music [Noise's parent company] won a court case against EMI records in the 90s against Helloween, and they came away with a good chunk of change, because EMI basically stole Helloween from Noise. So Karl got it settled and all that. So Karl looks around and says 'I'm going to buy up all these sub labels,' like Hellhound Records, a American doom label featuring The Obsessed, Saint Vitus, and Revelation, among others. He bought German electronica label Machinery, and affiliated German industrial metal label Dynamica, and the idea was to roll these labels under the umbrella. Well, Karl stuck all this money into these, and none of these bands sold. But the thing that really killed Noise in the 90s was that Karl hated death metal.
The 90s were brutal for Karl. The label didn't adapt for him. They didn't adapt to sign proper death metal bands, they had all these distribution deals that didn't work out. Karl tried desperately to get into nu-metal. He really wanted System of a Down, he really wanted Snot, he wanted all those L.A. bands, but Noise couldn't bid for any of those bands. So he had to settle for a band like Manhole [who later changed their named to Tura Satana], who were good in their own right, but certainly not at the level of System of a Down or Snot.
The label wasn't quite dead yet, though. Do you think it was a good last stab for them to be picking up puffy-shirted power metal?
Last stab is not a bad way of putting it. When Stratovarius had their breakout album Visions in 1997, it was a huge seller for Noise that helped big time. Gamma Ray was super consistent; Kamelot had their breakout in 1999 with The Fourth Legacy, those were all huge boosts for the label. But that may have been too little too late, especially with Stratovarius, whom Noise had gotten from a smaller German label called T&T Records through a licensing deal, and then, T&T became part of Noise and all their bands were essentially Noise bands. Once the Stratovarius deal ran out with Noise after the Destiny album in 1998, they were free agents and sure enough, Noise didn't have enough money to bid against Nuclear Blast, who took Stratovarius away from them.
Some of the bands Noise chose to pursue later fascinated me—Burn the Priest particularly. A lot of that had to do with Century Media taking over the American operations of Noise in the late 90s, and they were basically running Noise. Karl was tapped out mentally at the label, and the Century Media brass said 'Okay, why don't we take on your American operations, we'll absorb you into our operations in Los Angeles.' The guy who was working there, became one of the A&R guys at Century Media. He had his ear to the ground with those bands. He said, 'Hey, I know this band from Virginia called Burn the Priest, I think we should sign them.' Karl was like, 'No! We don't like the name. If we are going to sign them, they are going to have to change the name.'
Despite his many mistakes, in the afterward of the book, you give Karl the last word. Do you find it at all ironic that someone who eventually ran their label into the ground is giving us commentary on how labels can survive? It seems a bit counterintuitive that he is a band manager now, despite hating band managers back in the day.
Karl owns up to his mistakes throughout the book, the things he did wrong. Especially in the 90s when the labels finances were spread too thin, he admitted to that. Throughout the course of our interviews, I was given conflicting information and things I couldn't use, and that were wrong, but for the most part, he was pretty spot-on and accurate about things. He has a unique perspective on things, especially how things used to be and how they are now, and I think being away from the industry as long as he was in the 2000s gave him a fresh perspective on things. Managing bands has given him a new angle. He sees it from the other side. It's interesting; because when Karl was running Noise, he hated dealing with managers!
Karl wanted to do at least one written piece, so the agreement was, if you're going to do the afterward, it has to be on your thoughts in the music industry. Who better to talk about the current and past state of the music industry than someone who has lived and breathed it for 30 or 40 years? That's what we wanted with Karl. He wanted to talk about how things have changed, and if we don't adapt, what will happen?
Danced To Death
Celtic Frost versus Noise Records
"Partially, I have to blame myself. This failure —I'm part of the set-up. I didn't have the balls to confront Tom in such a way."
Digger's 1986 Stronger than Ever was the first career-killing album of its kind to be released by Noise. Celtic Frost's 1988 Cold Lake, however, is the ultimate. Widely considered to be the most infamous shark-jumping eﬀort of the modern metal era, Cold Lake was the rapid deconstruction of an avant-garde metal force that chased the hair spray-doused carrot of Americanized glam metal, only to quickly learn it was a mistake of epic proportions. Cold Lake's accompanying promo materials said it all: teased hair, unzipped pants on the part of bassist Curt Victor Bryant, and a thoroughly bland album cover. It was an immediate shock to punters who came to value Celtic Frost's unwavering quality control over its image.
Just a year prior, Celtic Frost released their watershed Into the Pandemonium, which proved to be the band's most ambitious production to date. Whereas its predecessors were fundamentally based upon Thomas Gabriel Fischer's simplistic but bruising riﬃng, driven by a heads-down, propulsive backbeat, Into the Pandemonium featured a litany of orchestration and innovative elements previously not heard in the world of metal. Unabashedly brave, the album represents the biggest leap into unchartered territory for a metal band.
Cuts such as 'Inner Sanctum', 'Babylon Fell', and 'Caress into Oblivion' gave Into the Pandemonium its foundation, allowing exploratory numbers like 'Mesmerized' (a song British doom lords Anathema would pattern themselves after on their The Silent Enigma album), the drum and bass, NASA-loving 'One in Their Pride', and the commercially friendly, female vocal adorned 'I Won't Dance' to demonstrate the full gravitas of how far out on a limb the band was willing to go. It didn't stop there. A cover of Wall of Voodoo's 'Mexican Radio' opens the album —an unfathomable move that goes against virtually every industry norm. Frost made it work, although one has to wonder how many eyebrows were raised upon hearing Fischer yelp, "A barbecued iguana."
Taken as a whole, Into the Pandemonium may be just as influential as its predecessors, Morbid Tales and To Mega Therion, albums that are credited with helping launch black and death metal respectively. Into the Pandemonium's flagrant use of operatic female vocals, industrial tinges, and symphonic flourishes would later be adopted by a new crop of gothic-flavored bands to emerge in the Nineties. And in an area where the duo of Fischer and Martin Eric Ain don't get enough credit, their lyrics were elegant, introspective prose, delving deep into the heart of the reality of being, mortality, and heartache.
Yet the entire process of actually creating Into the Pandemonium was an immense struggle for Fischer and team. Fischer says he and the Noise brass were at odds over who would produce the album (the band's first choice of Michael Wagener turned Celtic Frost down after hearing a haphazard rehearsal room demo), how much it would cost to actually make the album (Walterbach was reluctant to extend the budget to accommodate for such things as real orchestra players, opera singers, et al), and its outside-of-the-box approach. Because the songs were so adventurous, Walterbach never understood them, thus beginning a daily string of phone calls to Horus Sound Studio in Hannover where he often threatened to pull the plug on the entire production if Celtic Frost didn't get back on the thrash straight-and-narrow.
As a last-ditch eﬀort, Fischer asked Horus Sound owner Frank Bornemann to take on the role of producer, but it was determined the band were far too along in tracking. So because an actual producer wasn't chosen to oversee the sessions, Ain and Fischer were given production credits, but weren't actually paid for it. That money went to engineer Jan Nemec, who proved to be competent in his role, but certainly had neither the stature nor the knowledge the band was looking for.
Furthermore, Celtic Frost —against their wishes— were booked on a quick run of support dates for Anthrax smack-dab in the middle of album recordings. Had the band objected to these dates, they would have been put on ice. "We were three-quarters of the way through working on, for us, an extremely complex album," says Fischer. "It required classical musicians and a whole string of guests. These were complex recording sessions in the time before the computer existed. We worked with samples and I don't know how many tracks. We put all of our eﬀorts into it. We hadn't played our live set in forever. We weren't such a proficient live band yet where we could go out on stage unprepared and hammer it out. We said 'No thanks. It sounds like a good tour, but we can't do it.' Karl calls a few days later and says, 'You're on the tour.'"
"As a matter of principle I don't interfere with live dates when a band is in the studio," says Walterbach. "The tour was oﬀered, I passed the info on to Tom and I never pushed it. Why would I? The timing was wrong. I was not the band's manager. I did not have any control and say about this."
As basic as it sounds, Celtic Frost were vulnerable because they didn't have a proper manager. Andy Siegrist, a close friend of the band, manned the position for a short period of time, only to throw in the towel because he couldn't deal with Noise's power structure. Walterbach blames Celtic Frost's poor financial situation on exactly that: the lack of a strong manager during that point in the band's career. To him, he wasn't responsible for the financial well-being of any of his bands, let alone Celtic Frost. "I do a contract where I give comparable terms, which were usually between fourteen and eighteen percentage points on the net retail selling price," he says. "Those numbers were pretty common and standard. They were nothing unethical. After three albums, we usually improved those terms when the performance was promising, and gave them a better deal. Then, they ended up with between sixteen and eighteen points. With these deals, they were in a situation where they were handling their own fate."
Freshly inserted American guitarist Ron Marks (who didn't play on the album, but was asked to join in 1987 to beef up the band's live sound) recalls a time when a noticeably agitated and penniless Fischer returned home from a trip to the grocery store with a few cans of tuna…and a copy of a popular metal magazine with the band splashed across the cover. The dichotomy was almost too much to bear.
"Karl was giving us per diems to live on," says Marks. "He quit sending them, and we're dying. We're starving. I remember Tom gets on the phone, calls Noise: 'Hey, this thing is two weeks past. We're starving. Send the money.' They hung up on him. That's where the relationship was. Karl literally didn't care if we starved to death, and my thought was, 'Hey, this isn't about rock and roll or music. This is about people.' It was ridiculous."
The issues would spill over into Noise's Berlin oﬃce. By then, Walterbach was purposely shuttering himself away from members of Celtic Frost, particularly Fischer, who, as noted by several members of the Berlin Noise staﬀ, wasn't afraid to storm into the oﬃce demanding to see the label head, only to find him boxed oﬀ in his own corner oﬃce, presumably on a call. To Fischer's dismay, Walterbach often didn't return his calls. He wasn't having any of Fischer's demands, no matter how basic they were.
Antje Lange, who was barely a few months into her job at Noise, recalls the fear and anxiousness when it was announced that Fischer would be visiting Berlin to confront Walterbach. "Karl didn't pay him the per diems for the studio, and he was basically letting them starve. Tom was getting furious. Absolutely furious. He went into the oﬃce, and I was hiding, like, 'Oh shit, something is going to happen.' I think they were close to having a fist-fight. Tom was extremely angry about that because the bad thing about Karl is that he wants to control other people, telling them what to do and what not to do. He was a bit greedy at that time, and he wasn't the only record company executive to be like that. I think Tom was not feeling the respect he deserved as an artist."
Unlike Kreator, who often laughed and secretly poked fun at Walterbach while also being light in the wallet, Fischer couldn't let such issues subside. It went beyond the 'It's not personal, it's business' adage. The relationship between the authoritative and inflexible Walterbach and Fischer became adversarial. "By that time, Karl had become our enemy in so many ways," says Fischer. "By then Noise was no longer the springboard that it was and could have remained, but Noise had become the hinderer, the threat to the band, as it would happen, that same year, 1987, when they did destroy the band."
Video clip requests for Into the Pandemonium, in particular, 'Mexican Radio', were turned down by Walterbach, who, admittedly, was reluctant to commit such kind of resources to an album he deemed "too left-field." Walterbach further infuriated Fischer during the album's listening party at SPV's oﬃce, where he made a backhand comment to the eﬀect of, "Why don't you try to sound more like Exodus and Slayer?" Since Walterbach was convinced the album wouldn't sell, Into the Pandemonium received scant promotion. Only when the press starting hailing it as the groundbreaking release it was did the album start to sell. Sure enough, Celtic Frost now wanted oﬀ of Noise and started to look into their legal options.
"I'm very proud we were likely the first Noise band to take action," says Fischer. "Nobody can ever take that from Celtic Frost, even if it had disastrous results later. The pressure destroyed the band. We had nothing to look forward to. For the longest time, it looked like we would never come out of it. But it completely destroyed us, and any motivation we had… all of the internal friendships we had. We lived day-to-day under pressure with bad news and negative phone calls. The U.S. tour ended in disaster. There was no money to borrow anymore. We were the first band to defend ourselves against the bad business practices of what could have been a sensational band/label relationship."
Walterbach had other ideas. Concerned that letting Celtic Frost out of their contract would set a bad precedent for other Noise bands to follow suit, he saw no reason to let Celtic Frost go. The band would subsequently bring aboard prominent New York entertainment lawyer Bob Donnelly to finagle their way out of their Noise deal, while Reed St. Mark's friend Christopher Bruckner agreed to become the band's temporary manager and assist the band with their debts. The legal wrangling would persist for the remainder of 1987.
In spite of all this, Noise did end up funding tour support for Into the Pandemonium (whose sales, as estimated by Walterbach, would eventually reach 120,000 units total), bringing Celtic Frost in front of bigger audiences than before, and including a prized opening slot on Anthrax's Among the Living hockey barn tour with Exodus in tow. The addition of Marks furthered what was already a formidable live unit, with the lead guitarist describing the shows as "otherworldly" and "like standing in front of a jet engine," crediting his bandmates with being able to put aside their struggles with Noise for the benefit of playing live. "Say we had a rough day with Tom on the phone, and Martin's on the phone —always a bunch of bullshit and politics," notes Marks. "Five minutes before we hit the stage, Tom would go, 'I know we had a tough day today, but we're still going to do a good show.' I said, 'Tom, I only play one way.' And Tom would smile. It was just us onstage; nobody could touch us when we were onstage. None of the politics and none of the industry bullshit was there for that period of time."
The shows in support of Into the Pandemonium might have been some of the band's best, but eventually, the members of Celtic Frost were beginning to lose their ability to fight against the tide of the music business. Neither drummer Reed St. Mark nor Marks had signed contracts with Noise. They were free of the band's debts to the label, meaning they could jump ship at any time without repercussions. Resentment soon started to form within the band.
"I was really homesick," says St. Mark. "I'm an American. Those guys are Swiss. Ron was from Pennsylvania He's a country guy. I'm from New York —you know, 'Go fuck yourself.' I was overconfident, and I had no right to be. Tom is always on the verge of being in a really horrible mood, and it's contagious— quick. If he's miserable, he makes sure everyone around him is. It's a combination of Tom and myself; we were barely talking to each other. Which is not what we were; we were close. We were roommates. It was stressful from the business end, and I had to take my share of the blame. I was probably diﬃcult to get along with. I was aloof. Overconfident. I wasn't loud confident. I was quiet confident."
"We were so hammered mentally and just beaten like dogs at that point," adds Marks. "By the end of the tour, it was pretty rough. Nobody took it out on each other. Even if you felt like doing it, you walked away. Nobody got in my face; I didn't get in anybody's face. By that time, nobody was thinking of the next album. I had two quarters in my pocket and a plane ticket to Pittsburgh. I was thinking about eating and sleeping and taking a shower and being a human being again. It's not like I quit or anybody quit. We owed money on the bus, and they were getting up our ass about that. Reed took his girlfriend and went to New York and did his thing. My departure wasn't abrupt. Tom, Martin, and I sat on the tour bus before I left to go home, so it wasn't like I left on bad terms. Everybody was just looking at the floor going, 'Holy fuck.'"
"By the end of the U.S. tour in Dallas I said, 'This is the last Celtic Frost show,'" says Fischer. "There was no band to speak of. We went onstage acting like there was still a band. There was depression and negativity, and pressure and nervousness. We all agreed, this is the end of the line. We all went our separate ways after the tour. Martin and I were left with impounded instruments because we couldn't pay the crew for the last couple of days so they impounded our instruments, which took months to release in America. Martin and I flew home, and that was the end of it."
'Damn the Machine: The Story of Noise Records' comes out via Deliberation Press and Iron Pages Books on March 24. It will be available in English and in translated German, and is available for purchase here.
Sarah Kitteringham is a metal maniac who wants more Noise presses of Voivod records; follow her on Instagram.