We say it time and time again, but running a site like this opens up a world for discovery.
While new music is at the forefront of our minds, spare a thought for those who make this possible.
Those like Steve Strode from Cruel Nature Records.
Since the release of Darling Point, Strode’s Cruel Nature label has released a slew of splendid records, including Liverpool-based artist Jonny Davis Le Bruen’s latest Mitternatch LP, The Snake (interview link below).
That’s the funny thing about underground scenes. They have all these weird and wonderful connections and with Cruel Nature, it has to be said that it is the label which we consider to be the find of 2021.
Cruel Nature fits in with our ethos of unearthing the kind of artistic voices that many others around the world seemingly disregard. The work that goes into a label like Cruel Nature is tireless and labels like this should be celebrated within the realms of the underground and beyond.
Recently, we had the opportunity to ask Strode some questions, as well as asking the CN architect to select his favourite albums from the label this year.
Sun 13: Can you tell us the history of Cruel Nature Records?
Steve Strode: “Cruel Nature was established in 2013 and it operates from my home in Morpeth, Northumberland.
“The inspiration for starting the label came from a few different angles. On and off, I’ve spent over 30 years in the ‘no audience’ underground and have always taken a DIY approach to music: self-releasing sounds, and publishing zines since my teens in the late ’80s. I’d some experience with co-running a label in the early 2000s; and through collaborating with micro-labels such as Haunted Trail, along with the vast global online community of underground artists and labels, the idea for Cruel Nature evolved.
“I decided on tape as a format because I’ve been using them since my parents bought me my first recorder aged 10. I grew up with the mixtape culture and used to trade live bootleg tapes through the NME back pages as a teen. Later, I started recording my own projects on a 4-track Tascam, which I still have and use, so running a cassette label seemed a natural step.
“Labels such as Jon Collins’ Winebox Press, also inspired me to revisit the cassette and how it could be pushed creatively, so it’s more than just a medium for carrying sound but could be a work of art, both visually, tactility and aurally.
“Ultimately, I was looking to establish something that would allow me to publish whatever I wanted. That wasn’t genre-specific nor massively expensive to produce. Where I had the flexibility to take risks with releases, providing support and opportunities to new artists and new sounds.
“And here we are, almost nine years later, 190 releases on.”
S13: How much has lockdown impacted on the label’s releases? Judging by the output, it’s still been really constant?
SS: “When the pandemic first struck the UK and we went into lockdown, there was a lot of uncertainty. I shut operations for a short period as we tried to make sense of the situation (which we still are). It was evident though that due to live music restrictions etc., artists were limited in the outlets that they had for their work and based on the increase in submissions I was receiving, lockdown was generating more creative output in some cases. This led me to releasing monthly batches of tapes (often four or five a month), which would allow more artists to get exposure to their work. And I guess it also led to an increase in support from blogs like yours, as I am constantly throwing new sounds for you to check out.
“Where possible, I’ve also been looking to use the label to help people in crisis, through donations to community groups and charities, usually aligned to – but not dependent on – Bandcamp Fridays.”
S13: The thing I love about Cruel Nature is you’re literally releasing music from all over the world which not a lot of labels are primarily focused on. Was this something you considered doing from the outset?
SS: “Yes. Part of the Cruel Nature ‘mission’ was to not limit or constrain the label either by location or genre, and through that open new audiences to new sounds. It’s also led to some great connections, particularly Russia’s Mirrored Lips, who I also organised (and travelled with) their first UK tour.”
“A minor downside to taking a global approach, is the rising costs and issues with shipping artist copies, more so since Brexit.
“Shipping to Ireland has recently been trouble-some, due to what appears to be much more stringent customs checks than other EU countries; resulting in several packages being returned, despite them passing Royal Mail conditions. I think I have resolved this but only time will tell and f it continues, I may have to consider stopping shipping there – which of course I want to avoid.
“The EU tax changes which were introduced in July have also had an impact and I’ve seen a reduction in support from EU customers as a result. This is understandable, as folks don’t want to take the risk of paying more than the price of the cassette just to have it released from customs. Although all EU orders are now being shipped with the Bandcamp IOSS number, so this should mean that customers don’t incur any additional charges.”
S13: Did you inherit any new hobbies in lockdown?
SS: “Unfortunately, not. It would’ve been good to have some spare time to work through the stack of unread books I’m amassing, but it’s not happening. Running the label is my pastime, which on top of the day job and family, doesn’t really leave much time for anything else. We probably found we had less time during lockdown, when the schools were closed and having to juggle home-schooling and working from home alongside everything else, which was a challenge until we got into our groove.”
S13: Like always, I’m guessing you’ve got some exciting releases locked in for 2022?
SS: “Yep, 2022 is looking to be another busy one. There are already 20 releases confirmed and I’ve been checking some submissions out this week which may join the roster. The first half of next year should see new sounds coming from David Colohan; United Bible Studies; the debut Ominbael album; Salisman’s eagerly awaited sophomore album and amazing new work from Whirling Hall of Knives and Aidan Baker. I also have some fine Italian skronk from Masche, who are one of many new acts joining the CN family.
“That’s one of the benefits: the exposure to new acts and sounds, which it’s likely I’d never hear, if I wasn’t running the label – especially as outside of CN, I’m currently spending a lot of time listening to makina, happy hardcore and jungle mixes. (laughs)
“When I look through what’s been published during 2021, over half of it is by new artists, so here’s hoping 2022 matches or exceeds that.”
S13: All in all, how would you describe your year, personally?
SS: “Well, it’s flown by for one and I’ve kept busy. We moved to a new house in June, which came with a school move, so that took a bit of settling in but it’s working out well.
“From a label view, this year has been our most productive, with 37 albums published. The challenge is to beat that in 2022.
“The exposure and support that we’ve received from blogs like yours, the Quietus and the feature in the Wire, has also made it a good one and is massively appreciated. Promotion is an aspect of the job that can be soul-destroying at times, especially when you’re sending hundreds of press packs out, often with little feedback, and you just want to give the artist the exposure they deserve. But when you get a blog or a writer who latches on to it, completely gets it and writes about it from a genuine passion and love of the music and sounds – that just makes it all worthwhile.”
S13: Now the important question. What are your favourite Cruel Nature albums of 2021?
“I think this has been a strong year for the quality of releases. There are often a few weeks between when I listen to an album on submission and hear it when it lands on tape, so I get to fall in love with it all over again. I can’t really rank them in order of preference, so these are some personal highlights:”
Sarcastic Burn Victim: Blood & Stomach Pills
The album that kicked 2021 off. Noisy, bonkers and with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Titles such as Please Note The Pterodactyl Is Also A Ninja and Banzai Kablooey And The Cockatoo Banana House give an indication of what’s in store. Hiss And Hum said it was “the aural equivalent of watching a Laurel and Hardy film where the set floor is covered in broken glass” which sums it up nicely.
January 4, 2020 was when I first started chatting with Qoheleth’s Jeremy Hunt about releasing an album. 24 September 2021 this beast of an experimental noise-rock landed; showing that good things come to those who wait. Incredibly well-crafted, with a posse of guest appearances, it’s a ‘concept’ album focusing on violence, warfare and weapons in society, particularly the US. An album that keeps on giving with every listen. The band also made available a super-limited edition mock-up cereal box (‘Warmonger-Os’) version, complete with custom made characters and a board game.
As with many Cruel Nature releases, this is debut album from Dusseldorf-based Peter Lersch (aka Todeskino) was a gift from nowhere. A random email, amongst the many, submitting some work for consideration. And whilst it may take me awhile (and I only tend to reply to those I’m interested in) I do listen to everything I get sent – eventually.
It was the neo-classical aspects of this that first grabbed me. The sparse piano (I’m a real sucker for sparse piano), interspersed with waves of ambient synths and field-recordings. Then there’s the concept (I really love a good concept): an album inspired by a photo from a mid-80s Sadie Hawkins dance, the photo that adorns the cover. An album inspired by a single portrait photo. My favourite is in the opening track Dear Robin, where after a couple of minutes of blissful synth-sax melody, the phrase ‘I love you’ is spoken and the whole tone and mood of the song changes. Wonderful.
One Key Magic: Worldly Noise and Electronic Atmospheres
When it comes to concept, this album has it in spades. Initiated by Dr Michael Mulvihill (an artist and researcher specialising in nuclear weapons and their societal impact) teamed with Chris Tate (Tyneside based producer, who also records with Score and Salisman), the project focuses on the three giant, geodesic domes at RAF Fylingdales, which contain space radars built to track everything in Low Earth Orbit and distinguish the signal of an incoming nuclear weapon from the ‘noise’ of satellites and space debris.
Michael and Chris used the audible electromagnetic pulses from the space radars as drone tones, bringing each into the range of human hearing, with a different composition for each radar location. Compositions were improvised over the tones, with the musical key and relevant melodic scales being determined by the fundamental and harmonic frequencies present in the radar pulse drones. Using synthesizers and a guitar played with an electronic bow, morphing textures formed and flowed. The result is a set of tracks that would fit nicely on a late Spacemen 3/ early Spiritualized record.
Thrusting grunge into the 21st century, New York City’s Cronies’ self-titled debut album is a product of the pandemic; in that it was conceived, played, recorded, mixed and mastered whilst in lockdown. Over-flowing with riffs, hooks and melodies, this highly contagious album is far more than ‘just another noise-rock record’. The Wire commented that stand-out track Poindexter ‘sounds pleasingly like Motorpsycho trying to remember the chords for Black Sabbath’s Iron Man’. They’re not wrong. Stick on repeat. Forever.