DAVID GEHLKE - Damn The Machine: The Story Of Noise Records
April 4, 2017, 6 months ago
Warts & all tale of label founder Karl Ulrich Walterbach and his rise from imprisoned post-war generation squatter/radical to capitalist businessman, so much so that between cold German efficiency and lack of personal skills, he alienated virtually the entire roster (most of whom are interviewed). For someone like me, who loved the ‘80s output, visited the NYC office on a few occasions, and has gone to Germany since '95, the tome connects the dots of people and bands I've met over the years, including the mainman himself, still self-assured, socially disconnected and irascible, as manager of Alpha Tiger.
Lots of legwork went into this project, the author admitting there were weekly, multi-hour Skype sessions with Karl, plus there are interviews with staffers and, of course, the artists. In an attempt to be complete, contacting all the early notable signings, sort of odd Rage (a band with more than a decade on Noise) gets just two pages. Comes off like a short email response to generic questions. While airing dirty laundry, in print, few truly rip Karl (exception being the usually reclusive Celtic Frost/Hellhammer originator, Thomas Gabriel Warrior, who saves his perspective for diatribes against Walterbach, although much of the remaining text surrounding their time on the label falls to other members). Most chalk up his sins of the past to their own childish inexperience and part of the learning curve. It is interesting to note that Hansi Kursch (vocalist for Blind Guardian) penned the forward. Never associated with Noise, it seems an odd choice and might surreptitiously, speak volumes about long held attitudes and animosities of those who DID have something to do with Karl and his records.
After a personal background on Walterbach, the book dedicates sections to the main players; Celtic, Helloween, Running Wild, initial signee Grave Digger, Kreator, etc. Rather than run through the entire chronology of their time on Noise, Gehlke opts to separate the good from the bad, taking Celtic Frost right up to the Cold Lake decision and concentrating on Helloween prior to the courting by Iron Maiden's team and subsequent legal action. Thus the dirt and lawsuits are reserved until midway through the nearly 500 pages, regardless of the actual signings/departures timeline. Unlike someone like Metal Blade's Brian Slagel, Walterbach was never a fan of the music (just $ signs), didn't typically attend concerts and frequently failed to even meet his signees face-to-face (especially North American acts), during their entire tenure with Noise. A control freak, he often played hardball, denying payments for elaborate artwork, extensive tours or recording opulence, even delaying or withholding money to artists (in at least one case), to the point of near starvation!
There are plenty of black & white photos and artwork reproductions (flyers, demo covers, ads) from personal archives and old Iron Pages magazine. Nice to see an extensive section dedicated to artistic outliers, like Coroner, VoiVod, WatchTower, Skyclad and Sabbat (UK), whose time on Noise was limited. There's also a “Hidden Treasures” chapter, devoting no more than a paragraph or two to the lesser known acts in Walterbach's canon. The dissolution Of Helloween, especially between Kai Hansen and Mikel Kiske (who would eventually work together in Gamma Ray, to say nothing of Unisonic) is most surprising, especially given the full scale reunion that’s scheduled for 2017. Remember in '89, at the Syria Mosque, in Pittsburgh (the author's current residence) backstage at the giant ornate concert hall, that played host to music's biggest names, Helloween bassist Markus Grosskopf said, “Keeper, Keeper Keeper. I'm tired of this. No more Keeper!”
By the early Nineties, both the Berlin Wall (near the Noise office) and the post-lawsuit label lay in tatters, like heavy metal in general (apart from Japan & Germany). However, in the grunge/nu metal era, there were a few new bright spots in the Noise roster, although only momentary glimmers of success, like Mordred and Virgin Steele, amongst the (temporary) closing of UK and NYC offices, before relocating operations to California. The decade also saw the launch of Gamma Ray and Kamelot, like so many before them, jumping from Noise's restrictive initial contract, as soon as possible. Through cooperation with T&T (a deal that saw neither party respect the other), Noise began a relationship with Stratovarius, alongside the aforementioned pair, and revitalized label fortunes before Sanctuary bought them out.
Quite a ride, littered with broken egos and stunted careers, although the musical cream seems to have risen to the top, despite any setbacks.