Just like vinyl, also the good old cassette tape recently experienced a major revival and as a result more and more releases are available in this format again. While many bigger companies just additionally offer their new releases in this format, the German label Darkness Shall Rise Productions has specialized in re-releasing old classics on cassette tape exclusively. But instead of just re-releasing certain albums, they offer high-quality limited edition box sets, which not only contain several releases of the band, but also a shitload of other goodies and therefore are an absolute must for die hard fans of the respective band. Since these boxes are always totally amazing, we wanted to find out a bit more and contacted label owner Denny Wolfram for the following interview…
Hi Denny, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I know that you always have a very busy schedule, so let’s start right away… Please introduce yourself a bit more detailed to our readers and what you have done before you started Darkness Shall Rise Productions. Have you actively been involved in the Metal scene somehow before already?
“I was born in 1981 and since my childhood music has been the center of my life. My father drew my attention to 60s oldies like CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL, THE SWEET or THE WHO and I liked that a lot as a child, and compared to my friends of the same age I preferred listening to music than playing Lego or later video games. Of course it was a gradual process, but from 1992 / 1993 there was actually nothing else in my life than music. The first records I bought were all albums (on tape and CD) by BON JOVI, NIRVANA, GUNS’N’ROSES and so on. Things from METALLICA, MEGADETH, BLACK SABBATH, etc. were quickly added. From 1995 onwards I was actually completely immersed in the Black / Death Metal underground or rather discovered it for myself. This step actually came about quite accidentally (although I believe it was preordained). In 1995 I was in a department store here and had no idea about the really “tough” things. Then a CD cover caught my eye, which absolutely fascinated me. A flaming horizon over the sea and a skull and crossbones figure holding a knife above (all things that every good Metal album cover must have – haha). Joking aside, I was so fascinated by this cover and I bought this CD because of it, even though I didn’t know this band at all. It was the debut album by English Death Metal band BENEDICTION, “Subconscious Terror”. And in that CD there was a slip from Nuclear Blast that you had to fill out and then you got a catalogue and a sampler CD. In that catalogue was an interview with a band called DISMEMBER. There was also a song by this band on the CD and I was blown away. As luck would have it, a month later this band was playing just 30km from my home (in Fraureuth). Of course I had to go there. My parents drove me and waited outside. I was in there alone. Aged 14. The opening act was DISSECTION. From then on I was lost. I can still remember the first original tape I bought from that time. That was OBITUARY’s “Cause Of Death” and I had to pay almost 25 DM for the tape at our local record store. More than a CD costed at the time… Unfortunately, I have no idea what happened to that OBITUARY tape. In any case, unfortunately, I no longer have it. Of course, in those first years I didn’t have much money to buy a lot of records or CDs. Of course, orders were regularly placed at Nuclear Blast, but mostly at Epitaph / Last Episode. But the hunger for fresh music was great and so tapes were recorded to satisfy this hunger. Like so many others, I loved writing all the band logos on the tapes and sleeves as delicately and faithfully as possible. It wasn’t that easy when you’re rooted in Black / Death Metal. Furthermore, the underground magazine number 1 in Germany, “Ablaze”, was of course also regularly bought. The demo tape reviews represented there were of course absorbed by me with great devotion and many bands were written to, to get their demo tapes and to get in touch with musicians and “the scene” in general. For the first few years (1995 – 1997) I was pretty much on the road alone and had no one in my circle of friends who shared my love for this music. It was only later, when I had my moped license and was a little more mobile, so that I was able to find a few “like-minded people”. To cut a long story short: whether on a nightly walk to a buddy in the neighboring village, where the Walkman was always a must, or later in my first car, which of course only had a tape deck, there was space for 12 “works of art” in the driver’s and passenger’s door. Cassettes were somehow always present. More than CDs or records… Especially in the 90s. DIY, inevitably. In the most positive sense…”
You started Darkness Shall Rise Productions in 2015 as a cassette only label and it hasn’t changed ever since… Why just cassettes? Or would you also consider releasing vinyl and / or CDs at some point in the future as well?
“From 2000 to 2010 I had a band myself (ORLOG). I invested all my energy in this back then. Rehearsing every weekend, concerts etc. When that fell apart it kind of left me with a void. However, since I’m not a real musician myself and don’t play an instrument, the desire for a new band was never really that big. Somehow, however, a certain “energy” found other channels to escape and so in 2014 the thought came up of how it would be like to officially re-release a few of my favorite albums and demos on music cassettes. But that was nothing new at the time. Especially in my own circle of friends and acquaintances there were already labels like “Home Taping Cruelties” or “War Metal Series”, they had already released tapes. But mostly from current bands. Maybe my motivation was something else. Even though I had absolutely no thoughts about the future at the time and didn’t pursue any big goals. If I release maybe 5 albums on tape by bands I loved 15 or 20 years ago, I figured that would be the biggest thing for me. So I started texting a few bands and acquaintances. Since I naturally never planned to make a living out of my label or to have employees, I just never had big plans and visions with the label. As mentioned above, I’ve always been drawn to the medium and that’s why I made cassettes. Besides tapes, I only buy vinyl privately, but somehow that was never an issue at Darkness Shall Rise Productions. I know my way around cassettes and I know what I’m doing. Able to deliver quality. Vinyl doesn’t do that. There are also so many other good labels releasing vinyl that I could only lose in comparison. One truth of course is that if I released vinyl I would never get as many licenses as I do with tapes. There I am almost all alone…”
“Into Dark Crypts” from ROOT was your very first cassette boxset in 2016… Before that, Darkness Shall Rise Productions had only released cassette editions of classic underground albums. Did all those already sell a reasonable number of copies (or even sell out), that you were confident enough that such a boxset wouldn’t completely turn into a financial suicide?
“Well, I actually take financial suicide, or rather the risk of it, with every one of my boxes. Of course, I didn’t know if the ROOT box would sell well. But the number of pieces was accordingly kept quite manageable. The individual tapes before that were mostly limited to 200 – 300 pieces and sold quite well. Of course, I didn’t know how it would turn out with a box. I think you generally have to be a bit “reckless” and “naive” to make boxes like this. Even if the ROOT box, in contrast to my current releases, was still quite cheap to produce, I had to borrow money from my family to be able to fulfill this little dream. Luckily it didn’t backfire.”
Instead of tasting the water a little bit at first, you already came up with a very impressive package for the ROOT boxset right away… But since it’s a lot easier for a fan to purchase a single cassette than a way more expensive boxset, was it more difficult to get rid of the complete edition of such a massive release nevertheless?
“Of course it’s always more difficult to sell a whole box than just a few individual cassettes. But I spoke to the band about it at the time and we all thought the idea was cool. It’s always risky, but I haven’t thought much about it. In any case, I have never regretted it. After the box, I also noticed that there was quite a small market and that some people shared my interest. You have to consider that in 2016, apart from Floga Records, nobody else made old classic tape boxes. Although of course I have to mention Nuclear Winter Records who released a great 3-tape box set by ROTTING CHRIST in 2012 and inspired me immensely to do something like that too.”
Your following boxsets of MEFISTO, SARCASM, SECRETS OF THE MOON and WARNING were all a bit smaller when it comes to the number of included cassettes and additional content… Was that pure coincidence or a result of the experiences with the ROOT boxset?
“No, that had nothing to do with root. With ROOT we just wanted to put everything the band released into one box. Even if I regretted it a bit afterwards. Because a short time after we released the tape box, a new ROOT album came out (which we released as a single tape) and so this box was always incomplete. I prefer “concept boxes” with things from just one period of the band, with this and that singer or just the demos etc. That was the case with MEFISTO, SARCASM or SECRETS OF THE MOON, for example. Also with DESASTER, NIHILIST etc it was the case that these boxes only contained the demos of the respective bands and no albums. WARNING, on the other hand, had already been buried at the time of publication and of course it makes sense to pack the full discorgraphy of the band in one box.”
By the way: how come the ROOT boxset was limited to 288 copies? That is a rather unusual number for a limited edition release…
“Haha, really? I can’t remember anymore so I’ll have to look it up. Ok, the reason for this unusual number is that there were 222 regular boxes and 66 die hard versions with an extra t-shirt. Somehow I thought these numbers were great and also sellable.”
“In The Arms Of Darkness”, the massive 2019 boxset from BURZUM, was your biggest and also most controversial release up to that point. Did you have any difficulties prior to its release? Is it generally a problem to get the rights for the material, which you include in your boxes?
“There was and still is a series that I call “Nordic Metal” and under whose banner I officially re-release ’90s Norwegian Black Metal albums on tape. It started with PERISHED, the cult sampler of the same name “Nordic Metal”, BORKNAGAR, TROLL, HADES, MAYHEM, OLD MAN’S CHILD etc. And later continued with individual tapes and boxes from ENSLAVED, IMMORTAL, MANES, MYSTICUM, DODHEIMSGARD, EMPEROR and many more. And when you release these bands from that time, then of course you can’t (and shouldn’t) ignore BURZUM. And when I got the offer from No Survivors / Plastic Head (the label that manages BURZUM’s entire back catalogue) to release the stuff on tape, the idea of a box came naturally… because this project was officially considered dissolved from Mr. Vikernes at the time. The approach regarding licenses and the creation of boxes is the same for me with the tapes as it is for larger labels. I write to bands and their labels, make them an offer and present my ideas. Basically, I would never do anything that I don’t listen to and love at home. No matter how good the prospective sales would be. If I was successful and the offer was accepted (which is often a very lengthy process that sometimes involves a lot of persuasion and takes years), a license agreement is negotiated. Big labels send me a contract, for bands where the rights lie with the band (which unfortunately is rarely the case) and I write a license agreement. If everything goes well, I also get usable layout files etc. from the labels or bands. However, my graphic designers often have to scan old records or CDs which we use for the tape inserts and the books that go with the boxes, since there is maybe simply no usable material on the part of the labels or bands. Then we first think about a box (name, cover, concept, extras, etc.), then, together with many people who help me, we collect material that we then use for the booklet and all the extras. This is often a process spanning many months, so that a picture slowly emerges. If a release is then announced and goes into pre-order, I have my graphic designers put together flyers for each release, which are then distributed online. These are then always printed 2500 times, regardless of whether it is a small demo band or a box for a large band. These flyers are very important to me and are placed in orders, letters or at concerts. The “old feeling” should be preserved a little bit.”
I suppose you expected a lot from the BURZUM boxset saleswise, since you released it in an edition of 1.000 copies right away. Were you never afraid that it could also do a lot of damage to your label, because of Vikernes right-wing attitude?
“It was actually clear to me right from the start that this box would a) sell well and b) would provide a lot of conversation. Therefore, a limitation of 1000 pieces seemed sensible and realistic to me. Even if the decision was of course anything but simple and easy. The entire production costs were only financed through the advance sale and if this had not gone well, I would have had a big problem. Because the label has never made so much money to be able to pre-finance such projects on its own. That’s still the case, by the way, and it’s the only reason why I always offer pre-sales. Not something I like doing, but running a cassette label isn’t necessarily a smart decision because it’s just a very unprofitable business model. You have to be a big fan of the music and, as already mentioned, be a bit insane to be able to pull off such expensive projects over and over again. Because with such big projects, we quickly talk about 50.000 €, which first have to be pre-financed. But yes, with the BURZUM box I thought that 1000 pieces would be ok. In hindsight, I probably could have done 1.500 or 2.000. But you never know that beforehand and the thing about my boxes is that they are limited and hand-numbered and that there will never be a second or third edition. When it’s gone, it’s gone… Not like CDs or vinyl. Again a very non-businesslike way of thinking. I knew that the BURZUM box would cause quite a stir. But honestly, I have my roots in the Black Metal of the ’90s and was there (in contrast to today’s time and “scene”) the goal to please everyone or did you rather want to provoke? Exactly… And the fact is that Mr. Vikernes (whom I never had personal contact with) wrote music for eternity and I couldn’t let this chance pass me by in my Nordic Metal series. Even today I’m still proud and grateful to have made this box because I love BURZUM’s music. I know the guy made some very stupid statements, but I can tune that out and just focus on what matters. The music! And as mentioned above, neither I nor Mr. Vikernes nor any other Black Metal bands are here to please everyone. Black Metal is rebellion and has to offend and shouldn’t please anyone. That is the main problem in today’s time and in the current “scene”. That everything is condemned that is not mass compatible and where anyone feels attacked and their honor or whatever hurt. But that’s not how Black Metal should be. It should hurt! Darkness Shall Rise Productions absolutely does not support political extremes. It doesn’t matter which direction they go. Politics is secular and I want you to escape this world with music. I also find the statements of people who describe me as a person or my label as a Nazi or right-wing or whatever after the BURZUM box absolutely funny. This is absolutely ridiculous and idiotic! Because everyone who knows me personally knows that this is definitely not the case. But I don’t think about that too much. That’s no use either because you can’t please everyone anyway and nowadays people are always looking for the hair in the soup. And I don’t want or need to. I can sleep well in the evening and I know who and what I am and that’s the most important thing. Anyway, I’m glad I made this box and the best memory related to this release is the friendships made while working on this box. Some people I didn’t know before, but who are just as obsessed and inspired by Black Metal and music in general, I can now count as very close friends after 4 years, who still help me with my projects with absolute passion. And that is a very beautiful and important aspect.”
All of your boxsets are limited releases, but they all differ in numbers. How do you decide which boxset gets released in which amount of copies? I suppose the more popular a band is, the more copies you print, but how do you decide on the exact numbers, since they always seem to be different?
“Exactly, it’s that simple. I always decide based on my assumption how well a box could be sold, how high the limit is in the end. Of course, you (unfortunately) never know beforehand and current events, like now, have a strong influence on the sales figures. But I can usually (unfortunately not always) roughly estimate that and with this number I approach the labels and bands with my license offers. Usually it’s just 500, 750 or 1.000. Very rarely other more unusual numbers, which then have no specific reason or background. But at the moment the trend is unfortunately more likely that the number of pieces will go down a bit. The times when I sold 1.000 or 1.500 boxes are probably over for the time being. But fortunately (or not) none of us has a crystal ball in which to look into the future. Maybe then I would throw everything away immediately. That’s why we live from day to day and see what the future will bring.”
All the boxsets that I personally know of also have a lot of additional stuff included and it seems you invest more and more money in each one of them for hardcover books, silver print etc. Does that pay off in any way or is it more a personal wish of yours, because you are also a fan yourself and like to see the stuff released in the best possible way?
“I am aware that our products are luxury goods and you don’t really need these things to live. Of course, these boxes are very expensive, but we have to ask for this price to be able to survive. It’s no longer the case that I only do it as a hobby. Now several employees have to be paid, the rent for a large warehouse etc etc. And for me it’s just out of the question to minimize the quality of our releases just to be able to lower the price by a few euros. All of these boxes are a “once in a lifetime story“ and I still can’t believe I have the chance to release some of my favorite records from bands I’ve been listening to for almost 30 years now. Even after 8 years, this is still such a great honor for me that there is no other option than to give 100%. All or nothing. No compromise! The bands and the music didn’t deserve that. And that shouldn’t influence and destroy a current shitty crisis or politics either. Music is so much more. And for this reason, of course, I try to release something special and of high quality with every release. For me, it really isn’t a matter of course to have the chance to officially release my personal favorite albums again on music cassettes and I’m kind of in awe of it. For this reason, I always try to deliver a product that does justice to the music and everything around it. It’s important to me that the respective musicians and, of course, the buyers and fans end up holding a really high-quality, maybe even a unique collector’s item in their hands. It’s not about any superlatives, but I would never release a box that only contains the respective tapes and nothing else. Unfortunately, more and more labels are doing this lately. In the end it’s all about the music, of course, no question. But let’s be honest, we all have many of the classics on record or CD at home on the shelf. Who needs a tape box that only contains the tapes and nothing else? Somehow I wouldn’t do justice to the music that has accompanied me through most of my life. Minimum effort, maximum profit or something like that… No.”
Whenever there’s a book included in a boxset, you also have exclusive interviews with the original members of the bands in it. Is that another difficult part of such a project, especially when the band isn’t playing in that particular line-up anymore? To track down the members, to find someone who’s going to do the interviews and all that?
“Yes, in addition to the cassettes, i.e. the music itself, which is of course the most important thing, the books for my boxes are a very important aspect to me. Very few people see how much work and time is behind it. However, I love working on it, and it’s almost like a journey through time into my own past when I put together old flyers, pictures, posters, reviews, etc. for the book together with a few other “freaks” from all over the world, conduct interviews and collect everything over nights to end up holding a small history book in your hands. All of this is then put together by my graphic designers with loving attention to detail. Some may not be interested in such extras, but for me it is essential and ultimately what makes such a box something special. Behind all this there is really a lot of love, passion and above all work. As far as possible, it’s always important for me to work together with the respective musicians and to involve them in a box project like this. Just getting a tape license from a label and then going about a release without the knowledge of the band is not my philosophy at all. In any case, it is always an adventure and a sometimes lengthy search to establish contact with some old band members and then to convince them for the product. But fortunately I have many people at my side who share my passion and often support me, especially in interviews. Without these people I would never be able to do it and my boxes would be completely different, worse… Again, a big thank you to all the musicians who take the time to dig through the dark corners of their memories and let us be a part of their past. And of course to the great people who take the time to deal with the history of the band, to come up with questions and then to implement them in sometimes 2 – 3 hour telephone interviews or in personal meetings with the musicians and then to write them down for the respective books. I can’t thank these people enough for their help! I would definitely like to mention Steven Willems, Christian Moen, Paweł Kaczyński and Finn Håkon Rødland. And of course all the musicians who write liner notes for the hot bands or give interviews and share their memories with us.”
You always also have to involve the members of the bands in your releases, so what kind of experiences have you made over the years? Are they all easy to work with or is it often also a real pain in the ass? Any stories that you can share with us maybe?
“The spectrum ranges from good, to great, to non-existent or even boycotting cooperation. Sometimes it’s just great to get to know your old heroes and to work with them on the boxes. People like Samoth from EMPEROR, Blackheim from KATATONIA or Garm from ULVER come to mind spontaneously. With them you noticed every day how much their past is still important to them and how seriously they take these projects, even if it’s “only” cassettes. Such collaborations are just wonderful and the icing on the cake. But of course that’s not always the case. There is also the absolute opposite and even bands whose records I can no longer listen to after 30 years of being a fan because the collaboration was very disappointing. I could tell a few stories, but I think I should let the past go (at least in these cases) and not harp on about it doing dirty laundry. Sorry.”
Which boxset was the most difficult to put together so far and why? And which was your most successful release?
“Of course, often the boxes of which we don’t have much source material are the most time consuming and work intensive ones. And of course it takes more work to put together a 15-tape box than a 3-tape box. DISSECTION was definitely hard work. Due to the immense number of tapes and of course also because the main band member couldn’t help me with it, still we really wanted to implement the legacy of the band as authentically as possible. But KING DIAMOND, for example, turned out to be very strong-minded and nerve-wracking. If by “successful” you mean the sales figures then definitely BURZUM, EMPEROR, CELTIC FROST and DISSECTION. But ULVER is slowly getting there…”
How do you decide which band / album you release on a cassette edition or which bands you find interesting enough for a boxset? Have you already experienced a lot of letdowns over the years as well, because your wish to release something was rejected by the bands or simply due to legal difficulties?
“Well, as mentioned above, music has always been the focus of my life. And that’s why the ideas and wishes regarding releases at Darkness Shall Rise Productions are actually endless. As long as I listen to the stuff myself and have it at home, and as long as it gives me something and means something personally, as long as it is good and worth releasing. I don’t reall set commitments musically at all. Just as I can’t and don’t want to do it privately either. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Black, Death, Doom, Heavy or Thrash Metal. Darkness Shall Rise Productions stands for authenticity and honesty and I could never release something I don’t listen to and like myself just because it might sell well. Sure, the label has now also become a “business” and I have 3 full-time employees who also want to be paid. So the sum X has to be generated every month in order to survive (and it’s not really more than surviving from month to month), but I would never “sell” myself. But fortunately I don’t have to because there are still so many great albums that we think need to be released on cassette again. For a long time there was also the idea of creating a sub-label where we would release a lot of Non-Metal stuff that often played on our private turntables. But this idea was then thrown overboard again because I thought that I didn’t want to limit Darkness Shall Rise Productions and for this reason. I could also imagine publishing some of these things under the Darkness Shall Rise Productions banner at some point. Maybe there are already some plans for that. Darkness Shall Rise Productions, your dealer for eerie and sombre analog cult. There certainly have been a lot of disappointments in recent years, but that’s part of it. You can’t have everything and if someone had told me in 2015 which boxes I would be releasing in the coming years, I would have called them crazy. That’s why I’m grateful for every single release I’m allowed to do. I don’t grumble about the titles / bands I’m not allowed to publish. There is so much cool stuff… Of course I would like to make an old school box of DARKTHRONE, SATYRICON or GORGOROTH, for example, but that will probably never happen for various licensing reasons. I just hope that any label that might want to make boxes like this, do it with the same passion and respect that we would. All those old bands deserve that and nothing else.”
At which point of time did you notice that you could make a living from the label? Did you ever expect that? I mean, cassettes aren’t necessarily the number one format when it comes to music releases these days…
“It all came very naturally and of course it was absolutely not planned the way it is now. As already mentioned, at the beginning I had absolutely no idea where the journey should go. There weren’t any real goals with the label other than to re-release some of my favorite stuff on tape under the Darkness Shall Rise Productions banner. For the first 1 to 2 years I was also happy when I got my expenses back in. But with time and the growing projects, I quickly reached my time limits and my health limit. Even if I was able to do a lot for the label in my old main job as an intensive care nurse (especially on the night shift), be it writing e-mails, invoices, graphic things, etc., the day just had too few hours to realize everything to be able to do what I wanted. It was always clear to me that there was one thing that definitely shouldn’t suffer, and that was the end product. That’s why I went from 40 hours a week in nursing to 30 hours a week and after a few months to 20 hours a week. So half a day… 50 / 50 so to speak. That was, I thought, the perfect and perhaps also the safest solution. It’s also not the case (as said before) that the “tape label business model” seems very promising and lucrative. To be honest, it was never a thought. Until the early summer of the year 2020. Somehow the number of upcoming projects kept increasing (I just can’t say no to some things – or I don’t want to either), so the thought kept coming up that I was much more and could rush into my label with even more dedication, if only I had more time. Be that as it may, in summer 2020 the decision was made that I would try it. Of course I have no idea how the whole thing will develop and maybe that’s a good thing. In any case, I already have projects for 3 – 4 years and I can just count myself more than lucky to have the time to be able to realize them. I have made my love and passion my profession, what could be nicer? If I should notice after a few years that it might not be enough after all, then I can say to myself that I at least tried and possibly return to my “systemically important” job. But now I also have responsibility for 3 employees, so not only for myself. That’s why we’re looking around for a few other mainstays, of course. There should be a little more official merch for the respective tapes. So far we have made merchandise from MYSTICUM, MANES, AURA NOIR, UVER, MOONBLOOD, NOCTERNITY and LIMBONIC ART, for example, and many things are still in the planning stage. We are also currently working on two books (not about tapes) which may be published in 50 years – haha. Many also ask if we publish the books that are in our boxes back again individually. And of course, we also had the idea of somehow being able to pay our bills at the end of the month. But that will probably never happen as the books are part of my boxes and are not intended for retail sale. Maybe there will also be a sub-label where we will release one or the other box that we have already made as a CD box, who knows… There are many plans or ideas.”
Ok Denny, time for the last question. Any confirmed projects of yours that we can already look forward to? Or is it too early to reveal details already? Thanks for the interview and all the best for you and Darkness Shall Rise Productions. Keep up the great work.
“Frank, thank you for your interest in Darkness Shall Rise Productions and the chance to give a little insight into our cassette label. Thanks also to you with regard to your years of activity in the (German) Metal underground. You are a very big part of it and I and certainly many other people have great respect for that! Currently we have plans regarding upcoming releases for about 4 years. So all things that are fixed, where contracts have already been signed and license fees have been paid. Of course, the current economic and world situation always depends on the intervals at which we unleash our releases to mankind. I don’t want to reveal too much here, but if we look into the near future, we’re currently working on boxes from DEICIDE, ABIGOR and TIAMAT, among others.”