I take music way too personally, I know this. Before I learned that a person could have never heard of Hawkwind and still have a valid point of view, I based friendships entirely on musical taste. I'm much better now, but sometimes a vestigial habit crops up -- like approaching a new record by an artist I like with skepticism out of a deeply rooted fear of disappointment (I trace this back to the scarring moment in eleventh grade when REM officially started sucking).
However, nothing touches off these music-related fears and excitement quite like the prospect of an exciting record label. Falling in love with a record label is even riskier than falling in love with a band -- it's an affair with a whole sound, with a group of people, with Something That's Going On. It's inevitably a losing gamble, because more likely than not, a good record label will end up breaking your heart -- usually by going bankrupt.
Because my relationship with music is so emotionally fragile, it's the record labels that fly low and burn steadily that hold my attention. These are hard to find, but they're there. And to them, I am forever loyal.
The latest record label I've gotten heavy with is Fonal Records in Finland. Started in 1995 by Sami Sänpäkkilä [also a musican and filmmaker], Fonal has issued a consistent string of interesting, beautiful and mindblowing releases by Finnish artists and has been a portal for glimpsing the varied and luminous underground rock scene in Finland. Fonal reminds me of one of those awesome foreign trips where your host is warm and enthusiastic and takes you to all his favorite places, introduces you to his friends and you not only have a head-spinning time, but you end up with a lifelong network of cool people in your life. We've never met, but me and Sami Sänpäkkilä? We're in deep.
Fonal isn't anchored to any one scene or sound -- the bands come from cities all over the country, some of the bands sing in English, others in Finnish and several don't sing at all -- but somehow the label presents a unified front.
There's an experimental vein to Fonal's roster, which surfaces in the hypnotic, scratchy loops and beats of Es [which is Sänpäkkilä solo work] and the artfully damaged noise of bands like Kemialliset Ystavat and Chamellows -- the former bringing to mind "collective" clatter bands like Sunburned Hand of the Man and the latter sounding like a far away, feminine Ariel Pink at times. Finland's own dreamy neo-folk scene is healthily represented on Fonal, with bands like Kiila, Islaja and the especially ethereal Paavoharju. Perhaps the best introduction to the label, however, is through the straight up Belle and Sebastian-type pop of TV-Resistori or the bombastic, joyful electronic exultations of Shogun Kunitoki. In fact, yes, start with Shogun Kunitoki's "Tasankokaiku." It's easily my favorite Fonal release... or just plain "release" release... of all time. Krautrock-y, assured and bright -- that album turns gray BART rides into colorful adventures.
As though the music weren't enough, Fonal's packaging is exquisite. Most of the releases come in a signature tri-fold digipack with a crisp paper band to hold it shut. The design is usually pretty ingenius with eyecatching art and thanks to a general uniformity, it's easy to spot the Fonal shelf in a record nerd's collection.
The most difficult aspect of Fonal love is that their CDs can be a little hard to find since they're not widely distributed. You can buy them locally through Aquarius Records [full disclosure: I work there... tho, maybe that's WHY I work there...]. Additionally, Sänpäkkilä tends to favor somewhat small print runs. There was a month or two there, right after the much coveted Shogun Kunitoki album came out last April, where it was unavailable anywhere because it had to go through a second pressing. Luckily, Fonal's website is generous with the sound and video clips to tide over jonesing fans.
Labels that put so much care into every aspect of the music are a rare breed, but rarer still are labels that put all that effort into their releases -- and each release is an amazing eye-opener. It makes the risk of falling in love so worth it.