Dan Swanö - Interview
If you think about the extreme metal scene in the late 80s and early 90s you will always stumble across the name Dan Swanö. May it be with his own projects like Edge of Sanity, Pan.Thy.Monium, Infestdead and many other or productions of countless death and black metal bands. He had a huge influence on the scene. So, I had the honour to have a long chat via Skype with Dan where I got to know many interesting things about his life and career. Enjoy reading!!!
Hi Dan, how are you doing? How was the storm this night?
I'm doing fine. The weather is terrible. We have a storm and I sit at the very top of the house and have a nice view of the storm and the rain and there will be the usual flooding and trees falling over and another storm is coming on Saturday, I think.
Why did you move to Germany a couple of years ago?
It was because of my wife. She comes from Germany and it made all the traveling a little bit more comfortable.
Did the studio move with you or are you still for that in Sweden?
I still have operations based out of Sweden but it's coming to an end. I'm soon ready with my German citizenship and then I will open operations based in Germany. Everything is quite slow with the bureaucracy to have this. I did all the citizenship tests and all the stuff but all the German and Swedish paperwork takes time. Once all is done, Unisound Sweden will cease to exist and then Unisound Germany will open.
Haha, wow, so you really want to become a German citizen?
Yes, why not. My passport is expiring soon and it will cost me more money to go to Sweden a couple of times and get a new passport than to actually pay all the things to become a German citizen and to get my fucking passport here around the corner. Another stupid thing is that although Sweden is much closer now that we moved to North Germany but I still have to drive to Malmö like two times and have to do all the things there. Now I've been here long enough, I've been married long enough and everything is just do I pass the test? And since I don't have a criminal record or anything like this, it's all gonna be fine once I get the papers.
You told me that you don't want to make music on your own any more. Why did you make this decision?
I didn't really sit down one day and said "I don't wanna do any more music". It is more subconsciously that I made this decision to focus more on being an engineer. There is no Rock Hard or Metal Hammer for mixing and mastering people, it's only for musicians. This part of my world was always "oh that guy is a musician but who would also do sound". But since 1993 I am the guy that does sound but also does music. I never really made any money and wasted so many millions as a musician because I always take too much time to do everything - way more than I get paid in the end. It's never a final decision but it started already in 2005 or 2006 because when I do start, it gets so intense. What made me go back a little bit after a long break was that I met Ragnar (Widerberg; M.) and we started Witherscape and through this, we signed with Century Media and I did two full-length albums and one EP and we also did the Nightingale "Retribution" album in a very short time and that burnt me on so many levels. I also emptied all my old riff tapes, all my old folders, ideas – everything is used and there is no so-called savings anymore. I don't have anything. Maybe some things for some more melodic music but definitely not for metal music. I will go on making a living as an independent. I cannot do this with music, it's not working. I cannot pay all my costs that I have in one month with the income of the music from a whole year with all the publishing and royalties and so on. What I actually can make a decent living of is mixing and mastering stuff. I try as hard as I can to be a good family man and keep my 40-45 hours work the week and I have more work than I had ever in my life. I have kind of nightmares. And on top of all that sit down and write music and makes demos – I had to clone myself for that. It's not working anymore. To be honest back in the days, I didn't have as many mixing and mastering jobs so there were a couple of weeks when I thought about what I could do now. Then I wrote some riffs and did some demos. Unless someone would throw 100000 Euros my way and say "Hey, write a couple of records!", I cannot! That's just not financially possible for me to be at work and make money by doing what I do. I never planned my life to be a musician and it was always a luxurious hobby of mine where people were throwing record contracts my way. But I cannot be a musician. I don't do touring, I don't do this, and that and I don't have a back catalog that is constantly making me money. I am eternally happy that I am not a musician. I am a mixing and mastering engineer that used to be a hobby musician. If I have to go back making music it will be just because of some ideas that stumbled upon me. We'll see but as I said, I don't see a future where I will ever have the time it takes to do decent music again. I want whatever I put out I want to be as good or better than the stuff I have done so far. We all know how complicated it is to do good stuff and I don't wanna release some crap because I should release it. It would end up costing me five times more money than it would ever make, no matter what I do because I cannot do two jobs at the same time. I spent three days singing one song and in that time I could probably master five records. So it's just not working anymore (laughs).
But you are still involved in some projects from other musicians, like lately in Arjen Lucassens Star One.
Yeah, that was like a joke for me at the time when I got hundreds of requests to sing on a record or do a solo. I said that I won't do this anymore unless Arjen calls. I kind of knew that this would gonna happen and then out of the blue he got in touch with me again and said "it's been ten years now, let's make another Star One record!". At that point I didn't sing for five years and it was a little bit tricky to see if my throat was with me (laughs). But it's like riding a bike – the first ten minutes were a little bit strange like I sounded I smoked ten cigars at the same time but eventually my throat got back up and I've done more session singing since. There was a time during Covid when I felt that business was a little bit slow so whenever someone asked me to do something I said yeah, I can sing but I have to make some mastering with your stuff. I was some kind of I do you a favor so you do me a favor, too. Now these jobs are starting to be finished. I sing one song on this MMXX project with some guys from Daylight Dies and (ex) The Foreshadowing. There are a lot of singers from bands like My Dying Bride, Novembre, Anti-Matter and Swallow The Sun and I am one of them and I mixed and mastered the whole thing. I've signed up to do some more and that was the way it worked when I stopped writing music the last time in 2006 or something. I did a shitload of guest work to get work apart from the mixing and mastering to be out there and not be forgotten. I did so much guest appearances and I'm a little bit back to this. I could sing a few lines here and there and do some songs for that project – as long as they pay me for my time. It's just like any job and as long as I don't have to do a whole album, just one song or some verses here and there – it is slowly bringing me back into this.
You are on a track "Today Is Yesterday" that deals with "Groundhog Day". Did you choose this one on your own or how did this happen? Do you like the movie?
The movie is fantastic and I think my life is Groundhog Day sometimes also. Especially when you're working from home, it's like what is it? Monday? Thursday? No idea! It's the same. Get up, mix and master, eat lunch, sofa, sleep, repeat – you know? But I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way. It was kind of funny that I got this song. Arjen is like the mastermind behind all this and he has got an idea how everything should be all the time and I am just the vessel for his ideas. I used to go to him in Holland and sing on his first two albums but because of Covid and also a little bit of budget stuff I decided to sing it at home. I sent him files back and forth and in the end he was happy. I listened to it the other day when I got a copy and I think it turned out really cool.
Nevertheless you are quite busy as a producer etc. and remastering. Which bands did you work for in the last months?
It's an insane amount of stuff and what I've been doing lately that I can remember is Battlelore from Finland. I mixed that one – it was not super stressful but you felt the deadline chasing you because they were delayed and whatever and in the end I am the guy who takes the biggest heat from that with one month delay in the release time and the vinyl pressing and so on. And I do this MMXX project from the guys from Daylight Dies and The Foreshadowing with a lot of guest stuff. This is really good and it also takes a lot of time and then I've been doing Necrophobic remasters. And I'm working on some French band at the moment and work is pouring in from every corner (laughs), it's really intense.
It's very cool that you remastered the Vinterland album "Welcome To My Last Chapter". I was looking for that one a long time and now I finally got it, haha!!!
Yeah, it's always great when the guys kind of return to you for this. I think back in the day everything was so extremely stressful and the communication was not so easy like it is now so you never really knew if the guys were happy with the album. When they received their copies in 1996 they sat down and listened and what they thought – if I was an idiot or a cool dude, I didn't really know. And you don't know this until they came back and wanted to remaster this. That was really cool and they were very cooperative, really involved and I hope everyone is happy.
Yes, I think it sounds good. I am pretty glad to get all the old albums that are now remastered. Today I got the old Exhorder albums which I didn't buy back in those days for I don 't know what reasons…maybe the cover or whatever.
Yeah, it's pretty ugly! I have them on vinyl in storage in Sweden. In the time when that one came out I probably bought everything. There were months when I bought about 50 albums and they were all in the border between thrash and death metal. It was a great era. You had Sepultura and Morbid Angel and with "Left Hand Path" and all that stuff and it all became much darker and fucked up. Everything that didn't sound like it came out of Sunlight Studio and it hadn't that pure evil death metal vibe to it, if guitars were tuned normally or they didn't have enough distortion – fuck that shit, I probably sold them the week after (laughs) because I found some new, more evil recording or whatever. It's weird how things were when you were in your teens.
Haha, when I started listening to metal I didn't buy albums from bands which sounded stupid. So I did not get the first Demolition Hammer albums which I love now, of course!
There was a time when the band looked right on the photo or whatever, I just bought everything. But I became pickier because you had less and less money so it had to be okay. And there was a time when I bought everything on Roadracer, Under One Flag or whatever but when you got more involved into the underground like Nuclear Blast, Century Media, Earache and all that stuff it shifted a little bit. Demos, EPs and all that stuff also started showing up that time. It was a magic time actually, I think but around 92 I was completely out of it. Then I bought indie and pop records (laughs).
Well, I was about 13 when I started with metal. A great time.
Yeah, that's a good age to start with that. I was a little bit of a late bloomer and 15 ½ when I finally saw something in music that was a little bit harder. I think it was around when "South Of Heaven" came out. It was a good gateway to drag me because it had one foot in the darker traditional heavy metal stuff and one foot in the other end and it changed something with me. I was someone who was not drinking for a very long time until December of 89 – I think I was drunk the first time. Then I was drunk just almost every weekend for years. So that's like what happened with Slayer. Then I discovered Venom, Kreator and so on and all my friends wondered what the fuck happened with me. You didn't like this and you even used to make fun of people who listened to thrash and speed. Sorry but this is so fucking good and all the hard rock and this stuff was losing a little bit the danger and the edge. There was a time when I thought that Judas Priest was dangerous and cool but with "Turbo" and all that stuff you needed something else. Every metal and hard rock band started to be a little bit more commercial – I love commercial music but I don't like it when my favorite bands change too much. It's just that all turned too soft and then I found another, a little bit harder and more dangerous style and there was then another trip up to the extremes and that was it for me.
You've mentioned Morrisound… When you produce an album, do you try to give all these productions a certain Dan Swanö fingerprint or do you try more to cater to what the bands want?
I am 100% for the bands. They tell me exactly what they want. I call it like a sonic handyman. You can have a kitchen designer and you can have a kitchen builder. Usually you have a pretty clear idea and just have to find someone to build your kitchen because this guy told me how it should look and the other guy builds it. I always ask for a reference record and some bands might find it strange but when I started out, that's pretty much about 30 years ago since I made my first album for another artist, there weren't not really many albums out that sounded good. You could get away with pretty much crappy shit and people would still say "Yeah, it's okay!". Then albums started to sound really good around 95/96 and since then there are probably around 50 good metal sounds. So it's impossible for me to choose what it is they're all after. I always seem to get some kind of vibe from what they're saying what they want and then I think "okay, let's try it this way". It's something they like but not really want. I was tired of doing this and I say these days to send me a record that the band likes – at least the guitars and the drums. Like an app where you could upload your files, push a button and get the sound of your dreams. Which fucking button is it? "Slaughter Of The Soul", "Storm Of The Light's Bane" – what is it what you want? After a while most of the bands come to the conclusion that they want to sound like this Dimmu Borgir record or this whatever record and then I say "Yeah, fine! Now I know what you think is a good sound.". The recordings allow it that I will make sure it sounds so close that when you skip back and forth between the reference record and my mix they could be pretty much from the same album. Then we start making changes but most of the time it sounds to me from a frequency standpoint extremely close but of course the music is different. Nobody really gets it that I used another album and almost cloned it. All I know is that I gonna translate because I know that this albums sounds good in the stereo, car or whatever and when it sounds like that one, more like a spectral balance between bass and treble and all that stuff, I know it's gonna sound good. But then maybe the band wants to vocals to be a little bit more this and they want the spectrums to be a little bit more that so I completely remove my personal taste in sound out of the equation and do exactly what the band wants me to do which is in so many ways an open canvas because there are so many producers out there that have a sound that would be extremely offended. When you ask Andy Sneap to make a Jens Bogren mix or ask Tomas Skogsberg to make a Scott Burns mix – but I love the idea! I copied a Scott Burns mix he did for Suffocation and it was so close. The guys were so happy, they were literally crying from joy of having this old school sound that they always dreamt of having since they heard that record the first time. It wasn't complicated, I just cloned it. I only have one job – everything from the kick to the snare, to the toms , to the cymbals, guitars, bass, vocals should sound exactly like that record. This is what I can do with modern tools and it was so much fun. It was insane fun! It's like I am almost like a profiler CSI and you dig in the mix and try to steal and find out like some detective work. That makes my work so much fun. A long answer to a short question but that's how I survive for so many years and also in the modern world. So if you need your record to sound like fucking "Hotter Than Hell" by Kiss or whatever, I will do it (laughs).
Can you tell some funny or strange stories from your career as an engineer?
Hm, there are too many – you have to be more specific!
Alright, em…some funny black metal stories then.
There are plenty actually. But there is one story that is very funny. I told it sometimes before but maybe one who reads this haven't read it before. There is this band Allegiance with two members from Marduk. We did the second album after I moved the studio from Finspång to Örebro, I had it in this big black tower. It was an exceptionally hot summer, it was the summer of 95, I think. And in this black tower – everybody said "haha, black metal tower" – it was extremely hot. It was like you couldn't really be there but we had to because we had to record the album. I had this homemade iso-booth where I normally put in the singers and there was no ventilation, nothing. Just go in there and the singer said "I cannot sing there, it's like 50°C (122°F; M.), I'm dying". So I said okay, we record the singing in the control room and we use headphones. The control room was like 40°C (104°F; M.) so it wasn't that much better and we opened every fucking window in the whole place including a couple in the control room. Then we just started recording and they were singing in Swedish at that time and were very Satanic and about North mythology and so on. The singer Bogge, he was the bass player from Marduk for a while, he screamed extremely loud like hundreds of decibel with an extremely piercing screaming voice and all of a sudden the doorbell rang. I have this intercom thing because we were really high up. So someone was down and I just buzzed them in and thought it would be somebody from the band or so. All of a sudden a couple of tracking dogs and two or three policemen with weapons and masks and everything stormed the studio. We were just like "whaaat the fuck is going on here???". The police men said that they had reports that a murder is taking place here. I said "no, you have the wrong address, this is a recording studio!". The police men told that there was a women on the street who reported that there were open windows and someone is murdering a woman which was extremely fun. The victim would be screaming "Oh my God, Jesus, help me" and some other things and he was probably singing in Swedish like that you should kill and do all this murder and stuff and be evil and whatever. So this older woman was thinking that someone is getting murdered when they were singing. The police guys searched the place with the dogs to make sure there was nobody killing someone in the toilet or so and they were really fucking pissed. I had to play back the recording and show it to them and they just heard the singing (imitates the vocals). So they said "okay, next time close the fucking windows, you're in the middle of the city and a lot of people are living here!" and we were like "yeah, yes police, we will..". Then we had to continue the recording in a fucking sauna from hell. That was probably the No.1 thing in all of the studio times.
Did you really say "You have the wrong address" when they told you that somebody got murdered? That is a damn cool answer to the police when they say that a murder takes place here, haha!
What do you think? I didn't think we were doing anything strange. I was doing this every day for three years with all the black metal people screaming. Sometimes they were in the control room and of course the windows were closed. Some of them were extremely silent and didn't really scream so loud – they have this way of a strong whisper but this one was fucking loud. Shit was almost falling down from the walls so loud he was screaming… and I was completely surprised about the police. It was in a big house, a place where about 30 or 40 families lived and I thought that they must have gotten the wrong door and it must be the neighbor who is killing somebody and not me (laughs).
Are you still that much involved in the black metal scene like you were in the 90s or did you leave this all behind?
I actually did a few black metal related things. This very day I did the stuff from Necrophobic which is more black metal – I worked on the "Darkside" album which is pretty much like Dark Funeral. I also did a band from Holland called Onheil which is also this more modern kind of Dark Funeral sounding black metal with many melodies and all stuff like that and I remastered Vinterland and Dissections "The Somberlain". So there was some black metalish stuff I've been doing lately. There was a long time I didn't do any of them and then it's slowly coming back a little bit which is cool!
When you look back to such obscure projects as Pan-Thy-Monium or Infestdead – how serious did you take such things in the past? I was pretty impressed as a teeny hearing that stuff, haha!
Infestdead was never serious for any seconds. That's maybe why it turned out to be what it was. I mean my work ethic was always like you start something, you finish it and I would say all of the songs we did after "Burn Me" were not really for fun and considered as a rip-off. We just wanted to have a special song to be a Deicide rip-off. Then we did all the other shit and I tried to write the best possible riffs I could for that specific genre, making everything catchy but there was never any idea about having a line-up for gigs or whatever. It was really to make money to pay the rents. So we took it one step further and after a while we kind of ran out of ways to rip-off Deicide. It became its own thing and it was really weird because on the "Jesusatan" album the whole nu-metal thing was happening and our style of music was extremely out. But we did it anyway and subconsciously I was getting inspired by this kind of groovy, new tuned-down sludgy metal and this worked its way into Infestdead for some reason. There are some riffs on "Jesusatan" that could have been on a Korn record. Then I found out that we inspired some strange American metal movement that I didn't pay any attention to. Now when I'm in contact with these guys they all tell me about how they were grooving to this I am always surprised about that. And they tell me that they started playing their songs because Infestdead was so fucking groovy – I mean groovy is the last word that I thought about with Infestdead. But when you hear some of that stuff it's like "Jesusatan" wrapped into something like hip hop shit going up. It's all dressed up like Glen Benton so I think maybe we did some groovy shit. Pan-Thy-Monium was different. For the first demo and first EP we were really serious. It was super serious with rehearsals and this kind of stuff and by the time we got the record deals and the first album, I think somehow during the writing for the first album shit started to be a little bit like with all of my projects. My attention span is down and the drummer and the guitar player wrote a few songs without me which was like a no-go. We all just wrote songs jamming. Nobody wrote anything at home, we wrote on the spot as a trio and then we added the vocals. That was our thing. Then came the first album where were a few songs where I didn't write anything in and I guess they were fucking boring because they have nothing to do with what that I think is Pan-Thy-Monium. So already then I felt that it's over and it just kept going downhill from there. For me the first demo, the first EP and two or three songs on the album "Dawn Of Dreams" that's really good shit and that was just as serious as Edge Of Sanity was at the time but then it kind of faded away and we did all the other stuff because we had a record deal.
What would you say was the most important band you played in for you personally and why? There are so many different styles that you did…but it's probably a difficult question.
Yes it is. The only band that really had this band thing going to the point that I always thought it would be was my band Unicorn. In some ways we started already in '83 because me and Anders (Måreby; M.) were a duo called Ghost up until the summer of '88 when we became Icarus. And the Icarus became Unicorn. In some ways that was my whole musical childhood. By the time we had done a couple of demos and when we were at our peak that was all I ever wanted from a band. The unity and the whole vibe we had – that was it and after I had that there were a few moments, even with Braindead which was my old thrash band, where we had this kind of band gang hanging out all the time until I got tired of it. That's just me in a nutshell and the same was with Edge Of Sanity and many other bands and projects. It is almost like a relationship thing with the meeting, the dating, the first magical times and once you reach a kind of peak, it can only go downhill from there. And then I tend to get out. Not with relationships but with music, I do it there (laughs). So I had Unicorn and without Unicorn there would be no other thing but without the success of Edge Of Sanity, none of the other shit would have happened. I would have never met some really important people in my life opening for Edge Of Sanity all the doors. I would have not been able to have the studio for a living and I would not have the record deals for Unicorn because that came through Edge Of Sanity. Musically and vibe-like it's not Edge Of Sanity, that is Unicorn but from a business life-changing standpoint it's definitely Edge Of Sanity that opened so many doors. I mean we wouldn't be talking today if it wasn't for Edge Of Sanity.
Did you release an album with Unicorn?
We did two albums kind of after we broke-up. We were doing demos, two in '89 and one in '90 and one in '91. Then the bass player kind of quit and we fired him at the same time and after that we made one more demo but it was already like "oh let's be a recording project". We did not rehearse and play live anymore. Then we kind of died. We got this offer from an Italian label to release all our demos on CD but we decided to record them again to release that stuff. That's what happened and then we got back together and the first CD is kind of okay and we had a lot of fun doing this and so we got back together and released another one called "Emotional Wasteland" which I guess is one of the top 5 of my career. It's really a good record but kind of progressive rock. It has nothing to do with metal but it's really where my heart is when it comes to music. And after that we tried for a few years but I think it was in '99 when we said: "well fuck it, let's just quit again". Since then we haven't done anything, only a reunion gig in 2015 where we jammed a bit and released some old stuff that I remixed on LP and CD. That was fun, we made a video (laughs), but we're old farts and it's all for fun.
Do you know if one can get the albums still or is it difficult to get them?
It's all this Ebay and Discogs shit. They released 1000 copies on that Italian label but the music is out there. You can find it on Bandcamp where you could buy the remixed stuff, I think. There might be still some copies from Plastic Head of the Unicorn LP and CD that you can buy in the webshop.
So did you ever think about re-releasing the stuff?
Yes, millions of times and I have started remixing it. It is a huge project involving finding all the old computers, all the tape machines – I have plans for everything and I could remix it but again – that's a matter of money vs. time. But I think that shit is timeless, it's not going anywhere so maybe when I'm retired or whatever… my oldest brother is retired, he's 65 and he's still capable of mixing. I mean if he was a mixing guy, there was nothing stopping him from mixing. So when I see myself at 65, I could probably spend the rest of my life remixing old shit for the fun of it because I get the rent.
What are the top 5 albums of your career?
It's hard but it's always changing around a little bit but I must say that the stuff that belongs somewhere on the top 5-ish is of course Moontower, "Unorthodox" from Edge Of Sanity, "The Northern Sanctuary" from Witherscape and "Retribution" from Nightingale. Those are my favorite babies!
If you had some magic power to form a new band you would play in, which other members you would recruit for this (no matter if dead or alive, remember you have magic powers!)
That's A good question – there are plenty of players that I like….
…please don't form a Kelly Family, haha!!
Just because you think that these guys are good, you know I'm so realistic that I see that maybe they would not match very well together… just like to put all the best football players in the world together in a team because it's the team that makes it and not the individuals. So I would go definitely go with Simon Phillips as the drummer, Dann Huff would be the guitar player number one and I think John Petrucci would probably be the second guitar player because I get the vibe that he is a good learner, also because I want him to play exactly what I say (laughs). When it comes to bass players, I'm not really sure. Maybe Geddy Lee would make a good job. I would probably not include myself, I would play something like cowbell or triangle and I would bring Terry Bozzio as the second drummer to play together with Simon Phillips. I think that would be a pretty massive drum thing. As a singer, I don't know, there are so many I really like. The kind of voice when Lou Gramm was in his prime on the early Foreigner stuff and Joe Lynn Turner on his early work with Rainbow, that's just my kind of singing. There are also some things with Steve Hogarth in Marillion in the early 90s, so many singers… maybe I would make some kind of Arjen project with a lot of people and alternate the drummers and this and that (laughs).
Alright, now my last question - do you have any albums you're really looking forward to being released this year and what was the biggest disappointment for you in the last few years?
I honestly have no idea. I know it's the world's most boring answer but the last album to come out that I actually listen to is the new John Mayer album and all of the songs sound kind of the same but it's a good background music for garden parties (laughs). I've honestly given up on music, I only listen to podcasts these days. I know it's super boring but you work so much with music and my favorite band has disappointed me too many times and I don't even listen to them anymore. So no new music and there are also no re-issues that I'm looking forward to. I wish I could have that thing back but what I did find in a way that maybe people like yourself is rediscovering old stuff and finding new music, even if it's from the past – I am more in this podcast stuff. I listen to live stories, I listen to audio books and it can be extreme. I listened the other day to one hour for a guy talking about setlists from Kiss in 1974. I just love it. It's just like balm for my soul after working with so much music because all I hear is somehow related to my work and this is what the musician in me really killed when engineering took over and that is the price for it. I mean, there are some albums like this MMXX one or the new Battlelore record. They are really good albums I enjoyed working on because they have solid songwriting and it's not this kind of death metal thing where you only create a sound. Each song has its own identity in a bit, especially this MMXX where every track has another singer. That's an album I would actually listen to once it's out. And I think I still have to listen to the new Dream Theater album, I didn't get around it yet.
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