What sets an outstanding compilation album apart from a merely good one? For Wäntage USA boss Josh Vanek, whose label will release a two-CD compilation album of its own this week, it goes beyond the music.
“Attention paid to sequencing, plus good bands and songs, especially bands that represent some sound, scene and/or philosophy. In the case of the Wäntage comp, I think it’s fiercely DIY without all the attendant grindcore sounds.”
For the folks at home wondering what Vanek is talking about: The compilation album is an institution as old as punk rock itself. A way long time ago, before cheap and widely available home recording and CD-burning technology, the multi-band compilation, like the split seven-inch singles, was the logical way for bands and basement-run labels without much money to pool resources and divvy up the cost of putting out a vinyl album. Many punk and hardcore compilations from the early ‘80s—War and Peace, Not So Quiet on the Western Front—are still in print and being rediscovered by younger bands. The first Sub Pop releases, in fact, before there were catalogue numbers, were cassette-only compilations put out by the now-multimillion-dollar label’s future co-owner Bruce Pavitt.
The compilation is still a popular format—particularly, as Vanek suggests, among cash-strapped bands that play grindcore and other, even less bankable varieties of punk rock. Compilations also make great display cases for labels like Wäntage USA to show off their wares. Participating bands are typically compensated with copies of the record.
In the case of the Wäntage USA 21st Release Hits Omnibus, fewer than half of the 47 bands spread out over two discs and 150 minutes of music have recorded for Wäntage before. Most of them, however, have some affiliation with Vanek and his label through personal friendships either cultivated here in Missoula, where Vanek often puts his University-area house at the disposal of touring bands, or abroad. A full complement of local bands—Volumen, Sasshole, International Playboys, Ass-End Offend—are represented, as well as a good handful of flagship bands from other regional scenes, like the Joggers, Drunk Horse and the Fucking Champs. The Omnibus also features half a dozen or so bands from Latvia, where Vanek served for two and a half years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Vanek does a good job of explaining this somewhat perplexing mix of regions and styles—particularly “the whole Latvian thing”—in his voluminous liner notes. It’s all governed by his Third Big Principle of Outstanding Compilation Albums: “the pairing of some ‘known’ groups with total unknowns, to level the playing field and make it interesting.”
More than anything, though, Vanek says, compilations soar or plummet on the strength of the sound quality. He cites another recent label compilation as an example of careless sound quality because the label head didn’t put any money into mastering it. “It probably has some decent stuff on it,” Vanek says, “but I never listen to it because it’s so dang quiet.”
“[The label owner] probably saved $1,300 by skipping that integral part of the process,” he continues. “It’s really a shame, though, and was all to save a buck. It’d be like going to the trouble of writing a book you were really proud of and then deciding to save a little money by getting it printed on phonebook-weight newsprint. If you’re going to the trouble of expending the time and energy, then it should stand the test of time.”
The first print-run of Wäntage’s Omnibus will be 2,000 copies, with each participating band receiving 20 copies for their efforts. The retail cost should hover around $12 or $13—which, as proud papa Vanek will be the first to tell you, is quite a bargain, “considering this thing’s amazing quality.” Why did Vanek settle on 21 as the magic number for the Omnibus?
“I think because it’s such a significant age for us Americans,” he explains. “It’s the real age of adulthood...well, unless you’re talking about voting, smoking or being tried as a minor. Anyway, at 21 you can finally have a beer and not worry about being caught. In more practical terms, if I’d waited until 50 or 100, which after all are just numbers, it could’ve ended up taking another 10 years.
“In all honesty, though,” he continues, “I figured somewhere around release number 20 was a significant time for some reflection, and I went for it. A good compilation is an excellent way to hear lots of new music, and I couldn’t think of the last one that really blew my mind.”
Omnibus is bound to blow a few—not least those minds not yet rewired to deal with the juxtaposition of local Christian karaoke soul with Latvian nationalist folklore-metal on the same release. Vanek says he’s excited by “the vast majority” of tracks he received for the comp after negotiating with the bands he selected, but that a few things he wanted managed to elude him.
“But alas, “ he sighs. “Next time. The Latvian Roma hip-hop, Senegalese rap and Okinawan sea chanties. And the Fleshies. And a Last of the Juanitas song. And something by Three Inches of Blood...”
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