Heart of Steel: Interviews

Interview with Denis Gulbey of Sentinel Steel

Interviewed by JP

This months industry profile is a feature on Denis Gulbey, founder, CEO and head-honcho of the highly respected label Sentinel Steel.  I first became aware of Denis and Sentinel Steel back in the mid 90's and have maintained contact over the years both as as a fan and colleague of metal. I decided it was high time that our readers had a chance to learn about the man behind one of America's most respected "true metal" record companies.


I first became aware of you and your good work  through the first issue of your magazine Sentinel Steel in 1994.  As a publication it was very cutting  edge. I still re-visit those first three issues and  re-read your reviews of demos by unknown bands like Rhapsody and Angra! Can you tell us about the  magazine and your start in the metal industry?

I came up to New Jersey for art school in 1991. The availability of power metal and true metal albums started to deteriorate and there was a major lack of new releases in the USA. I decided to get more involved and hooked up with Sue Nolz, who was a doing a NJ zine called Manic Reaction. She later went on to contribute to Metal Maniacs. I contributed reviews and maybe an interview to Manic Reaction, but within a few issues, I was anxious to break away and do my own thing. With the assistance of Sue, I put together and released Sentinel Steel #1. That was the start of the fanzine, which lasted 3 issues.

In the first issue, I had placed a full page advert for some LPs, CDs, and tapes that I was trying to get rid of. The response was amazing and I quickly sold out of everything in the ad. Knowing there was a demand out there, I started to drive around town, buying up 80s metal "dead" stock from "mom and pop" record shops. Owners were very happy to get rid of their 80s vinyl and CDs, as Grunge and Rap were the name of the game back then. I xeroxed up 1 sided lists, which became 2 sided lists, shortly morphing into photocopied multi page catalogs. And that's how the mail-order part of my business was born.


What made you decide to start a label?  Was it an evolution of your successful mail-order business?  I  know there is not a fortune to be made in the US  supporting true metal!

Right, the label was the next logical step after the success of the mail-order business. I had some money saved and I think the shops were starting to dry up as far as finding good 80s records and compact discs, be it new, used or cutout. I knew I had to do something to sate the demand for traditional power metal. Doing a label did not come to mind...but usually good things are never planned, they just fall into one's lap. And so was the case with the GOTHIC KNIGHTS.


Tell us about some of your first signings like Gothic Knights.

The GOTHIC KNIGHTS had done a demo called To Hell And Back and they started advertising it locally. They took out a "free" advert in a regional New York musician's paper and offered the tape for free to anyone who would write in. I think they described it as "epic power metal" or something along those lines. Keep in mind that this was 1994-1995, and there were not too many bands playing this type of music. I lucked out, as I was not a regular reader of the publication. In fact, I can't recall why I had the paper in my possession in the first place.

I remember calling the number listed and asking for a tape. The person on the phone told me that they had a few left and they would see about getting me a copy to review in Sentinel Steel #2. I received the tape and I was blown away. Suffice to say, they received a glowing review in Sentinel Steel #2.

Their plans to record a full album fell through due to a bad studio and they were struggling financially and morally. One thing led to another and I soon found myself working with the band, financing the recording of their debut CD for Sentinel Steel Records. It was a magical experience, as I was fortunate to find such a nice bunch of guys to work with, and I think they were lucky to find a backer who truly loved their style. That debut CD brings back a lot of good feelings.


How do you go about getting the rights to re-issue classic CD's by bands like Attacker, Angus and Manilla Road?

By simply contacting the bands directly and making the arrangements from there. In ATTACKER's case, both Bob Mitchell (vocals) and Michael Sabatini (drums) contacted me at one time or another, and we kept in touch sporadically. Our cooperation grew from there. I was put in touch with ANGUS drummer William Lawson through a mutual journalist friend who knew I was a big fan of Track of Doom. And MANILLA ROAD was a similar situation, where I was given Mark Shelton's phone number and sent him some of my fanzines. My initial interest was to do an interview for the then active Sentinel Steel fanzine, but the label and mail-order business took over and the fanzine was laid to rest in 1997. Once the label took shape, I made it a priority to license Mystification. Alas, so did fellow MANILLA ROAD fan Anish Bhatia, of Pantheon Records. But we came to terms, thanks to Anish's goodwill, and Sentinel Steel was able to release Mystification.


I noticed you have a nice balance of bands on your  roster. Half are new, young and hungry classic,  melodic power metal bands and the other have are  nostaligic re-issues of bands that never truly got the repsect they deserve.  Do you have a preference or method for choosing your releases?

Yes, you noticed the basic game plan; half the releases to be reissues, the other half to be new albums. I don't have a set schedule at the moment, but I admit that the scales have tipped in favor of reissues for the last batch of releases, so I intend to concentrate on just new releases for the next year or two. New releases always gain more attention and sell more, which dramatically lifts the sales of the Sentinel Steel label back catalog, which mainly consists of reissues at the moment.


Tell us about Onward and your experience with Century Media, the big boy of metal labels.

The ONWARD album was one of the best things I had ever been involved with, and I knew it was going to get interest from the bigger labels. Sentinel Steel has always been a stepping stone label for new bands, and I was ready to support ONWARD with whatever offers came their way.

So I was happy to see ONWARD go to Century Media, one of my favorite labels, though the road getting there was a horrible experience. I love the Century Media people I deal with on a day to day basis--Century Media truly have some great folks working there, fellow metal fans who started out with the fanzines and worked their way up. Really smart people who are forever helping indie labels/sellers like Sentinel Steel. But the top people, the ones who handle the label contract work, the procurement of bands--these are the people who spent a year pulling my leash on the ONWARD deal, keeping the release frozen with late deliveries of paperwork, late this, late that. Thankfully the band, who were in on the whole process, were very patient with the whole ordeal. But my investment was tied up in an album I could not release, and that really hurt. I was unable to release anything that whole year, and was late getting projects off the ground the subsequent year. Thankfully I just cleared to docket and fulfilled my obligations to all of the late releases, starting 2002 with a clean slate. A lesson well learned.


I read in the past that you have about 125 CD's in your collection at any given time.  What are some of your current favorites?

I've been playing the new ANGRA (Rebirth) a lot, plus GUARDIANS OF TIME, the new SILENT FORCE (Infatuator), new HOLLENTHON, new RHAPSODY, 2nd TWISTED TOWER DIRE CD, new NIGHTMARE CD, and more. Lots of great stuff has been coming out. What a difference 10 years makes!


 Do you have a dream band that you would like to  sign?

I do, but I can't give other labels ideas, sorry. : )  Lots of new labels popping up of late, so competition can be fierce. But the power metal circles tend to be friendly and we all help each other.


On a related note, you must (presumably) be ecstatic about the massive global resurgence of power metal, especially in Greece, Brazil, Italy and Spain.  Why, in your opinion is this music making such a strong comeback?

There are a number of factors, including the internet and the lack of good, melodic, inspirational hard music in mainstream media. I think the internet played a huge part in giving bands a forum to show their work and for fans to realize that traditional power metal STILL exists despite being ignored and/or ridiculed by the mainstream media. I just got online a year ago and I cannot say enough good things about the internet.


Do you think the underground scene in North America (with under-rated bands like Forte, Imagika, Steel Prophet, Eidolon and Mystic Force) can keep pace with the Massive European scene?

Absolutely, as North America and South America have massive amounts of excellent bands to offer, some signed and some yet to be signed. Both markets have different musical elements that add color to their respective musical output. Many European bands look to American power metal and thrash bands for inspiration. Of course the European and South American markets are more inviting when it comes to this type of music, but I am hopeful that the US scene will catch up in the near future.


Thank you to Denis for waving the flag of true metal all these years and please checkout his excellent label and web-site at www.sentinelsteel.com


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