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December Love: A Month (Usually) Forgotten

Credit: Ivan Belcic
Credit: Ivan Belcic

Well here it is: the year’s final month. While it’s certainly time to plan resolutions for the new year (many of which will never be fulfilled, let’s be honest), it’s also time to reflect on what can make a year’s closing days truly kickass. Certainly, holiday times across many cultures help characterize and define December, but there’s so much more to this month than the traditional (read: rote) celebrations. While the industry generally takes an informal break, there’s still fresh new metal to be had. With it in hand, we can better come to emotional terms with the goings-on of the preceding 11 months. In the case of 2017, that happens to be quite a lot.

Recognizing all of these things in a wondrous but short-lived flash of brilliance, we quickly assembled our favorite December metal releases across all years. Check out the entries, along with album streams, below. Here’s to a brighter future.

UlthaConverging Sins (Vendetta Records)
December 1st, 2016

With all of your December downtime, you should be able to squeeze in a 15+ minute black metal track or two or three. Ultha released a solid-as-fuck split with Paramnesia on Halloween this year, but it’s last year’s Converging Sins which defines this band. It unfolds unabashedly over an hour’s runtime, traversing oranges-hoisting highs (drawn out for maximum effect) and gut-wrenching lows (post-metal inspired for special flavor); the effort is blatant, but the confidence is as well. Despite its ever-morphing nature — e.g. swaths of blast beats giving way to clean-sung vocals — Converging Sins spares excessive density and complexity for a more straightforward attack, something to pierce your mind instead of just boggling it. Ascension and climax remain focal points (via atmosphere, of course), and Ultha takes their time to find resonant sweet spots which they can milk for every ounce at opportune moments. If the idea was to carry listeners along a journey, then Converging Sins succeeds by being totally easy to lose yourself in; there is no learning curve here, and little to no pretense. Fitting for December, its mood is dark, dismal, and desperate (check out the fourth track “You Will Learn About Loss”), and makes the dirge of winter just that much more bearable.

— Andrew Rothmund

CretinStranger (Relapse)
December 4th, 2014

There have been plenty of metal comeback albums that have exceeded expectations, but Stranger may be in a category of its own. Building on Cretin’s past penchant for balancing ferocious grind and pitch-black humor, and over eight years in the making, it moved beyond predecessor Freakery’s overt Repulsion worship into a sound and groove of its own.

While Cretin didn’t have much of a back-catalogue, the band’s pedigree and the largely positive reception to Freakery led to a lot of grind and death metal fans with high expectations for its follow-up. The timing was right: guitarist/vocalist Marissa Martinez and drummer Col Jones had just come off a stint with aforementioned grindcore royalty Repulsion, and bassist/lyricist Matt Widener was still on a creative high after the first release from his acclaimed solo act, Liberteer. The addition of Liz Schall (Dreaming Dead, ex-Iron Maidens) added a layer of genuine guitar heroics to the go-for-broke song dynamics.

Cuts like “It” and “Mary Is Coming” are absolutely suffocating, and the alternating tempos in “Honey And Venom” want you to switch from headbanging to throwing down in a circle pit and back again, within several seconds. Extreme metal may be saturated with yearly releases, but Stranger deserves regular visitation rights in your brain.

— Chris Rowella

Black SabbathSabbath Bloody Sabbath (WWA/Vertigo)
December 1st, 1973

Including this record on this list almost feels like cheating. If the purpose of this list is to shine a light on releases that get overlooked because of their release in the darker months, then Sabbath Bloody Sabbath does not even remotely qualify. Suggesting that one of the best records from one of the most famous heavy metal bands of all time is an overlooked gem isn’t just wrong — frankly, it’s condescending. But rules are rules. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was released in December. We’re listing great albums released in December. Thems the breaks.

On their first four records, Black Sabbath invented, refined, solidified, and perfected the art of doom metal. Here, they began the process of reinvention. Just as heavy as their heaviest, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is distinct from the rest of the original Osbourne run in how it mixes in the band’s latent psychedelic, pop, and prog instincts. The opening title track is remembered for its worldbeater of a riff, but it hinges on a wistful acoustic chorus. “Sabbra Cadabra” and “A National Acrobat,” two stone cold classics, start firmly in Sabbath’s wheelhouse before launching off into the unknown. The record’s second half is even more adventurous, revealing the band’s expertise at writing pure pop confections (“Looking For Today”) and adding strings and signature sound (“Spiral Architect”).

True morons will point to “Fluff” and “Who Are You?” as flies in Sabbath’s ointment, but these people are to be ignored and shunned from your home. The latter is a daring attempt to translate their neolithic crawl to the world of synthesizers, and the former expands their penchant for acoustic interludes into a full blown composition worthy of any JRPG hometown. If even the filler is conceptually vital, you know you’re doing well. When your hits are among the best in heavy metal history? Game over.

— Ian Cory

Kowloon Walled CityContainer Ships (Brutal Panda)
December 4th, 2012

Kowloon Walled City was a great band, and Container Ships made them an exceptional band. Their debut album Gambling on the Richter Scale immediately set them apart from the rest of the post/sludge/rock/core crowd: it offered up a more existential and meditative take on “heavy,” like Godflesh with the industrial aspect as more of an idea than a sound. Two excellent splits later – one of which contains this writer’s favorite Low cover of all time – they were poised to make something truly special.

Container Ships arrived during one of the more brutal winters in recent memory, and while it may have been conceived in sunny California, its overwhelming density, repetitive structure, and themes of isolation/regret beat out most of the icy grimness that black metal was repping in 2012 (well, maybe except for Ash Borer). “Catchy” isn’t quite the word to describe a song like “Cornerstone,” with anti-singalongs like: “The black year burned / The ground still warm / You cut your names / You paid your way.”
There is an intangible element woven through the seven tracks on Container Ships that make them both familiar and timeless. You can hear it in Kowloon Walled City predecessors like the Melvins and Unwound, and it’s what keeps us coming back.

— Chris Rowella

Symphony XSymphony X (Zero Corporation)
December 6th, 1994

Symphony X’s self-titled debut is not their best album; it’s arguably, if not objectively, their worst. But in a discography as consistently impressive as theirs, that’s not necessarily too bad of a slight. The songs on Symphony X represent a clear establishment of the band’s iconic neo-classical progressive metal aesthetic, one which would be honed by guitarist and songwriter Michael Romeo and his collaborators over the band’s lengthy career.

Clear parallels can be drawn from many of the songs to counterpoints in the band’s subsequent releases. The opening barrage of “The Raging Season,” for example, bears striking similarities to that of “Evolution (The Grand Design)” off 2000’s V: The New Mythology Suite. Interestingly, both songs are the second cut of their respective releases. “Masquerade,” the standout track on the debut, was re-recorded for the limited bonus edition of the 2002 record The Odyssey. It’s a clear illustration of how the songwriting on this particular track has held up over the nearly ten-year gap between the two releases.

Unfortunately, the album is marred by several serious demerits, most glaringly the singing of original vocalist Rod Tyler. The much-maligned Tyler is not a bad vocalist, but in the context of Symphony X, he is very much miscast. Next to the stunning virtuosity of his bandmates, Tyler’s decently average performance leaves much to be desired, though he does have several moments in which he shines. His replacement, the inimitable Russell Allen, is a vocalist of such impressive caliber that nearly anyone else would look inferior in comparison. Consider Tyler the Charlie Dominici to Allen’s vastly superior James LaBrie — not awful, just nowhere near the same league, and pitifully out of his element.

Symphony X works far better when seen as a proof of concept as opposed to a fully realized statement. Though the band did not fully achieve their potential until 1997’s The Divine Wings of Tragedy, a closer listen to their debut reveals the humble beginnings of a band already on a clear trajectory to greater heights.

— Ivan Belcic

BatushkaLitourgiya
December 4th, 2015

A December release that really stuck with me was Batushka’s superb 2015 debut, Litourgiya. Though it came out near Christmas of that year, I didn’t hear it until February 2016, and by then was kicking myself for not having gotten to it before 2015 expired. It’s a remarkable album, both in its sound and in its unique stylistic approach of exploring Satanism and blasphemy from a Russian Orthodox perspective, rather than the usual Catholic/Protestant angle. The riffs are memorable, the musicianship is incredible (especially their drummer; have you seen his drum cam video?) and their style is quite literally iconoclastic.

Batushka’s attention to detail and secrecy is also admirable, as their incredibly creepy costumes and live shows prove. Rumor has it that it’s members of Mgła and Behemoth, but so far no one’s talking. With its brilliant mockery of Eastern Christianity and its frosty, riff-heavy black metal attack, Litourgiya is in many ways the perfect holiday album for the discerning metalhead, and easily my favorite December album of recent memory.

— Rhys Williams

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