Welcome back. It’s a new year. A fresh start. So, for the third installment of our 2018 wrap-up, we’re going to be looking at…
I’m kidding. Kind of. I mean, we could do another catch-up column since January usually feels slow, right? Is this not the season when metal goes into hibernation and hits snooze for a month or two? Is this not…the dead zone? If I had to guess, I’d say January contains the fewest metal releases of any month in the calendar year. Ah, but why guess when we have Encyclopaedia Metallum – The Metal Archives.
Reader, to figure out if January really is the (*extremely blown out Chris Barnes voice*) dead zone, I done did some data mining in them thar Metallum hills. What do I have to show for it? Black metal lung. Oh, and some deeply nerdy data. But before we get to that, let’s talk methodology and caveats and whatnot.
Using Encyclopaedia Metallum’s “Advanced search” feature, I compiled the release dates for every full-length listed in the database that made its way into the world between 1980 and 2018. Yes, I only searched full-lengths. Look, I definitely hate myself, but not enough to pick through every release type, such as the ultra-common, totally normal (*reads slowly*) split…video? Huh. Anyway, demo-only metalheads, I’m sorry. Know that you would’ve preferred an earlier draft of this intro.
Once collected, I dumped the data into a super-proprietary metal analysis program named Excel. If you thought I was smart enough to use R, THE JOKE’S ON YOU. (Someone gets that and we’re soulmates and we should talk.) I broke each year’s totals down month-by-month and then ranked the months from 1 – 12, with “1” signifying the month with the most albums and “12” signifying the one with the least. Yeah, the wall in my room at the asylum is real gross.
Now, the normal acknowledgements and disclosures for this type of exercise apply, such as:
- Since the data I collected was user-submitted, we should assume some nonzero error rate. However, note that similar websites (Wikipedia, WhoSampled, etc.) are pretty trustworthy. For instance, I did my due diligence and checked: There’s no band in Encyclopaedia Metallum named “Brazilian Aardvark“
- Bands and albums are added to and removed from Encyclopaedia Metallum every day, so my results went ‘boink’ immediately after gathering them. Along those lines, we should also consider the subjectivity of the band approval process, suppressed variance of pre-digital distribution models (a handmade tape released in a small-ass town counts the same as a worldwide major label push), and other undermining aspects that make this entertaining study, and this is a highly technical term, inexact af. In other words, holy shit, do not reference this
- I am an idiot
But the biggest caveat is this: A lot of album entries in Encyclopaedia Metallum only list the year of release. What I mean is, instead of something more precise like “January 31, 1984″ or “January 1984,” it’s just “1984.” This year-only vagueness affects 62 percent of albums in 1980s and 65 percent in the 1990s. In fact, it isn’t until 2013 that more than 90 percent of albums have at least a month and a year in the release date field. So, my rankings for any year before 2010 are pretty unreliable and could swing wildly if/when those release dates are updated. (That said, anytime I cite a total number of albums for a year, all available albums, regardless of release date data, have been factored into that calculation.) I’ll continue to point this out where applicable.
Alright, R U READYYYAHHHH 4 SUM NUMBBBBBAAAASSSSS? (*unnecessary pyro sets PowerPoint on fire*)
Illustration by Mike Teal
This first chart tracks how many times a month was either the best or worst in its given year between 1980 and 2018. We’ll talk about October’s dominance in a bit, but let’s tackle the worst months first. As you can see, December/January/February have been crowned the worst a combined 23 times. If this was the only evidence submitted, that would appear to be the dead zone. Thanks for reading, enjoy Aaron’s blurb on Avantasia. But wait: I know you noticed that July has cracked double digits. What’s that about? Well, that’s due to a more recent shift in release planning.
Illustration by Mike Teal
When we take a look at the rankings by decade, a pattern emerges. In the 2000s, it would appear that the dead zone migrated to July and August. Perhaps, once I have more complete data for the ’80s and ’90s, I’ll find out that it has always been this way. But, for now, let’s zoom in. Enhance.
Illustration by Mike Teal
By highlighting the three months out of every year since 2004 with the fewest full-length releases, we can see the shift quite nicely. Check out summer’s big ol’ dead zone belt. Granted, there’s some quirky shit here (January was the second-best month in 2010?), but the big picture is easy to see: July and August don’t measure up to the two prestige periods that entomb it. If anyone from Stereogum management is reading this, I swear we have good columns lined up those months.
So, what’s going on? Since PR people plot their lives around release dates, I reached out to find out.
Dominic Athanassiou works at Name PR along with promoting Polish bands like Furia which I covered in 2016. “I think summer vacations do play a big part, especially for the smaller (but not less important) one-person labels,” he emailed to me. “Then we also have the summer festivals. Most major touring bands are busy playing the summer festival circuit in Europe and all over the world. And those one-person/small labels may also be touring these festivals selling their merch and may just not have the time to do that and concentrate on album release strategies at the same time.”
Wacken? Early August. Hellfest? Late June. Obscene Extreme? July. Of course, Maryland Deathfest is in May, but that’s ‘Murica and we do things different ’round here…like refusing visas. But yeah, the idea that a large contingent of consumers are disengaged in the summer months due to festivals, European vacations (American: “Vay-cay-shun?”), or the simple fact that it’s, you know, not a goddamn frozen wasteland outside is persuasive. It’d make sense, then, that you’d want your material circulating in March/April/May when people have thawed out but haven’t yet checked out. And you can kind of see this in the data: Spring is rife with releases, the second-biggest wave of new stuff in the calendar year. As for the biggest wave, that’s a little trickier to explain.
One of few nonfluctuating features of the data is that October is, more often than not, king. Spottiness be damned, even in the ’80s and ’90s it usually bounced every other month out of the ring. My best guess is that its reign is due to vestigial business processes that have hung around, things that used to make sense but aren’t quite as relevant. As an example: Before consumers could click a Bandcamp button, you’d want your stuff in the stores with a strong buzz from print and radio, attracting those newly flush with holiday cash.
I emailed Curran Reynolds of the Chain about that. (You might remember him as a member of Wetnurse. The Chain promoted Aeviterne which made our list last April.) He replied, “Yeah, I think there’s been an October rush because of wanting to push things out before holiday time, as you said, both to capitalize on year-end lists on the press side and holiday shopping on the sales side. Timing used to be even more rigid in the days when press was mostly print and sales were mostly physical.” Reynolds also noted some other familiar factors: “weather, holidays, vacations.”
In the grand scheme of things, I tend to lean more towards Athanassiou and Reynolds’s theories that the very-human rhythms of the year play a part, whether consciously or not, in scheduling decisions. On the other hand, that the aforementioned rigidity of pre-digital distribution strategies could still be guiding rollouts nearly 40 years later isn’t out of the question. After all, that’s the kind of bounded rationality that influences the film industry to still think in “dump months.” If that’s the case, the next question, naturally, is this: Does an October release date actually help an album?
Of course, measuring fan engagement and/or sales is tough to test. For one, there are an infinite number of variables and no real control group. It’s hard to even define the terms: What does “success” look like in metal? That said, why collect biggish data unless you can make some rash correlations? Yeah, close your eyes, FiveThirtyEight. If I can’t examine the sales side, maybe I can see if year-end lists are littered with October releases. After all, if labels intentionally hold their most prestigious offerings until that time, those albums should dominate those lists.
First, I collected our year-end lists from 2014 – 2017 and filtered out any non-metal releases or non-full-length release types. (This is why I didn’t examine our 2018 list as it was just a Top 10 of split videos. Don’t do drugs.) I then bumped that list against the Encyclopaedia Metallum data set and, voila, the month with our favoritest, bestest albums is…February? Yeah, February leads the way with 20. September and October are tied for second with 19 each. The worst? December with four.
But, since we’re goddamn weirdos that are extremely online in the butter zone, I wanted to test the theory on a print mag. I used the same methodology on Decibel’s lists from 2014 – 2018. Their best month is October, but barely, notching a 21 that eeked out September’s 20. April, June, and August(!) tied for third with 14. The worst? December with four.
So, based on this tiny sample, October appears to be an okay time to release your trophy-chasing album. But, it’s not exactly a home run: Your Metallum-approved, October-released LP only has a 14.79 percent chance of making Decibel’s year-end list. And although December is way worse (2.82 percent), it isn’t as bad as it looks, either. Because, while a December album might not make year-end lists for temporal/logistical list-making reasons, I don’t think bands and labels give as much of a shit these days. Increasingly, I don’t think they give much of a shit about any of this. These distinct release windows are slowly going away.
The thing that’s hiding in all of this release date data is the growing parity between the worst months and the best months. In the ’90s, and again we’re talking about spotty data here, the worst months, on average, had about half the number of albums as the best months. This decade? The worst months are nice, growing to 69 percent of the best months. The gap is closing. The distinction between best and worst is growing smaller as the pool of yearly full-length releases grows larger. And that’s the last chart I want to show. Behold:
Illustration by Mike Teal
In 1980, 61 full-lengths were released and retroactively considered metal enough to enter Encyclopaedia Metallum’s hallowed halls. Since we’re still sorting 2018’s total (something I mentioned last month, too; we’re still not quite there), we’ll let 2017 provide the book-end: 7,797 full-lengths. I’m going to bold that shit: 7,797! That’s 1980-1993’s entire LP output in one year. True, the growth rate has slowed in recent times – 2007 was the final year to enjoy a 10-plus percent increase over the following year – but it hasn’t abated completely. An anomalous 1987 aside, it never has on the full-length front between 1980 to 2017.
More than ever, you can feel that unceasing progression: At the time I’m writing this, there are already 391 albums logged in Encyclopaedia Metallum with a January 2019 release date. Dead zone? Ha. Even during its supposed lean periods, metal is the genre that might be slow but will never die.
Hey, I guess metal really is incapable of doing anything on a small scale. Here’s our list of 10 songs. –Ian Chainey
10. Rāhha – “Diocese Of Endless Strife”
Subgenre: black metal
Time’s inevitable march has brought us to 2019, but a listen of Rāhha’s raw-ish black metal may have you thinking you woke up in the ’90s — the awesome old school riff attack that opens up “Diocese of Endless Strife” hearkens to an earlier time. Fans of the unadulterated stuff will find a lot to like in “Diocese of Endless Strife,” with its mid-tempo stomp, grating vocal delivery, and stripped down passages of blasting. Darkness runs throughout, here, and there’s a decidedly subterranean quality to the track. But really it’s the catchiness of several key passages that help elevate this track to a special level, making it something that could cause heads to bang in any decade. [From Decension Ceremony, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
9. Saqra’s Cult – “The 9th King”
Subgenre: black metal
We’re only a month in and we’re already up to my dirtstache in quality offerings. Seemingly every genre kicked something rad into fighting pits, be it death metal (Meathook, Epicardiectomy, Desecravity, Vile Apparition, Noctambulist, Encenathrakh), black metal (Strigae, Mo’ynoq, Geheimnisvoll), or trad (Saboter). And it wasn’t that long ago that Fallen Empire cleared the decks of instant classics and rode a worldspine wurm into the twilight. Heck, by the time next month rolls around, you might’ve even played out Yerûšelem before we can have our say. (Do…you see what I’m doing here?) Needless to say, it has already been a hell of a year and the Sisyphean rock has barely rolled. So, given the competition, I wanted to justify Saqra’s Cult with something that carried a little more weight than “because this is awesome and rules.” And yet, who am I kidding?
A pretty sizable improvement on this Belgian trio’s debut, the four new songs that make up The 9th King rip shit up. None rip more rippingly than the title track. After the void-piercing opening salvo of echo-laden yells (headphones recommended), the song explodes into thrashy black metal. When the cork blasts off the bottle, it sends a shock through your nervous system, which is exactly the spark that this stuff needs if it’s going to catch your attention. And catch it does, but not in the purely visceral way you might expect. The riffs slip and slide like early Bölzer, but have a more hypnotic swing; the frenzied drumming is uncommonly creative. The atmosphere, though, is the thing: the sort of mist conjured in Death Karma’s neck of the woods. And, like that band, Saqra’s Cult explores a culture with studious depth. Here, it’s the Inca Empire; the titular king I’m guessing is Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, who’s way more than a name Civilization fans will recognize. Pretty interesting! Because of this album, I slid down a Wikihole, which is either an indictment of my terminal oafishness or a pretty good sell for the power of the music. At the very least, it adds a narrative layer that allows its hooks to plunge deeper. (I don’t catch a whiff of appropriation, but that’s me saying that and I’m willing to be told otherwise.) Sprouting from a promising Belgian scene (members also play in Possession, Maleficence, and, holy shit, SPERMAFROST), this is the first album for me that has bloomed. Why? Because it’s awesome and rules. [From The 9th King, out now via Amor Fati Productions.] –Ian Chainey
8. Ars Magna Umbrae – “Dying Sun Divination”
Subgenre: black metal
If black metal in 2019 has a sound, it’s this: the swirling skronk that lives in the noise between notes, angles upon jagged angles blasted onto a cosmic canvas. Anyone paying attention has heard this type of post-millennium black metal before, from the likes of Blut Aus Nord, Nightbringer, and Mare Cognitum, amongst plenty of others. The pristine crush almost feels post-metal, but by the time it reaches your ears it’s been warped and distorted in wonderful ways; meanwhile, you can trace a line through the riffs and vocals back to OGs like Emperor and Abigor, with a clear detour in Deathspell Omega’s demesne. Despite all that…the effect still feels fresh when it all comes together. AMU is a one-man-band from Poland that clearly understands how to mine this sound for all its worth, careening from screeching blasts to something like blackened noise rock, with plenty of drifting atmospheric segues in between, at times bordering on dark ambient. Rhythms shift to let the songs breathe when they need to, and more importantly, the noise gives way when it’s time to drop a megalithic riff. The songs may wander, but your mind never will. AMU is signed to I, Voidhanger, which has become the standard bearer and prime incubator for this sound, the closest thing to a seal of approval for bands of this ilk. I expect we’ll hear more like this in 2019, but we’re already off to a vicious start. [From Lunar Ascension, out now via I, Voidhanger Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
7. Together To The Stars – “Oblivion”
Subgenre: post-black metal
Together to the Stars debuts with an absolutely blazing album this month, bringing together elements of atmospheric black metal and post-punk into a melancholic, desperate sound that aims straight for the heart. The scope of emotion here is rather remarkable — “Oblivion” starts with swagger and subsequently swirls together invigorating indignation, loss, and affection. It doesn’t hurt that it’s catchy as hell, and more than one refrain from the track will be seared into your mind when it’s all over. I agree with whoever runs the Together to the Stars Bandcamp page that fans of Heretoir, Harakiri for the Sky, and Amesoeurs will enjoy this excellent debut, as will most people with a penchant for heavy music, a pulse, and a mouth not permanently stuck in a frown. I realized as I begun writing this that this is the third release from Northern Silence I’m writing about in this Black Market — a tip of the hat is due to the German label that, with its highly anticipated but infrequent rounds of releases, never fails to curate an incredible selection of atmospheric black metal. [From An Oblivion Above, out now via Northern Silence Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Vanum – “Jaws Of Rapture”
Location: Santa Fe, NM / Brooklyn, NY
Subgenre: black metal
Sneaky, this one. I first heard “Jaws of Rapture” in mid-December, and thought it was fine. “Good tone, sounds like black metal.” The mind, when faced with a beautiful thing as yet unknown, sometimes fails to see the world as it is. Bear with me as I make excuses: for some godforsaken reason there was a deluge of new releases around the end of the year. It felt like several hundred new albums took a dump in my lap all at once, all competing for limited listening time and diminished mental bandwidth. And you know what happens? It all runs together like so much curdled eggnog. Really, world? I’m supposed to prioritize new metal over spending quality time with old friends like Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller??? Needless to say, when I finally sat down for a proper fireside listen to Ageless Fire, Vanum reached out and gently ripped my face off. Storming drums, riffs for days, ravaged Asphyx-ian screams…and a humdinger of an ear for melody. If Bathory got lost at sea, washed ashore in Athens, and found a really good recording studio before lighting everything on fire, it might sound like this. Everything is epic: drums and guitars and synths and screams combine to form a doomed cavalry charge, a tangle of broken limbs slashing and flailing to a glorious demise. Thick Hellenic guitars pound out ancient melodies, riffing on Hellenic black metal greats like Macabre Omen and Varathron, and it’s not hard to hear vestiges of the band members’ other bands (Ash Borer, Vilkacis, Yellow Eyes, Fell Voices, Predatory Light, amongst others). There’s a lot here to love. Use better judgment than I did, lean in and listen closely, and then do the right thing and preorder. [From Ageless Fire, out 2/15 via Profound Lore Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
5. Krallice – “Church”
Location: New York City, NY
Subgenre: black metal
This list needs more black metal. After taking a year off release-wise, Krallice dropped the 15-minute and 15-second Wolf earlier this month. Though I often joke about the method — the now expected unexpectedness of a surprise Krallice dispatch — the effect is still awesome. Poof! New Krallice! No notes, figure it out! For me, that open-ended mysteriousness, a clean canvas to think too hard upon, is part of the draw. True to form, Wolf dangles tantalizing what-ifs: possibly intentional numerology (the 15-second “.:.” provides a Wire-ish take on Wolf on the whole), enigmatic lyrics (“The Mound:” swollen with venom/ delay living by this wide margin/ yet this marginal decay affects/ those currently rotting), and a general sense that there’s something deeper guiding the compositions than just four dudes in their prime who are very in the zone. And I don’t think I’m alone on this. I kind of love this Bandcamp comment regarding the EP’s bass-heavy lumber, one that provides a fine counterpoint to the band’s trademark fast-flowing riff excursions: “I could be way off but this sounds like largely Nick McMaster’s work,” writes user Tolujin. “…I’m fantasising that it’s the first in a series of EPs where one band member takes charge creating all the material.” Hope it works out better than Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Anyway, yes, the featured track: I’m picking “Church,” which kicks off the second half. It’s a very Krallice-y instrumental that somehow sets foot in strange new lands. Neat shit abounds, but I’ve been focusing on the noise rock-y section that gets going around the 35-second mark where McMaster’s bass goes out for a weird-ass walk. This is one highlight of many, many of which occur on the next song, “Time Rendered Omni,” an epic in miniature that gets so freaking much done in its brief life. By the way, “Krallice” scores 14 points in Scrabble. “Church” scores 16 points. Just saying. [From Wolf, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
4. Malist – “Uniformity”
Location: Moscow, Russia
Subgenre: black metal
In November and December, a time when a lot of effort around these parts was devoted to chronicling 2018’s metal albums for year-end coverage, I consistently found myself straying from the year’s best to Malist. In particular, I listened to “Uniformity” again and again. The track, and everything on Malist’s amazing debut album Catacombs of Time, is a breath of fresh air — or, rather, a distinctive new kind of stench wafting from the crypts. Instrumentally, Malist inputs all the classic ingredients of your standard black metal fare and bakes up something unlike most everything else in the genre. On “Uniformity,” the result is a morose mid-tempo gem guided by a strong lead guitar that absolutely nails a melody torn between vigor and sorrow. But it would be remiss to not highlight the incredible vocals, which bring a much wider range of emotiveness than your typical black metal fare. Dejected croaks are layered with affected Dracula vocals, and the pair runs alongside a decipherable and unusually expressive distorted rasp. And though the song clocks in at just over six minutes, the song carries the weight of something much greater, with an ending that in very short space and few words underscores what came before and elevates the track to a different level. [From The Catacombs of Time, out now via Northern Silence Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall
3. Altarage – “Sighting”
Location: Bilbao, Spain
Subgenre: black metal / death metal
Writing about metal month after month is a strange business, and one that threatens to become dangerously rote if you let yourself go, at least when you’ve been at it as long as we have. We listen to endless thousands of records trying to find a few worth hearing. Then we set about trying to describe them in a way we haven’t already done endless thousands of times before, which naturally grows harder over time. I gave up trying to find truly worthy insights years ago. These days I’m content to force my enthusiasm on you and just share something fun, maybe uncorking a new turn of phrase in the process, which is my way of keeping the mental inkwell from running dry. When a band is particularly catchy, that’s usually the hook in and of itself. We find a way to dress it up, but it always boils down to the same core message: “listen to this, you’ll like it.” When a band is particularly not catchy, the job gets harder: “listen to this, it hurts” is a tougher sell. Yet here we are.
On paper, Altarage sounds fairly mundane. An anonymous quartet of dudes dressed in black, playing uncompromising filth. Imagine something caught between black and death metal, pushed harder and further than either, landing closer to grinding sludge. But it’s the artful intensity that makes the difference, aggression delivered in measured bursts that would otherwise overwhelm. Don’t get me wrong, this is still the aural equivalent of excessive force — blasting noise laced with beatdowns, like Portal covering Nails — total sonic overkill that barely resembles music. And yet there’s just a hint of something there that does resemble music, and most definitely reflects thoughtful composition — the faintest whiff of melody, just enough rhythmic release before your ears give out; a riff when you need it, a long dose of drone when you don’t — and it makes all the difference. “Sighting” opens Altarage’s new LP with one of the album’s quieter moments, but one that still disquiets: a downtuned guitar played clean, strummed gently at first, then frantically, bending in and out of key. Then the riffs come down like boiling rain. Hey, there’s my new turn of phrase. [From The Approaching Roar, out now via Season of Mist Underground Activists.] –Aaron Lariviere
2. Traveler – “Street Machine”
Location: Calgary, Canada
Subgenre: heavy metal / power metal
From nowhere comes a riff, then another. BLAM. Blinding spark in a sea of formless dark; guitars paint with electric fire while a bass of glory rolls beneath. This is all but prelude for the question: Have you accepted heavy metal into your life? If not, you should. It’s not too late. Traveler is here, after all, having traveled from somewhere (Canada) to take you someplace better (not Canada), with no greater purpose than to show you the path of steel. All they ask is everything: sworn commitment to the metal life. Cast aside your earthly ties. With metal, there’s no need for spouses or children or jobs or dress pants. These are but obstacles in the path. Cast them out and live free — steel demands sacrifice! Lonely nights are a small price when riffs are everlasting. Ah, the ritual begins: “Street Machine” plays in the distance. Hear the beckoning Maiden riffs and sonorous production, a sturdy frame on which to hang a righteous song — together, an iron pillow for the ears, leading you towards dreamless sleep — true awakening from the nightmare of life. Deep in dream you hear the perfect heavy metal vocal (hey that guy sings in Gatekeeper — also sweet). His is a siren song of unvarnished masculinity; too goofy to be toxic, too strong to be lame. What’s that he’s singing? “Like mother, like daughter, something, something, slaughter!” BLAM. You wake drenched in sweat. The song has worked its wonders, and the time has come to make your choice. Now then: Do you solemnly swear to bang your head, your whole head, now and forevermore, ’til Nevermore do us part, through headache and hangover, whenever the riff commands? Aye, join us in the hall. [From Traveler, out 2/22 via Gates of Hell Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
1. Nasheim – “Att sväva över vidderna”
Location: Lögdeå, Sweden
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
New music from Nasheim, the one-man band from Erik Grahn, doesn’t come about very often. The last we heard from Nasheim was in 2014, when the towering Silens Vemod stunned me and a good many others, so the arrival of a new album that picks off where Nasheim left off is a cause for celebration. If the project is new to you, you’ll find it’s easy to get lost in the Nasheim’s world. Grahn creates engrossing works of enormous scope, compositions that drop you running in the middle of a dark, frosted forest. Certain melodic refrains delivered in the form of liquid-crystal guitar leads that both trill and swoon will serve as guideposts over the course of “Att sväva över vidderna’s” 20 minutes — 20 minutes that hook you with their pensive building, blood-pumping headlong runs, and undulating vicissitudes. This song leaves you on a bit of a cliffhanger — the three tracks that comprise the album segue from one to the next, so you won’t be able to fully appreciate Nasheim’s latest until it lands next month. The long breaks between releases are no doubt in part due to Grahn’s perfectionism — the instrumentation on Nasheim tracks merges and pours forth from a pure, singular source — and we are the beneficiaries. With the northern hemisphere in winter’s grip, now is the time to wander Nasheim’s cold, dark world. [From Jord och ask, out 2/22 via Northern Silence Productions.] –Wyatt Marshall