Album: Serpents Unleashed
Genre: Thrash metal (black influences)
Release Date: 29/10/2013
Record Label: Prosthetic Records
(Review written by SARP ESIN)
I came across this beast of a band at the precisely wrong time in my life – back then, Forever Abomination (2011) , the band’s fourth effort, was all the rage, and I gave it a go. Right off the bat, what characterized the Skeletonwitch sound was their marriage of trash to black influences; a preoccupation with ferocity and packing a punch, as well as writing monolithic riffs. Parts of the album just didn’t go with my temperament back then, so I gave it a few listens and bypassed it. When I saw their newest effort, the subject of this review, on the shelf, I decided to give it a go. And I’m glad.
Skeletonwitch can be described best as a trash metal band who hybridizes their approach by adding scoops of black metal, especially with regards to drums and vocals. Formed in 2003, in Athens, Ohio, they released their debut, At One with the Shadows a year later, via Shredded Records. In 2006, the band transitioned to Prosthetic Records (home to Trap Them, 1349, Castle, Dragged Into Sunlight and many more) through which they released their 2007 opus, the critically-acclaimed Beyond the Permafrost, which was followed quickly by Breathing the Fire (2009.) Tony Laureano, the band’s drummer since 2004, retired at that point, making way for Dustin Boltjes, whose Skeletonwitch debut was on the 2011 release, Forever Abomination. Without cutting down speed, the band rushed headlong into their fifth release, two years after the well-received Forever Abomination: which is the subject of this review, titled: Serpents Unleashed.
On a minor note, it must be mentioned that this is the second time the band has called on the talents of John Baizley (Baroness) for their artwork, the first being the 2007 Beyond the Permafrost.
Serpents Unleashed is the kind of album that sees no reason to pulling any punches. It is a kicker, from start to finish – an unrelenting onslaught of speed, force and finesse, all sort of hybridized together in the band’s signature trash/black chimaira. For the most part, it is killer trash riffs stacked up against one another in such a way that it keeps the songs from getting too overwhelming, or too predictable. There are often surprising decreases in pace (the most notable being the opening of the closer, More Cruel than Weak) but otherwise, it’s a stomping, supercharged riff-fest start to finish. The songs are short, most of them lasting under three minutes (in fact, the longest song is the closer, “More Cruel than Weak”, which stands at 4:11.) This is actually a good thing, because the rapid-fire demonology anthems and a pace that breaks the sound barrier could slip away if kept up for too long. The album itself comes in at 31:48, which is adequate, as you should not judge it by its length. Structurally speaking, the songs also have a cyclical nature: they return to where they started after taking a brief detour, ensuring cohesion and making sure strong openings aren’t wasted. These “opener doubling as closer” ties songs together very well, which was, in my opinion, a prominent problem with their previous effort, “Forever Abomination.”
In general, the mixture involves breakneck trash riffing, each one catch and able to burrow itself into the listener’s brain. Whether its tremolo harmonies, or simple on-the-nose riffs, the guitars are a force to be wreckoned with. The bass makes itself known when it needs to, but is always audible and very present. It is accompanied by drums that conform to the known trash styles as well as flexing that black metal muscle with frequent rushes of blast beats. The vocals are the blackest of the bunch, as they consist invariably of deep, throaty rasps that spit out the lyrics. A bait-and-switch is often used in songs’ progressions: a riff could be cut down to half and its latter half can be shifted; a given section might be taken to a lower tone, but essentially remain the same, to darken the mood; and what I call the “pulling a fast one” when a breakneck riff ends as fast as another one just takes its place, at the snap of a finger. Add to that the bass partitions jumping out unexpectedly, the drums that go from typical trash-style drumming to blast beats and to tom-traveling, rumbling attacks to shift the backing, and it’s a whirlwind of a ride. Also responsible for this bait-and-switch air is the shifting moods: from almost crystalline, thin and sharp guitars lifting up one’s spirits (despite the demonic belches ensuring ruination) just as well as thick, harsh trash riffs running it to the ground. There is in fact a very fine balance between the less aggressive and the lot more aggressive, and they balance each other out.
The bass is made as a slap-in-the-face for those who claim they can’t hear the bass in metal albums: it is not only audible, but at certain points, the bass is used as a muscle-flexing instrument – it grumbles and rumbles throughout the album, often times leaping out of the thick wall of sound to unleash upon the unsuspecting listeners sounds they weren’t, well, expecting. Like the bass, the scant few solos in the album are busted out when you least expect, and contrary to the rather chaotic-sounding (yet extremely ordered) mass of music, the solos come through very clear. Each solo is melodic, out there, extremely enjoyable and memorable.
An interesting twist in the Skeletonwitch sound is that it is vocal-dominant: the rather short lyrics meet the short song durations in an obvious yet non-obstructive blend. The vocals are often in harmony, rhythmically, with the guitars, at times words marking chords, which is a weapon Skeletonwitch hides in plain sight. See, at first glance, the lyrics appear unimaginative, with every song going on and on about how you’ll be tortured, how you’ll die, how he is a demon, and so on, but it only hits you after a few songs that these aren’t just lyrics thrown out there to make it evil – they are talking to YOU, and you ARE being tortured, only you are loving it so much you don’t notice. The vocals belting out things about sacrifice and demons rising and bringing hell upon earth gets you in the groove, and that’s where the theatrical element in Skeletonwitch’s trash-based blend appears. Each song carries a mood, and a setting – the music and lyrics are there to walk you through the scenery, to immerse you in the sights of horrific torture and apocalyptic wastelands. As such, the album is extremely immersive. Before long, one can find oneself bobbing one’s head (or headbanging, if you have the hair, unlike me) until the music stops. Where atmosphere is concerned, it is sharp, epic, demonic (of course) and inescapable. If the band’s name is anything to go by, it’s as if the Skeletonwitch casts a spell and unleashes upon the listener a flurry of hard-and-fast, pure bred metal.
Serpents Unleashed displays its tricks right out of the gates, unabashedly, and flaunts what its got without a trace of shame. It’s an album that doesn’t need subterfuge or roundabout tricks, it’s more about kicking you in the face and making you like it, than giving you surprises. The only trouble the album can run into, which is why there was a 0.5 point reduction, is that it is so unrelenting that complete run-throughs can be a bit harrowing – but don’t worry, it’ll be one hell of a ride still.
1. Serpents Unleashed
2. Beneath Dead Leaves
3. I Am of Death (Hell Has Arived)
4. From a Cloudless Sky
5. Burned from Bone
6. Unending, Everliving
7. Blade on the Flesh, Blood on My Hands
8. This Evil Embrace
10. Born of the Light that Does Not Shine
11. More Cruel than Weak
Scott Hedrick – Guitars
Dustin Boltjes – Drums
Evan Linger – Bass
Chance Garnette – Vocals
Nate “N8 Feet Under” Garnette – Guitars