The Ohio party animals scale back the turnt-up thrash of their past in favor of nuanced black metal—without losing their feral edge—on their first full-length with vocalist Adam Clemans.
The past five years have seen major changes for the Ohio metal band Skeletonwitch. During the New England leg of their October 2014 tour, firebrand frontman Chance Garnette suddenly left the band. Several days later, Massachusetts authorities charged him with assault and battery of a family/household member. Reflecting on the situation months later, Garnette cited his drinking problem as the primary reason for his exit—a framing one of the band’s guitarists, Scott Hedrick, refuted in an interview, telling Vancouver Weekly, “A bunch of beers didn’t make this change happen.”
In time, “this change” would entail not only a new frontman, but a sobering reorientation of Skeletonwitch’s entire sound. 2016’s inaugural release with vocalist Adam Clemans (also of the blackened-sludge outfit Wolvhammer, and a former member of the metalcore group Veil of Maya), an EP titled The Apothic Gloom, found the band members exercising extreme self-discipline, scaling back the turnt-up thrash of their past in favor of nuanced black metal. It was a smart pivot, for several reasons: It mitigated any tonal discrepancy between Clemans’ militant vocals and the giddy thrash of his predecessor; it provided Hedrick and his axeman-in-arms Nate Garnette with a platform for showing off top-notch fretwork that had long been overshadowed by their ex-vocalist’s Tasmanian-Devil charisma; and—most vitally—it allowed Skeletonwitch to venture outside their comfort zone while retaining the feral energy that propelled them to infamy.
The band’s latest album, Devouring Radiant Light, doubles down on this stark approach, effectively recasting the Midwestern party animals as cold-hearted Vikings who deploy their instruments of war strategically as well as sadistically. Here, they strive for dynamic evolution and stylistic growth, as opposed to sinister, Dionysian excess. That the first minute of opening track “Fen of Shadows” comprises a unaccompanied, chiming guitar lead, rather than the chug-athons that kick-started past albums, is telling of the record as a whole. For the first time in their decade-plus career, nuance is just as important as nastiness, and it pays off in spades.
Devouring Radiant Light doesn’t abandon Skeletonwitch’s uncouth thrash antics altogether, of course. The skittering riffs and cascading hooks that populate rippers like “When Paradise Fades” and “Carnarium Eternal” evoke the genre’s ’80s heyday, as do the haggard, Megadeth-esque verses driving “The Luminous Sky.” The distinguishing factor here is a matter of overarching construction. Whereas the band’s past full-lengths accented Big Four worship with black-metal flourishes (weeping riffs, tempestuous backbeats), Devouring Radiant Light inverts that ratio with an extended blast of subzero Nordic fury informed by, but by no means indebted to, thrash metal.
Sure, fans who swear by Skeletonwitch’s early work might take a while to warm up to anthems like “Temple of the Sun,” a tightly constructed barnstormer in which the band dares to toss clean-sung vocal harmonies into the mix, or “The Vault,” a Pallbearer-esque doom experiment that grows more blackened with each wailing note until its entire soundscape is torched to a crisp. And yet, even when their creative lodestar shifts its orbit, the Ohioans’ cornerstones remain intact: their virtuosic riffs, their robust production (once again courtesy of Converge guitarist and board wizard Kurt Ballou), their endearingly adversarial presence on-record—and, most of all, their diabolical joie de vivre.
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