Thursday, January 16, 2014

Album Review: Skeletonwitch - Serpents Unleashed

Album Score: B+
Everyone knows that thrash is all about teh riffs, but what’s behind great riffage? If you’re going by Skeletonwitch’s latest effort, the answer is pure energy. With eleven songs clocking in at less than three minutes apiece, Serpents Unleashed is a dissertation on explosive songwriting from the Ohio blackened thrash veterans. Arguably the group’s most cohesive effort to date, the album meshes a variety of influences and styles while showcasing some of the strongest pieces in Skeletonwitch’s catalogue. Purists need not fret, though, for Serpents Unleashed leaves no doubt that it’s meant to get mosh pits moving and hearts racing in proper thrash metal fashion.

The main challenge in crafting such brief statements is making them memorable, and Serpents Unleashed repeatedly rings true in that regard. Few moments on the album feel rehashed, as guitarists Nate “Big Cat” Garnette and Scott Hedrick lay down riffs of constantly varying tempo and feel. The title track bursts out of the gate with pounding tom-toms, rapidly switching between hardcore and blast beats before serving up an Iron Maiden style chorus – with those distinctive backbeat crash/chord hits – a minute and a quarter in. “Beneath Dead Leaves” follows with a gigantic opening straight out of Bergtatt’s title track that transitions into machine-gun drumming and slithering, fuzzy guitar leads. Between that and a clean ending solo, the band even finds time for a pair of groovy choruses to break things up rhythmically.

Speaking of which, the band’s rhythm section stands out particularly well on Serpents; this is partially due to the air-tight playing of drummer Dustin Boltjes and bassist Evan Linger, and partially because the album’s mix screams of old-school analog production. The trend on recent thrash albums (even excellent releases like Revocation’s self-titled) is for the guitars to reign supreme while the drums slice and dice in the background and the bassist floats around in distant space; here, the mix sounds very balanced, with each piece picking up where another leaves off. Chance Garnette’s range here is comparable to At the Gates’ Tomas Lindberg, with a somewhat less piercing rasp, which fits well with the album’s overall sound. Chance’s vocals sit somewhere in the middle of the mix, his percussive intonations often panned and echoed heavily during peak moments to let the instrumental parts shine.

Perhaps the main shortcoming of Serpents Unleashed is that it does run so short. When the band brings in a fresh idea, it often only lasts a few measures – take the soaring riff in “Burned from Bone,” a monumental lick that could carry a much longer song, but since “Burned from Bone” clocks in at only two and half minutes, it only has time to show up for a grand total of forty-two seconds. Elsewhere, “This Evil Embrace” features a perfectly timed harmonized guitar solo, one that’s primed to explode when it fizzles out to end the piece. Ultimately, Skeletonwitch’s brevity does much more good than harm, though, and Serpents Unleashed comes off as a tour de force that demands to be played on repeat. Skeletonwitch has been a breakout candidate for years, and now a decade into their career, they’ve finally laid down an album that can play with the big boys of thrash.

Watch "Burned from Bone":

Track Listing:

1. Serpents Unleashed
2. Beneath Dead Leaves
3. I Am of Death (Hell Has Arrived)
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
9. Unwept
10. Born of the Light That Does Not Shine
11. More Cruel Than Weak

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