Skeletonwitch is a heavy-metal band, but heaviness has never been its bottom line. In four albums over the past 10 years, the Ohio quartet has evolved from the blackened, mid-fi thrash of 2004’s At One With The Shadows to the far slicker attack of 2011’s Forever Abomination. That disregard for full-blooded low-end has helped set Skeletonwitch apart; as 21st-century metal increasingly aimed for bowel-bruising bass, the group buzzed by like a swarm of locusts. That’s changed. Serpents Unleashed, Skeletonwitch’s fifth full-length, is the heaviest record it’s ever made—and not only does this heaviness suit the band well, it brings out a new dimension to its joyous Armageddon-mongering.
While never at a loss for big-name producers—previous recordings have been helmed by Jack Endino (Nirvana), Matt Hyde (Slayer), and Gwar’s late guitarist Cory Smoot—Skeletonwitch wisely chose Converge’s Kurt Ballou to helm Serpents Unleashed. The contrast is striking, especially compared to Hyde’s razor-thin edge on Forever Abomination. Serpents is monstrous. Bold, bludgeoning, and yet perfectly balanced between abandon and precision, the disc sounds like a thunderstorm being straddled by demigods—which is more or less the thematic wheelhouse of lead singer Chance Garnette, whose deceptively nuanced (and at times eerily whispery) growl evokes myth and mystique more vividly than ever. On “More Cruel Than Weak” and “Born Of The Light That Does Not Shine,” his scarified voice darts amid elemental slabs of guitar; and “Blade On The Flesh, Blood On My Hands” is an even more dexterous display of his warrior-against-the-omniverse desperation.
Empowered by the sheer volume Ballou has granted them, guitarists Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick have upped the galloping intensity and nervy melodicism of their riffs. “This Evil Embrace” highlights the duo’s not-so-hidden hooks while seething away like a cauldron of distortion, and “Beneath Dead Leaves” turns the traditional blur of black metal into a crossover-thrash conniption that doesn’t sound retro for a second. For the first time on record, the rhythm section of bassist Evan Linger and drummer Dustin Boltjes—the group’s relative newcomers—have fully locked together, forging a dynamic that ripples with subtle power and shades of intricacy. With Serpents Unleashed, the scratchy, scrappy Skeletonwitch of old is gone. Beneath that shed skin lurks something far vaster and scarier—but no less sinisterly inviting.