I sometimes wonder what it would sound like if a band stumbled upon metal on their own – that is, if a band had never heard of Darkthrone or Death or Anthrax and simply started playing heavy music with raspy vocals because they thought it sounded cool. If such a band exists, they’d probably sound something like Exoskelett. Formed in 2015 and composed of musicians who (by my research) have never been in any other group, this Swedish quintet play a type of metal that’s so primitive it practically defies classification. With debut Collected Bones, they’ve produced a record that sounds like what would happen if some kids heard Morbid Tales coming from their older brother’s bedroom and then spent the next three weeks trying to recreate that feeling by jamming on busted pawn shop instruments and guzzling Mountain Dew in their parent’s basement.
For as bad as that sounds, Bones is actually a pretty fun record. The best way to describe it is “blackened heavy metal,” but even that fails to convey the sloppy, demented swagger inherent in both the music and that ostensibly Dr. Seuss-inspired artwork. Imagine a blackened version of Savage Master, a punkier version of Barbarian, or a stripped down version of French black-rockers Sektemtum. Or, for something a little less obscure, imagine if Hellhammer never tried to be evil and instead just rocked out without a fuck to give. Riffs are basic and chunky, lurching forward like a demented clown with an “I Heart Tom G. Warrior” shirt on. The drumming is quick but retains a battering sloppiness in both the rocking rhythms and the occasional blast-beats, while the croaky shouts of vocalist Albin Boman garnish things with a dark, cartoony vibe and a vivid sense of amateur charm.
Opener “Unholy Alliance” shows this from the start, beginning with a quick gothic melody whose twirling is soon underlaid by bobbing, groovy chords that are sure to get one’s head nodding. It’s a simple song whose thrice-repeated chorus consists solely of a shout of the track title, but it’s not a bad start. Exoskelett keep the energy flowing with follow-up “Grind Your Bones to Dust,” whose fierce fist-raising refrain is complemented by a sly, bouncy verse melody and a pounding stoner metal bridge.
It’s soon clear guitarists Martin Stenberg and Patrik Boman are the ones really having the time of their lives, moving from punky bashing to black metal blasting to squawky guitar licks that drip with a “hey guys check this out” vibe. Early highlight “Void” blasts and bobs along with a nifty lick that sounds like it’s doing a boogey dance in the background, while “Black Dogs, Black Wolves, Black Hounds” sounds like what would happen if English Dogs transformed into a pack of rabid mutts. Even bassist Johan Eriksson gets in on the fun, throwing in a couple distinct basslines that aren’t afraid to deviate from the base compositions.
At eight tracks and 28 minutes, Bones is a quick and dirty listen, but its DIY feel is not without drawbacks. Songs rarely deviate from a verse-chorus template and often feature basic, repetitive choruses that get old fast, with the aptly titled “Dig Deeper” being the worst offender. For some bizarre reason several tracks in the second half also end with about 20 seconds of silence, disrupting the flow and making for an odd extended pause. It also doesn’t help that some of the later cuts are both less memorable and have an all-too-similar feel to what came before. The end result is a frustrating listen because there are some really enjoyable riffs here – but when they’re tossed into songs that aren’t always wholly enjoyable themselves, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the end product.
Fortunately (and rather unexpectedly) Bones sounds incredible, with a distinct bass presence and a slightly fuzzy guitar tone that makes you feel like you’re actually standing next to the band’s amplifier. Combined with that aforementioned charm, Exoskelett feel like that slobbering underdog that you want to wrap up and take home with you. Unfortunately it’s hard to love, as a bit more care was needed in crafting the compositions to really leverage these ideas to max effect. I don’t know if Exoskelett actually stumbled upon metal on their own or not – but if so, maybe taking some lessons from the greats wouldn’t hurt in the future.