Like most fans, I was pretty disappointed when Skeletonwitch parted ways with Chance Garnette about two years ago. Sure he was a talented vocalist, but it was also the nostalgia: I still remember seeing ‘Witch at my first ever metal concert back in ’08, where Chance barked like a demon in front of some deerskull-adorned amplifiers, eyes bugging out of his head as he took swigs from a fifth of whiskey and beckoned the audience to smoke weed and “eat some fuckin’ pussy!” Say what you will about Adam Clemans, but the band really lost something when they kicked Chance out, leaving me hungry for bands that captured the rowdiness of Skeletonwitch’s early days.
Enter All Hell. This North Carolina trio formed back in 2013, releasing two albums before signing to Prosthetic Records last year. The Grave Alchemist marks their third full length and it unsurprisingly… sounds like Skeletonwitch. Blackened-thrash is the name of the game, and while Hell are less melodic than ‘Witch, fans of Beyond the Permafrost will rejoice at the chilly melodies and galloping drums that appear on songs like late highlight “Laid to Unrest.” Early thrasher “Necrosophia” also features heavy nods to the Ohio natives with its ‘Witch-esque vocal patterns, charging rhythms, and rollicking black metal riffs.
It would be unfair, however, to characterize Hell as a mere clone. As the Halloweeny leads of opener “Grave Alchemy” and late-album instrumental “Elixir” show, Hell have more of a fixation on gothic horror as opposed to ‘Witch’s demons n’ death obsession. Hell also draw obvious inspiration from Aura Noir and Toxic Holocaust, which is not surprising given Holocaust’s Joel Grind mixed and mastered Alchemist. Throughout the record guitarist/vocalist Jacob Curwen shows his love for Mr. Grind with his raspy, commanding growl, delivered alongside some surprisingly diverse riffs. See “The Castle,” whose opening tremolos evoke images of moonlit medieval towers, before the song breaks into a mid-tempo waltz that reeks of early Dissection. Likewise, “Wed the Night” stands out for its cruising tempo and malicious chord progression, delightfully similar to the last Gospel of the Horns EP. And any Witchery fans in the building are immediately directed to “Return of the Reaper,” whose frantic speed metal guitars and rocking drums will have you dead, hot, and ready faster than you can say “necrophilia is only a felony in some states.”
Diverse songs. Lively instrumentation. Palpable atmosphere. So why not a higher rating? Well, Alchemist’s diversity is also its undoing. While there’s plenty of fast anthems like “Vampiric Lust” and slower tracks like closer “I Am the Mist,” there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of cohesion in the way they were arranged throughout. It’s as if the band chose to write some “slow” songs, some “fast” songs, and some “in-between” songs, and distribute them evenly throughout the tracklist without much regard to flow. Granted, tempos do vary within tracks as well, but this unveils another issue. As shown with the pounding motif in “Grave Alchemy” and the thrash break in “The Castle,” some transitions are awkward and make otherwise engaging songs feel less fluid. And while there’s plenty of standout moments, Alchemist’s third quarter features a couple tracks that, while solid, offer little in the way of memorability or novel ideas.
Fortunately, the drumming is quite competent, particularly in moments like the snappy roll that opens aforementioned “Reaper” or the diverse rhythms that appear throughout. With ol’ Joel behind the knobs, it’s no surprise Alchemist’s production sounds like Toxic Holocaust, but that’s not a bad thing. The sound is modern but the guitars have a prominent and energetic buzz, while the drums stand out for their thick and boinky snare hits.
In all, All Hell have produced a fun, capable, and inspired record that’s hindered by a few minor issues but nonetheless makes a welcome addition to the black-thrash canon. Even at 12 tracks and 41 minutes, Alchemist is never a chore to get through, and atmospheric bits like the wonky clean picking that opens “Memory Tomb” only add to the campy fun. Fans of Skeletonwitch, Witchaven, Witchery – fuck, pretty much any band with “Witch” in the name – would be well-advised to check this one out.