Don’t go in negative. Don’t be reactionary. Don’t hate it just because it’s different. That’s what I told myself when approaching Skeletonwitch‘s risky black metal debut. After Kool-Aid Man-ing onto the scene with 2007’s Beyond the Permafrost,1 the Ohioans immediately moved away from their progressive roots. Indecision between kinetics and construction forced Breathing the Fire into an awkward love triangle before the hyper-streamlined apex of Forever Abomination and follow-up Serpents Unleashed ultimately chose the riffs and with it a plateau. With vocalist Chance Garnette’s unceremonious departure and nowhere to go but sideways, all signs pointed to a long surrender to Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™. Devouring Radiant Light, in this context, makes perfect sense. Good luck explaining that to their rabid fanbase.
Opener “Fen of Shadows” broke my heart. Too long. No riffs. Atmosphere? Atmosphere? I nearly tossed my headphones out of a moving car. “Fen” sums up DRL‘s main impetus: one spin might not buy a second for quick-to-judge fans. But it’s a grower, and a second or third listen will get you a fourth, fifth, sixth. Past its sprawling form, beneath the butchered production, “Fen” ignites a vivacious, heart-burning riff capable of carrying hopes and dreams. While rookie tendencies poke through on a drawn-out second half, Skeletonwitch feel like old pros as they explore a brave new long-form world.2 Unfortunately, whether thrash, black, or otherwise, the record could stand to lose weight. Expecting the two-minute bangers that permeated recent releases is unrealistic, but the newfound space-in-between hampers Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick’s ever-prolific axe work. Winner riffs on “The Vault” and “Fen” spread themselves too thin spanning the elongated distance. “Sacred Soil” closes with the best all-around attempt at length, but at its nadir, “When Paradise Fades” offers two minutes stretched into four and “Devouring Radiant Light” scuffles hard.
What about the soul of the ‘witch? Losing the core identity of such an influential act would hurt metal as a whole. But DRL makes clear that, for all its promises, the radiant light escapes its maw. From the black-n’-‘tallica caps of “When Paradise Fades” to trve-as-kvlt fvce-fvcking mvloblvck closer “Sacred Soil,” this blackened beast learned plenty of new tricks. Skeletonwitch don’t shy away from the familiar when bolstering the new. Highlight “The Luminous Sky” sparkles when transitioning from its transcendent melodic black to a heyday thrash riff that bounces me off the walls every goddamn time. They hem in the record’s hubristic track times for once, nailing the correct length for their nouveau riffs. The scarcity of these perfect moments initially made me long for abominations past. As DRL grows, however, the strength and necessity of this new heading becomes apparent. I did not expect to prefer “The Vault,” bloated but fresh, to three minutes of stale reminiscence on “Carnarium Eternal.” “Carnarium” is the type of track I feared when predicting the band’s decline. It lacks that FA/SU earth-shifting quality and fails to stand out next to the fresher moments on DRL.
Chance Garnette, for all his problems, provided presence like few others; any replacement would need to fight off his shadow. Fortunately, Adam Clemans (Wolvhammer) thrives in the suffocating black. His performance on 2016’s The Apothic Gloom EP underwhelmed many, including yours Wvrmly, but that pre-dated Skeletonwitch‘s completed metamorphosis. Clemans screams with a reassuring familiarity, standing alongside Garnette’s legacy, not under its weight. The energy and enthusiasm with which Clemans carries himself climbs a notch above his Wolvhammer performances. On the other side, the Kurt Ballou-led production misses the mark so badly that I expect Alex-Fi to bust in here, clutching ancient scrolls meant to imprison Ballou in a clay pot for a millennium. Missing instruments, constant peaking, and the record is SO DAMN LOUD. The fact that I can still hear rekindled my faith in a higher power. This would be too much for balls-to-the-wall Skeletonwitch, let alone this more thoughtful iteration.
I won’t say this record is fantastic or one of the year’s best; Skeletonwitch must correct a number of issues before I can fanboy them to the top. However, this is an ambitious and intelligent shift that settles several uncertainties and forestalls the impending cloak of age. Devouring Radiant Light defiantly closes a well-loved chapter of Skeletonwitch‘s career and simultaneously rockets off another just when the band needed it most. Breathe a sigh of relief with me. Skeletonwitch‘s radiant light shines on.
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Avalon (Japan) | Prosthetic Records Official | Bandcamp (Rest of the world)
Websites: skeletonwitch.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/skeletonwitch
Release Dates: JP: 2018.07.25 | WW: 07.20.2018
Written By: Eldritch Elitist
“Breaking down the walls suffocating your creation.” So go the opening lyrics of the introductory track of Devouring Radiant Light, the first Skeletonwitch LP in five years. Perhaps this line wasn’t intended as a thesis statement for what is an immediately recognizable and radical departure from the band’s established balance of black and thrash metal, but it sure does feel like it; it’s difficult to imagine this new set of tunes being accompanied by Chance Garnette’s on-stage battlecry of “Drink beer, smoke weed, and eat some fuckin’ pussy.” Indeed, times have changed. Chance was kicked out of the band in 2015, and with the introduction of Wolvhammer’s Adam Clemans on vox, sonic upsets were essentially a guarantee. Yet the old ‘witch soul is still here, preserved in a framework crafted from unprecedented levels of compositional maturity and stylistic growth. The end result — sporadically messy, yet thoroughly lovable — is a veritable explosion of blackened ingenuity.
Devouring Radiant Light is a record that flirts with thrash yet revels in blackened darkness, fully delivering on the proof of concept exhibited on 2016’s The Apothic Gloom EP. This is thrashy black metal as opposed to blackened thrash metal, and from second wave iciness (“Temple of the Sun”) to atmo-black catharsis (“Fen of Shadows”), Skeletonwitch leaves few genre sub-chambers unexplored. Combined with ambitious compositional excursions, these pieces stun me time and time again; the multiple modes of songwriting, ranging from classic A-B-A-B structuring to freeform exploration exhibited in more ambitious tracks such as “The Vault,” craft a vibrant and diverse track selection, while painterly touches — such as the deliberate, impactful pause executed as the title track cycles from its bombastic chorus back to its simple, stomping verse — enhance the sense of structural confidence. In terms of sheer sonic scope, DRL is undoubtedly one of this year’s most impressive records.
For all of the band’s confidence in their new blackened stomping grounds, Devouring still feels thoroughly ‘witch at its core. Take a step back from the grandiose arrangements, and you’ll find Skeletonwitch‘s penchant for excellent thrash riffs completely intact. Sure, sporadic cuts like “Temple of the Sun” and “Sacred Soil” qualify as pure black metal, but others, such as “The Luminous Sky” and “Carnarium Eternal,” hearken back to the band’s classic sound within the new, compelling aesthetic. The way that Skeletonwitch utilizes blackened stylings to accent both the atmosphere and technicality of their riffs is stunning; the former of these two tracks is as thoroughly satisfying as any of the band’s most efficiently aggressive pieces, while the latter is an incredible dichotomy of cascading chords and ever-ascending tremolo lines. Yet it’s “The Vault” that unexpectedly steals the show, sucking me in with a few minutes of heartrending, Pallbearer-esque doom before evolving outward into a monolithic slab of progressive black metal bliss.
So consistently fantastic is Devouring Radiant Light that the only track that doesn’t fully deliver for me is “When Paradise Fails,” which, despite producing one helluva black-n-thrash-n-roll riff, suffers notably from repetitive riffage in its first half. Yet its pivot into more melodic, methodical territory in the back half makes up for the rocky start; several tracks throughout the record deliver similar stylistic twists and are executed so sensibly and skillfully as to put similar attempts previously made on Forever Abomination to shame.3 The fluid, ever-reliable axework of Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick perform these melodious sections with aplomb, but the breakout performance belongs to Adam Clemans, who delivers the desired level of blood-in-your-throat aggression without ever aping Chance’s vocal style. That being said, the production — this fucking production — threatens to invalidate the depth and layering of the excellent performances. The wimpy, muted drums, inexplicably obscured bass and lead guitar lines, and absurd levels of brickwalling4 hugely tarnish what could have been the richest sounding record of 2018 in more careful hands.
As much as I’d love to continue bitching about the production in this already overlong review, what really strikes me is the sheer number of amazing arrangements I haven’t had time to touch on. The amazing interplay of melodic tremolo and staccato thrash riffage on “Fen of Shadows;” one of the best recent examples of meloblack catharsis executed on “Sacred Soil;” the insanely filthy death/black riff at the center of “Carnarium Eternal.” These and so many more surprises are locked away inside this near-masterwork of infectious black metal goodness, and while many longtime Skeletonwitch fans will be understandably dismayed at DRL‘s new direction, I can’t wait for everyone else to bathe in the radiant light of one of the boldest and most successful trajectory shifts a metal band has executed in years.
- First rule of Skeletonwitch: don’t talk about At One with the Shadows. ↩
- For comparison, Skeletonwitch‘s last four LPs have only four songs extend past four minutes. Breathing the Fire had a grand total of none. ↩
- Seriously, go listen to how the momentum is utterly killed at the halfway points of “Of Ash and Torment” and “Cleaver of Souls,” and explain to me how that was ever a good idea. ↩
- This is of course just one man’s opinion, as those who are actually paid to write about metal refer to this shit as “nuance-excavating.” ↩