'Serpents Unleashed' - Skeletonwitch (7/10)
When all is said and done, Skeletonwitch is a live band. Although five albums released over the span of ten years has made the Ohio thrashers out to be fairly prolific in the studio, their fiery brand of blackened thrash sounds practically designed for the live stage. With songwriting and style remaining pretty damned consistent over the years, Skeletonwitch’s mission in the studio has been one of trapping that live energy on record. “Serpents Unleashed”- the band’s fifth album to date- manages to do just that, pairing the blend of catchiness and carnage heard on 2011’s “Forever Abomination” with an organic, pleasantly raw production presently unmatched by the rest of Skeletonwitch’s studio material. In most other regards, “Serpents Unleashed” brings the same thrash and fury we’ve come to expect from the band, and while some fresh innovation to their style would have helped the album stand out, Skeletonwitch show no signs of slowing down.
This past Fall marked the ten year anniversary of Skeletonwitch’s existence as a band. In spite of their growing exposure and success over the span of five albums, they have always remained close to their roots. Stylistically, “Serpents Unleashed” is barely a stone’s throw away from the blackened heavy metal of the 2004 debut. Granted, the musicianship and intensity have increased with time and age, but Skeletonwitch are a great example of a band that knew where they wanted to go from the very start. Existing fans of the band should feel a welcome sense of déjà vu upon first hearing “Serpents Unleashed”. Thrashy riffs steeped in classic rock n’ roll influence drive the album forward, while melodic leads stripped from black metal canon give the songs some individual identity. As it has always been, Chance Garnette provides Skeletonwitch with a fittingly biting voice, whose aggressive snarl carries greater weight than most harsh vocalists you’re bound to hear. Although classic thrash is the meat and bones of Skeletonwitch’s sound, the marked influence from black and melodic death metal is more than enough to set them apart from the average thrash revival cronies. Their musical approach is straightforward and to-the-point, but they have a sound of their own, and most of their contemporaries cannot say the same.
Although the music is little different from Skeletonwitch’s work in the past, “Serpents Unleashed” enjoys a fitting production that eluded the band’s previous efforts. While “Forever Abomination” was very crisp and clear, it suffered a lack of rawness that would have added bite to the music. In large thanks to the efforts of producer Kurt Ballou, “Serpents Unleashed” brings the band ever closer to recreating the live experience in studio, at no cost to the production’s clarity. Due to the unrelenting pace and speed, the album’s relatively short half-hour length works for the music, ensuring that listener’s don’t get a chance to get accustomed to the aggression before the album’s over. With most of the tracks falling below the three minute mark, all of the songs present on “Serpents Unleashed” have been tied together as a near-seamless album-long onslaught. Skeletonwitch leave no fat or unnecessary filler left on these songs, and they amass a pretty impressive momentum by the time the album’s over. Although most of the songs tend to blend together into one half-hour blackened thrash entree, a few tracks do stand out. “From a Cloudless Sky” has an epic black metal pace that conjures surprising amounts of atmosphere within three minutes. “Burned from Bone” and “Unending, Everliving” are both undeniably catchy tunes, each with a melodic guitar hook to make them instantly memorable. “This Evil Embrace” tones down the tempo a bit to recall the sinister melodies of “Dissection”, and provides an effective respite from the thrash. Overall, “Serpents Unleashed” has some great ideas, but the homogeneous sound on the album makes all but the catchiest riffs blend in together.
Diehard supporters of the band may recall the ‘if it ain’t broke...’ idiom, and for the most part, it rings true. “Serpents Unleashed” is more of the same blackened thrash that the band has been putting out for ten years now, and it sounds as tight as ever. Even so, by this point in the band’s career, I’m left wanting something more from them, something to distinguish their current material from that of years past. An excellent production job aside, the album doesn’t stand any bit above the rest of Skeletonwitch’s work. For newcomers to the band, I would still recommend “Breathing the Fire” as a good starting point. For fans and veterans of the Witch, you know what to expect. At the end of the day, “Serpents Unleashed” does not disappoint.