Release Date: Oct 29, 2013
Record label: Prosthetic
It's rare for an album's title to describe how it sounds, but on Serpents Unleashed, the fifth outing from Athens, Ohio band Skeletonwitch, it's strangely appropriate. Rampaging straight out of the gates, the album's titular opening track serves as a reminder that this is a band that's not about wasting time or fussing with lengthy, clichéd intros. Instead, these guys rip straight into it with yet another in an increasingly long line of albums that are big on speed and short on running time.
Athens, ON-based thrashers Skeletonwitch have become considerably more epic on fifth full-length Serpents Unleashed. In terms of aesthetic sophistication and execution, Serpents Unleashed is their most chaotic and sophisticated effort to date. Recorded with Kurt Ballou (Converge), the production matches the compositions, being more nuanced and cleverer, as well as having a more developed low end than ever before.
Calling the album a return to form does Skeletonwitch injustice, but the blackened thrashers definately sound rein quintet definitely sounds reinvigorated here. Long gone are the production woes of 2009’s Breathing Fire (thank you, Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, who produced Serpents) leaving the band sounding ever more vicious. Battle hymns like “From A Cloudless Sky,” “Unwept,” and the title track slay with melodic venom, the solo on “Burned From Bone” wails admirably, and the closing lines of “I am of Death”—“Killer of men/I am of death”—nicely sum up this gauntlet-clad skull-crusher.
After a decade as a band, five albums, and enough miles logged in tour vans and planes to have circumnavigated the Earth several dozen times, Athens, Ohio metal diehards Skeletonwitch finally have their anthem. “More Cruel than Weak”—the longest song on their new and best album to date, Serpents Unleashed—builds, much like the band’s career has, in a slow, stepwise fashion. Gentle electric guitars duet around a distant drone, falling in and out and eventually adding a touch of menace just as a steady cymbal splash rises to meet them.
Skeletonwitch make brutal albums. Their fifth one doesn't add any new elements but manages to take the aggression up yet another notch. Songs go by in a flash, built on chunky two-guitar riffage, pummelling speed metal drumming that never lets up, and Chance Garnette's death metal screech-growl. The bits that stand out most are the brief - very brief - moments when the Ohio five-piece slow the pace, let a clear guitar lead sail over the fray (Beneath Dead Leaves, From A Cloudless Sky) or allow some beauty through, like the melancholy intros to Unending Everliving and More Cruel Than Weak.
Artists that amalgamate styles as a means to squeeze new blood out of old stones frequently provide the Darwinian solution to boring music. Crossbreeding was key to evolution, right? But, in metal, amalgams and hybrids often become homogenized instead of developing into something original and fresh, and the standard techniques of modern music production only further exacerbate the problem, with things like triggered bass drums and Protools plugins rather than guitar amps. On Serpents Unleashed, Ohio quintet Skeletonwitch’s own blend of European melodic death metal, thrash, and black metal falls prey to flat production, which further stacks the deck against the band’s already ill-defined sound.