I bought Skeletonwitch’s second album, Beyond The Permafrost, on a whim one day back in 2007 when I was browsing the metal section at Newbury Comics. I was intrigued by their logo, which looked like what a death metal band’s logo might look like if it was actually readable. Normally, most metal bands — and especially death metal and black metal bands — pride themselves on having logos you can’t even read half of the time. Spatters of blood, spider webs, upside down crosses, snakes — these are just some of the token things that metal bands’ logos tend to consist of. But Skeletonwitch’s logo was different, simply consisting of bold, white lettering surrounded by a simple black outline. In fact, you could easily read it. And yet it was still just as edgy if not biting as any death metal or black metal logo, complete with lots of sharp, menacing points. Suffice to say I was impressed. But what most persuaded me to buy the album was the gorgeous artwork. It featured a skull, to be sure, but it was a fantastic illustration with great detail and depth, and I felt compelled to buy the album just so I could own the record cover. Later, I’d learn that the artist was John Baizley, who’d go on to do many much-loved metal covers during the years that followed, his clients including Baroness, Kvelertak, Kylesa. (He also did Skeletonwitch’s highly impressive new album cover, which again features an ornate skull, this time with a warrior’s body, surrounded by snakes and lots of other elaborate things.) As soon as I got home, I put the CD in. And I was blown away. The things I was hearing were all pretty familiar, but they were things from several genres of metal that I’d never heard combined quite that way before. You had diabolical gravel-spew vocals that sounded like they were splitting the difference between death metal and black metal, brutal thrash metal guitar riffs and clean solos that often reminded me of Iron Maiden. Sometimes the solos even bordered on power metal. And the band combined these things masterfully and passionately. I was immediately hooked and have been a fan of Skeletonwitch ever since.
So, being such a fan of Skeletonwitch, I proceeded to buy their next two albums, Breathing The Fire (2009) and Forever Abomination (2011). Cut to 2013 and Skeletonwitch are about to release their fifth album, Serpents Unleashed, which I’ve had the pleasure of listening to for the past few weeks; iTunes indicates that I’ve already played it 35 times, which is an awful lot, especially when you consider that I have to spend most of my time listening to one new album after another in order to write the volume of reviews that I do for this site and Otaku.
Some would say that I’m not suited to review this album because I’m a big fan and can’t be critical. In a sense, that is true. But I’m a big fan of lots of artists and if I refrained from reviewing those that I consider myself a fan of then I would only be able to write five reviews per month, so I’m certainly not going to apologize for reviewing this. Nor am I going to say negative things I don’t mean just to appear critical. In fact, I’m not going to say anything negative at all because my feelings about this album are wholeheartedly positive. I’ll sum it up right now: it’s fucking brilliant.
The album opens with the title track, “Serpents Unleashed,” and it’s almost as harrowing as having someone throw a wide-open box of snakes into your bedroom just as you’re waking up in the morning. It immediately commands your full attention as drummer Dustin Boltjes, who’s been with the band since 2011, brutally pummels you over the head like a proverbial sledgehammer. Consider it your alarm clock — at 1000 watts, bursting through six amplifiers. The song clocks in at a brief 2:12, but it’s easily one of the band’s strongest tracks to date. And it crashes right into the blistering second track, “Beneath Dead Leaves,” perfectly. In fact, if you’re not watching your player, you probably won’t be able to tell where one song ends and the next begins, something that happens in many instances throughout the album.
“I am the venom, I am the serpent born of flesh / I am of carnage, I am the dark one, killer of man, I am death,” growls Chance Garnette at the beginning of “I Am Of Death (Hell Has Arrived).” For some reason, I envision him spitting blood as he sings this one. It also fills my head with visions of Jason from Friday the 13th slashing people up. Scary stuff, to be sure.
As the album continues through “From A Cloudless Sky” and “Burned From Bone,” the band continues to further establish itself as leaders of the current metal scene with their confident knowledge of their own identity. One thing that holds true about every Skeletonwitch album is that they’ve never once sounded like they’re a band that’s trying to find its sound. Nobody is trying to find themselves here. These guys knew what they loved about each genre of metal when they first came to the table and they’ve continued to express that love throughout album after album. They aren’t beyond trying new things though. “Unending, Everliving,” starts off on an almost mellow note, sounding like something akin to funeral music, not like most of their songs, which usually start with an onslaught of speeding, monster riffs from Nate “N8 Feet Under” Garnette and Scott “Scunty D.” Hedrick. And closing track “More Cruel Than Weak” begins with haunting and ethereal acoustic guitars over a humming bass guitar line from Evan “Loosh” Linger before the drums and scathing electric guitars fade in and things go, well, berserk.
Serpents Unleashed is a grand listen, as we hear a truly dedicated group practice their art masterfully with a real sense of authority. Perhaps the ingredients of their music have all been used before, but they’re top shelf spices, resulting in musical curry that’s not quite like anything you’ve ever savored before.