Ohio-based extreme metallers Skeletonwitch can be relied upon to lay down a slab of blistering darkness every two years in the form of a new studio album, usually released (appropriately enough) around Halloween. This year is no exception, and it's also the band's tenth anniversary, so they're posed with the challenge of topping their already impressive game with their fifth full-length release Serpents Unleashed. Once again, the fairly dependable Skeletonwitch brand – being mainly riff-based, high-tempo thrash coupled with elements of melodic death and black metal – comes through with no bullshit and plenty of hellish fury. Also true to form, only one of the tracks on Serpents crosses the three-minute mark; as always they dive in, lay down the riffage and get the hell out with little to no showboating, which I find refreshing among the growing wave of thrash revivalists.
The album blasts off the pad with the opening/title track and never looks back, revealing vocalist Chance Garnette in top demonic form. His searing, black metal-style delivery is perfectly paired with occult and death-themed lyrics to create an air of hellish doom. That mood is further enhanced by the production skills of Kurt Ballou, whose work with Converge, Isis and High On Fire is evident in the deep, dark, bass-heavy mix, which serves as an ideal counterpoint to Garnette's blackened rasp and dominates epic tracks like “This Evil Embrace.” Amid the high-speed mayhem, melodies remain very strong, coming through most powerfully on cuts like “From a Cloudless Sky.” As you might imagine, there are very few down-tempo moments to be found, though “Unending, Everliving” does offer a brief but powerful spell of moody, pensive contemplation before we charge headlong into the ultra-violence again with “Blade on the Flesh, Blood on My Hands.”
Guitarists Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick remain riff-centric as always, but still have moments to shine within the hailstorm – the solo work in “Burned From Bone” is one sterling example – with the same straightforward rhythmic dedication coming from drummer Dustin Boltjes, whose blastbeats cause an epic seismic disturbance in “Beneath Dead Leaves,” and bassist Evan Linger – whose work is particularly clear and powerful here – keeping the beast in check. With that said, the Witch is allowed to rage out of control in the lead single “I Am of Death (Hell Has Arrived),” which is also the subject of a vintage-horror-flavored music video that recently made its debut on Bloody Disgusting:
While they've seldom strayed far from their wheelhouse over the past decade, Skeletonwitch can definitely be praised for their consistency, while occasionally stretching their claws a little bit with darker, more atmospheric tones, which work well in the grand scheme of things. The production style on Serpents Unleashed is a good example of how much creative terrain this band can explore while staying true to their core sound, and as always it's fierce, shocking and relentless enough to get your heart racing. It's probably for the best that the record clocks in at just 30 minutes; much longer and it should come with a health warning.
On a side note, Serpents appears to be the first Skeletonwitch album released simultaneously across CD, digital, vinyl and cassette formats. Sadly the cassette version is sold out as of this writing, but it's an interesting nod to both a resurgent trend and nostalgia for the tape-trading days; plus, among metal fans any analog release format is preferable to digital (though vinyl remains king, as well it should).