Skeletonwitch – ‘Devouring Radiant Light’

By James Lee

When Skeletonwitch dropped their first major release ‘Beyond The Permafrost’ back in 2007, they stuck out from the then-burgeoning retro thrash crowd like a sore thumb. Where everyone else was content to play from the 80s crossover playbook, white high-tops and ripped jeans included, Skeletonwitch dared to be far more metal; their sound pulling not only from the Big Four, but equally as much from Judas Priest and Immortal, creating an intoxicating and exhilarating form of heroic, blackened thrash that nobody else could quite replicate.

Except Skeletonwitch themselves, who took this template and barely deviated from it over the course of their next three LPs. It’s hard to blame them, as the formula was solid and resulted in plenty of acclaim and success. Then, in 2015, the band experienced a major change when original vocalist Chance Garnette was fired for his destructive alcohol abuse, with ex-Wolvhammer front man Adam Clemans stepping into Garnette’s mighty large shoes in early 2016.

Clemans’ introduction into the act not only brought a shift in vocal stylings, but with it a palpable change in attitude. The EP the band dropped later that year, ‘The Apothic Gloom’, showed signs that some of Skeletonwitch’s more ‘theatrical’ aspects had taken a back seat, replaced with a bleaker and more legitimately angry sound. It was a statement of intent from a band who’d rested on their laurels for too long, and a promise that has been made good and then some by their new full-length, ‘Devouring Radiant Light’.

Before a note of music has escaped the speakers, it’s already clear that the band are fully rebooting from the album’s artwork. Where previous releases have been adorned with none-more-metal imagery of horned skeletons (courtesy of legendary artists like Andrei Bouzikov and Baroness’ John Dyer Baizley), ‘Devouring Radiant Light’ instead has a moodier and altogether more mysterious image of a hooded figure shrouded in smoke/clouds/waves/whatever. It’s a stark departure for the band visually, and acts as an effective signifier of their overall shift in approach.

Following a brief melancholic intro, opening track ‘Fen Of Shadows’ whirrs into life, and it’s immediately clear that this isn’t the Skeletonwitch we used to know. Like a snake shedding its skin, they have emerged from the last few tumultuous years a sleeker, deadlier animal, and where once sat wailing, Iron Maiden-esque twin leads and galloping drums, there is a swirling vortex of black metal fury. Over the course of almost 8 minutes, the band have crafted something more epic and apocalyptic than anything that’s come before, and that’s just in the opening track.

‘When Paradise Fades’ rolls back slightly and has a more familiar Skeletonwitch vibe, though it’s still cast with an icy demeanour that the band have rarely conjured before. ‘Temple Of The Sun’ continues the frosty forest-dwelling attack, piling on layers of piercing bellows as the thunderous drums blast away. The title track goes even deeper still into the black metal pantheon, introducing a melodic, almost folky sensibility that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Winterfylleth record, before launching into one of the band’s most anthemic choruses to date.

Later tracks ‘The Vault’ and ‘Carnarium Eternal’ add in Swedish death metal influences to jaw-dropping effect, the latter giving At The Gates a run for their money in terms of pulse-pounding velocity and fist-in-the-air riffing. Final track ‘Sacred Soil’ brings the whole record crashing down with a satisfyingly huge brace of bleak-yet-soaring guitars, featuring some of the finest work Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick have ever put to tape.

The album as a whole sounds as spectacular as songs like these deserve, thanks again to producer extraordinaire Kurt Ballou (with whom the band previously worked on ‘Serpents Unleashed’), who recorded the band, Fredrik Nordstrom, who mixed the record, and Brad Boatright, who mastered it. Together these three men have created a crisp and clear album that never feels too clinical or produced, offering the right amount of coldness to emphasise the vibe of the material.

‘Devouring Radiant Light’ is arguably the finest work Skeletonwitch have ever produced, and feels like the start of a new chapter in their career, free from the shackles of the retro thrash scene they rose up from. Leave your preconceptions at the door, and wrap yourself in one of the finest blackened heavy metal records you will hear all year.

JAMES LEE

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