Just over the border and down the Ohio River lies Athens, Ohio. From my vantage point in Morgantown, West Virginia, Athens seemed like a sister college town, which of course that we had much in common: frats and sororities, drunks and dope fiends, dropouts and Rhodes scholars, etc. Also, as an erratic audience member at 123 Pleasant Street, I knew that both Morgantown and Athens had thriving, if little respected music scenes. Basically, we are just two middle American towns cut from the same piece of flannel.
Well, not entirely. While Morgantown suffers from the occasional sports riot, Athens has to deal with being one of America’s most paranormally active locales. In particular, the campus of Ohio University is apparently rampant with noisy ghosts and unhappy spirits. From the decommissioned insane asylum called The Ridges to the idea that the town itself is laid out in the form of a pentagram, Athens is one hellish hamlet.
It’s no wonder then that Skeletonwitch, one of the gnarliest acts to ever come crawling out of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal swamp, call Athens home. Skeletonwitch’s brand of blistering and blackened thrash metal seems perfect for either a modern horror film’s soundtrack or a drunken romp through autumnal woods at midnight. Oh, and if Serpents Unleashed is any indication, then that romp would include sword-wielding orcs, sorcerers, and a merry band of leather-clad metal warriors.
On their fifth studio album, the boys in Skeletonwitch further define their melodic brand of black metal meets thrash metal meets power metal. “Power metal,” you say, “isn’t that all about elves and busty Finnish women singing like fat Germans in Viking horns?” Yes, but Skeletonwitch prove that the overwrought and triumphal aspects of power metal can perform well within the more permeable confines of extreme metal. In particular, guitarists Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick spend most of Serpents Unleashed crafting well-tempered melodies that anchor the typically driving rhythms of drummer Dustin Boltjes and bassist Evan Linger. To top it all off, singer Chance Garnette decorates Serpents Unleashed with his awesome mid-range growl that sits somewhere between the demonic shrieks of black metal and the Cookie Monster belches of death metal.
In eleven tracks, Serpents Unleashed unleashes a blitzkrieg of pulverizing metal. Producer extraordinaire Kurt Ballou really got the sound just right on this record, and Skeletonwitch sound like they are playing right in your living room on tracks such as the Gothenburg-influenced “Serpents Unleashed” and the hammering “Beneath Dead Leaves.” Beyond the music (which the ’Witch got right on this record), the addition of John Baizley’s artwork on the cover of Serpents Unleashed just further solidifies the latest Skeletonwitch effort as the pinnacle of new American metal.
Still, despite all the filigree of Serpents Unleashed, the bottom line is that this record simply destroys. “I Am Of Death (Hell Has Arrived)” has all the right ingredients for a lasting metal anthem, while listening to “Burned From Bone” feels like riding on the back of a Fellbeast. And while “Unending, Everliving” and “More Cruel Than Weak” temporarily slow things down (and only for a short time in the case of the latter track), Serpents Unleashed is primarily concerned with speed and reproducing the frostbitten atmosphere of Immortal’s "Blashyrkh."
After listening to Serpents Unleashed in its entirety, it’s easy to believe that Athens’ ghosts got in the tape machine. Skeletonwitch’s newest studio album is terrifyingly good, and the many blasphemous moments pay homage to the band that created them. Although it has recently come into fashion among the kvlt nethersphere of the heavy metal underground to bash Skeletonwitch as a “2003 band” (this being the year of the band’s formation and a high-water mark for the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement), Serpents Unleashed proves that the band from 2003 still have some (un)life left in them. In fact, 2013 may prove to be another seminal year for metal, and many may look back and point to Serpents Unleashed as a pivotal moment.
1. Serpents Unleashed
2. Beneath Dead Leaves
3. I Am Of Death (Hell Has Arrived)
4. From A Cloudless Sky
5. Burned From Bone
6. Unending, Everliving
7. Blade On Flesh, Blood On My Hands
8. This Evil Embrace
10. Born of the Light That Does Not Shine
11. More Cruel Than Weak