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Fatal Four-Way Album Review: Skeletonwitch – Devouring Radiant Light

We’ve done a couple of triple-threat reviews recently, so where do we go from there? A fatal four-way! And what better album to do that with than Devouring Radiant Light, the somewhat controversial new album from Skeletonwitch.

Here are your participants:

Chris: Vocalist/bassist for Spirit Division, vocalist for Lavaborne, and the longest-tenured member of the Vault Team aside from Bossman Beezus and…

Clayton: Senior Editor and, for the purposes of this review, IMV’s resident Black Metal Elitist

Jason: Host of IMV’s podcast ‘Darkest Dungeon: The Mosh Chasm’

Nigel: the dude behind Wonderbox Metal and author/co-author of IMV’s ‘Short Sharp Shock’ and ‘Behind the Vault’ columns

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Clayton: I should probably confess up front here that I’ve never been a huge Skeletonwitch fan. I’ve never actively disliked them, but I’ve never gone out of my way to listen to them, either. Admittedly, I always did find Chance’s ‘Drink beer! Smoke weed! Eat Pussy!’ persona more than a little sophomoric, but that alone wouldn’t keep me away from their music. It’s not like there aren’t much bigger buffoons in metal, you know?

Anyway…my point here being that I didn’t have very high expectations going into Devouring Radiant Light. I like Adam Clemans, and his black metal band Shaidar Logoth is fucking incredible, but I was really underwhelmed by The Apothic Gloom. In spite of that inauspicious debut, though, I think Devouring Radiant Light is a huge (and much needed) step  forward for the band. It’s not a perfect album by any stretch, but there are a lot of moments that come pretty damn close, and I think it bodes very well for the future of the band.

I am curious, though, as to how Skeletonwitch fans, or at least people who’ve followed the band more closely than I have over the years, feel about the abum. Gentlemen?

Chris: I first got into Skeletonwitch around the time Beyond the Permafrost came out and still consider that one a classic. I hadn’t really gotten into death or black metal at the time so the Maiden-style guitar harmonies and thrash associations were what really drew me in. I’ve kept an eye on their career over the last decade and have seen them live at least three times, but they’re not what I would call a favorite band of mine. Their style and presentation are  fantastic, but they’re not exactly a songwriter’s band. Breathing the Fire and Forever Abomination are great albums, but it’s often difficult to distinguish songs due to how interchangeable they were. By the time Serpents Unleashed came out, it was clear that some kind of change needed to be made.

The path that Skeletonwitch would take was certainly hinted at on The Aphotic Gloom, but Devouring Radiant Light is dramatically different than anything else they’ve ever done. They’ve become a straight up black metal band, going between the atmospheric and melodic styles with only remnants of those thrash and classic metal styles. In a way, it feels like they’ve become “just another black metal band,” but they happen to be a pretty good one. The songwriting is their most adventurous in a long time and for a band that seemed to write nothing but two to three minute thrashers for years, they tackle dynamics and slower tempos quite well. I only know Adam through his work with Wolvhammer, but he does a pretty good job replacing one of my favorite extreme metal vocalists ever.

So yeah, I can already tell that Devouring Radiant Light is going to be their best since Breathing the Fire, if not Beyond the Permafrost itself. I invite skeptics to at least try it out. It’s still growing on me and there have been better albums in the genre out this year, but I enjoy more than I honestly expected to.

Nigel: My only experience of Skeletonwitch prior to Devouring Radiant Light was with Beyond the Permafrost, and apart from that I’ve never really paid any kind of real attention to the band. I’m kind of surprised to hear Chris describe Beyond the Permafrost as a classic, as on the rare occasion when I’ve listened to it my overwhelming feeling is ‘meh’; from what little I remember of it, the production sounds thin, the music quite generic, and the vocals weak. Up until this new album, I’d never heard anything else from the band, so can’t say anything about any of their other work prior to their old singer’s departure.

To me, Skeletonwitch always seemed to be one of those retro bands that came out roughly the same time as each other, when playing thrash in an ‘ironic’ way seemed to be what loads of people thought was a good idea. God knows why. I’m probably unfairly characterising them, but that was always the impression I’d received from Skeletonwitch on the rare occasions I became aware of their existence.

As such, I was intrigued when I saw the album artwork for the new Skeletonwitch album, as it didn’t seem in keeping at all with what (little) I knew of the band. Then I discovered that they had the singer from the mighty Wolvhammer in their ranks, which surprised the Hell out of me, and I knew I wanted to listen to Devouring Radiant Light to see what was going on. Well, it’s been quite a revelation. Although not perfect, it’s still waaaaay better than anything I was expecting from them. Although it doesn’t matter a huge amount, part of me wishes they’d changed their name, as I feel it would have been a cleaner break from their past

Anyway, my first impressions of Devouring Radiant Light are hugely positive, despite my reservations about Skeletonwitch’s old stuff. It’s even made me listen to The Apothic Gloom now too, and I must say I really like that EP as well, but then that was the start of their blackened transition I suppose.

So, prior to this week, I never would have predicted that this band would have produced something like Devouring Radiant Light.

Maybe I am being unfair to them. Discuss.

Clayton: Hahaha…and I thought I was going to be the cranky one here….

Nigel: Ha!

Jason: Now it’s my turn. Devouring Radiant Light is what I believe to be Skeletonwitch’s best album to date. There are a lot of criticisms that I believe to be slightly unfair and skewed, but nethertheless, I understand some of the arguments being made. So I am here to defend this album from my IMV colleagues. Haha.

Let’s discuss the elephant in the room. The transition from Chance to Adam. I’ve been listening to Skeletonwitch since Beyond the Permafrost, but I didn’t become a fan until Breathing the Fire. I remember watching the studio diaries from BtF, and that riff from “Strangled by Unseen Hands” was the theme to each video they released and I fondly recall falling in love with them. I will be honest in saying that Chance was the one element of Skeletonwitch that never quite settled with me. That being said, I recognize how important he was to the band during that era. Adam, on the other hand, was needed to continue and propel the band forward. Prior to him joining Skeletonwitch I only knew of Adam from Wolvhammer, but I will admit that I haven’t indulged much of that band (which I need to). When it comes to his voice I think the black metal style really lifts and enhances the atmosphere this record was trying to achieve. Both are/were great vocalists, but Adam was needed to push them forward in terms of direction and status elevation.

I will be the first to say that I’m probably the one contributor at IMV that doesn’t have an undying love for black metal. Tucker Thomasson of Thorr-Axe will back that statement up. But…I’m starting to develop an appreciation for black metal and I believe that the quality of BM releases this year has been so overwhelming that I simply can’t ignore the genre any longer. Devouring Radiant Light has converted me on black metal. Disclosure: It’s not entirely a black metal album. It’s so different than anything they’ve ever done (for the most part). They took all of the best parts of their signature sound and started traveling down a slightly different path, but they did it in a way that old fans can find something to relate with. They still have the thrash elements that they are known for, but they have converted them like converting various currencies. It’s all money in the end. The transitions in the album are very smart and the experimentation with the almost prog breaks gives a variety that is not found in previous releases. The musicianship is over the moon. There is so much emotion being conveyed that you can feel it radiating (pun intended) with each playthrough. The production is well polished and mastered better than anything else being released at the moment.

Now…I’m not quite sure how anyone can dispute this damn near perfect album. Vocalist change. Yes, there will be bitching. New style. Yes, there will be bitching. A well known thrash band converting to black metal. Hell yes, that will rub some people the wrong way. Those things aside, can someone explain to me why this album is musically flawed. I don’t understand it. This album is leagues beyond anything that will come out this year. Skeletonwitch is a beloved band that knows what they are doing. These guys are active in the underground and have made friends with all the big names we know and love. These guys are the real deal, and I feel no one is giving them the chance (pun intended) to evolve into something greater.

That’s what I have to offer. I’m going to leave that for everyone to ponder on.

Clayton: I think all of our responses to it are essentially positive. I’d agree that it’s their best album thus far, and they’re undergoing a very necessary evolution right now. I don’t think, however, that evolution is complete.

A quick side note, though: as one of the Vault’s black metal elitists, I think the ‘Skeletonwitch has gone black metal!’ narrative is a bit hyperbolic. Are there more black metal elements? Absolutely. Is anyone going to confuse Devouring Radiant Light with the latest album from [fill in the name of one of those Nuclear Blast/Wacken black metal bands]? No fucking way. I even saw one breathless review comparing it to Below the Lights-era Enslaved, when they started  moving towards progressive black metal. Also total nonsense. Skeletonwitch has always played blackened thrash – they’re just leaning more on the blackened part now, which I absolutely think is the right move.

I say that it’s a flawed album because I think it’s pretty clear they’re still figuring out who they are as a band with Clemas as their vocalist. “Canarium Eternal” is probably the most obvious example, as it has that older Skeletonwitch sound and really sticks out because of that – it’s also the weakest track on the album, though “When Paradise Fades” is a close second for much the same reasons. As for the rest of the album, there are a lot of great moments, but there’s also a lot of ‘riff salad’ going on as well. I don’t think there’s a single track that really works for me from beginning to end. “Fen of Shadows” is probably the closest, but that palm-muted verse riff seems really out of place with the rest of the song. They pretty much out-Pallbearer Pallbearer with the  first three minutes of “The Vault,” but then it becomes a completely different song. “Devouring Radiant Light” is probably the worst offender in terms of the ‘riff salad’ thing, though – there are enough ideas in there for three different songs, and it just doesn’t cohere for me at all.

In the end, I’d call this a very promising transitional album. When they do figure it out–which I expect will be soon, possibly even their next album–they’re going to finally be the band I think they’ve had the potential to be all along.

One more thing – is anyone else kind of baffled by the mix on the album? Kurt Ballou is usually really reliable, but the drums on Devouring Radiant Light sound like shit.

Nigel: It’s definitely an extremely strong album. I do very much hear elements of both Enslaved and mid-period Immortal in their sound though. I agree that the thrash parts are generally the weakest parts of the songs, but they certainly don’t ruin it for me.

As for the drums…I’m not listening to it right now, but I can’t say they struck me as particularly awful though.

Clayton: Maybe saying they sound like shit was a bit of an overstatement, but I certainly expect better from something with Ballou’s stamp on it. Listen to Nick Yacyshyn’s drums on any of the Baptists stuff Ballou recorded and then come back and listen to this again. They sound flat.

Nigel: Okay, on a bit of a tangent – so I’m listening to Beyond the Permafrost again, and it’s nowhere near as weak as I remember it being. In fact, I’m quite enjoying it. I guess we’ve all learned something from this.

Chris: While the complaints about Skeletonwitch becoming more mature are a touch hyperbolic, there may be something to it. Their evolution has been pretty drastic but despite the longer song lengths and broader dynamics, it feels like the band may have took out more than they put back in. The more atmospheric and borderline doom touches are intriguing, but they’re definitely not as developed as the Kill ‘Em All meets Iron Maiden flair of the early days. The songwriting is a little rough and the style is definitely transitional in nature, but there’s a lot of room for development. The band’s future will be very interesting to say the least.

Also, I had this in the car last weekend and my partner declared it to be her new favorite Skeletonwitch album, so there’s that.

Clayton: For all the talk about people complaining about the new direction here, have any of us actually complained about the new direction? To varying degrees, we all seem to be good with it.

NIgel: I’m very good with it. Huge improvement in the band and their direction. I’m definitely going to pay more attention to Skeletonwitch from now on.

Jason: I recognize that all of us are in agreement that Skeletonwitch is going in the right direction, but I guess I’m in disagreement about the points that have been brought up. I can argue that the “fruit salad” point isn’t that unheard of when it comes to these guys. Go listen to Breathing the Fire and you will find a freaking fruit salad buffet. I will go as far as to say that I think the riffing has calmed itself a tad bit in this album.

One thing I will agree on is that “Carnarium Eternal” is the weakest track, and I think that it being predominantly thrash hurt it in comparison to the vibe of the rest of the album.

I predict that the future of this band relies on them becoming more black metal than anything else. I know a lot of people will probably jump ship at that notion, but they seem to excel in that area. I have said this once, but i’ll say it again. They use to be a blackened thrash band, but I think this album has switched the role a little by them becoming a thrashy black metal band.

I find this discussion to be very interesting and I hope that our perspectives provide valuable insight to anyone reading this!

Clayton: Okay – final grade time. What does everyone give it?

Jason: A

Clayton: I don’t think they’re far from producing A-level work, but this still has too many rough edges to really be satisfying. B-.

Nigel: A solid B.

Chris: It’s a B+ for me. This direction was honestly better executed than I expected and  it’s getting better every listen.

Also, anybody mourning the loss of classic Skeletonwitch needs to give Necropanther a listen. Their new one Eyes of Blue Light is really great.

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1 comment

Jeni Coffey
Jeni Coffey July 30, 2018 at 10:10 am

I enjoyed this album. 🙂

Reply

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