When I interviewed Ohio extreme metallers Skeletonwitch back in April, as they were winding their way across the country on the Decibel Tour alongside Abbath, Tribulation, and High On Fire, bassist Evan Linger briefly mentioned in regards to The Apothic Gloom, a release still shrouded in mystery but held aloft by the band and their label as a sea change in the Skeletonwitch sound – a combination of thrash, black metal and galloping death n’ roll – that it would totally ruin any preconceived notions of what a new Skeletonwitch release would sound like. With some certain creative gates now having opened since the release of Serpents Unleashed about three years ago, the band has been exploring in the writing of this new EP what exactly Skeletonwitch is really about, digging and digging into what makes their band tick as a unit so as to transmute it in ways as yet unforeseen by the world at large.
Reading The Apothic Gloom as the result of the band reaching the core of their sound and the ensuing experimentations in the altering thereof, the EP is a wild success, potentially leaps and bounds better than anything the band has done in the past and certainly on par with their best material to date. The two middle tracks – first single “Well of Despair” and “Black Waters” – aren’t particularly new ground for the band, at least in obvious ways: the former emphasizes choruses and a more melodic structure than Skeletonwitch has been known for in the past, but isn’t irreconcilably different than deep cuts on previous records, and the same can be said for the latter. New vocalist Adam Clemans and his “Aaaron Turner-if-he-were-the-vocalist-of-Death” sound does bring a noticeably different pace to the tracks with his long, drawn out yells and mid-paced shouts than Chance Garnette did with his black metal-style machine gun rasps, but instrumentally, the band sounds like they always have (not that that’s by any means a bad thing; these tracks stand with the best of the band’s previous work).
Where it really becomes clear that something vital has shifted in the Skeletonwitch formula is in the two tracks bookending The Apothic Gloom, its title track and the second single released, “Red Death, White Light.” For starters, these are by far the two longest tracks in their discography, coming in at six and seven minutes, respectively (for the uninitiated, most of the band’s songs sit comfortably between the two and three minute mark), and it’s in these longer, more drawn out songs that Skeletonwitch really flex the creative muscles they’ve been working out since 2013. A haunting acoustic guitar lead sets the stage for a thumping mid-paced intro that establishes a resonating and grim vibe that is less outright evil, yet far more sinister, than anything the band has put forth to date. The melodic tendencies continue into the track; guitars work off of each other brilliantly as solos resonate and dueling counterpoint leads shine with a sort of resplendent fury. It’s still Skeletonwitch for sure, but it’s plain to see that this song finds the band reaching farther into their bag of tools than they ever have, and to great effect.
“Red Death, White Light” is where any preconceived notions of what constitutes the “new” Skeletonwitch is shattered. Across the previous three tracks, it’s easy to build up a perception of this new era for the band as one of increased melody but ultimately similar results; “Red Death White Light” immediately destroys this perception with a short intro that smacks of Wolves In The Throne Room or Tempel far more than any of the band’s true peers, before pulling back into the typical Skeletonwitch groove for a minute. However, this turns out to only serve the purpose of reminding the listener of how far what they should expect of this group is from what they’re actually receiving, and the demi-atmospheric, nigh folk-ish black metal assault continues for the remainder of the track, growing in intensity and adrenaline until exploding in climactic fury right before the end. It’s a wild ride powered by intense instrumentation and a stellar vocal performance, one that all but shirks anything the group has done before and displays a group of musicians reinventing themselves at the absolute peak of their creative ability.
It’s not easy for a band with five LPs and over a decade’s worth of developing a singular niche sound to suddenly go out on such a limb with their new music. There’s no doubt that a lot of sweat, time, and second-guessing went into The Apothic Gloom, but Skeletonwitch emerged on the other side of the songwriting process with an absolutely incredible EP on their hands, one that shows they’re as dedicated to honing their craft and improving as musicians as they were back in 2004. It remains to be seen whether this EP is a one-off experiment in switching up their stylings or a signal that the band is going in a different direction come their next full-length, but either way, The Apothic Gloom is a somewhat unconventional treat for any extreme metal listener, previous fan of the ‘Witch or not.