Album Review: Skeletonwitch’s Devouring Radiant Light
Everything about the album and its packaging reads, looks and sounds like some kind of gothic Conan comic book serial: She is legend, feared and worshiped by those who know her, scoffed at by those whose privilege has protected them from ever having to know. Now she stirs from her centennial slumber and a hero must rise to turn back the flood of her evil. With only his wits and a crateful of consecrated earth lashed to his back, the hero traverses her fen of shadows, in which only constant vigilance shields his mind from encroaching insanity. He enters a glowing green glade, and for the barest moment he wonders if his quest is merely self-aggrandizing folly. But the glade begins to wither, and when paradise fades, the hero knows he must reach the cruelly named Temple of the Sun before the world is swallowed by darkness. She has been devouring radiant light, and the luminous sky diminishes, threatening to plunge his senses and his soul into unending night. He arrives at her resting place to find the vaultcracked, its gaping maw spewing forth all her minion horrors. He ignores them, shoulders through that peripheral malevolence to cross the mortal boundary into her carnarium eternal, where dripping monstrosities – impaled in place, skinned and writhing – are forever dying but never dead. There he meets her, the Skeletonwitch, deep in her stronghold, and with muscle and moral purity he breaks her wicked will. Despite the supernatural potency coursing through her barbed and grave-slick bones, he pins her to the earth, stands on her straining serpentine spine, and with his last strength, cracks the crate and spills the sacred soil over her blasphemous form. The vault snaps shut; the hero has sacrificed himself but safeguarded all human civilization from the demonic clutches of the Skeletonwitch… for another hundred years…
Overwrought? Sure, but only extraordinary metal records inspire such flights of phantasmagoria, and Devouring Radiant Light is without doubt an extraordinary metal record. Is it Skeletonwitch’s best yet? Who’s to say? If you agree that the band has been on a fifteen-year, six-album upward trajectory, and that this record falls neatly in line with that trend of ascension, then it only stands to reason. Devouring Radiant Light is a gargantuan statement that somehow tucks itself into three quarters of an hour. From songwriting to production value, from performance mastery to the control and channeling of influences, everything about Devouring Radiant Light is exciting, commanding and compelling.
From the band’s very earliest stages, Skeletonwitch were about getting shit done. Tours were frequent and new albums emerged every couple years without fail. Then, not too long before their sixth album would have appeared on the Prosthetic release calendar, things got weird. In the middle of a tour, certain issues with founding vocalist Chance Garnette came to a head, and the band moved on without him. It’s irresponsible to say definitively whether that caused the five-year divide between Serpents Unleashed and this year’s Devouring Radiant Light – Skeletonwitch is no stranger to personnel changes, and drummer Dustin Boltjes recently left the band after laying down his skins-flaying parts for this new record – but it’s a convenient and highly public road marker in the band’s inexorable decade-plus rise to glory. In 2016, a new EP and a Decibel Magazine Tour “introduced” Wolvhammer/Veil of Maya veteran Adam Clemans as the new madman on the mic. Side note: Dude’s been busy this year, as Wolvhammer’s The Monuments of Ash & Bone just saw release a couple months ago. No complaints here, of course. The more we can get of guys like Clemans, the better.
But we were discussing Skeletonwitch. Glad to.
The guys are very clearly back to getting shit done. Boltjes and Clemans inject Skeletonwitch’s signature aggression into each of the album’s eight tracks, and while guitarists Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick are no slouches in the destruction department, they often employ a more stately melodic approach that elevates the entire endeavor to heady new heights. It really does feel like the music has set out to explore daunting territories, from mist-choked subterranean palaces to sprawling rocky plains to pristine forested vistas. The majestic opening strains of “Fen of Shadows” assist with this impression, as do the cautious, creeping intros to the title track and “The Vault,” whose ascending run inexplicably echoes “The Hymn of Acxiom” by Vienna Teng. (I realize I’m possibly the only person making such a reference; feel free to continue on like you never read it.)
But these are hardly the only grandiose moments on the album. The clean guitar lead that twines through “When Paradise Fades” lends heroic vision to that song’s hillside gallop; there’s a whole rhythmic narrative suggested behind Clemans rasped proclamations in “Carnarium Eternal”; ditto “Sacred Soil” as it spins the album to a close. The constantly clever interplay between the rhythmic and tonal sections of the band weaves a drama with both immediacy and depth, turning Devouring Radiant Light into an all-around powerhouse, the kind of album that grabs ears and gives them something worth returning to even after the shine of newness has dulled.
Skeletonwitch have laid down several strong records, but to these ears, Devouring Radiant Light feels like their energy has been harnessed by their experience and discharged into a stunning leap forward. Here, Skeletonwitch make good on all the promise of their previous work. The music is satisfying in itself, but also seems to hint at untold stories resonating deep below the surface. If your dedication to heavy music ever begins to waver, clear 45 minutes from your schedule to let this album restore your conviction.