SKELETONWITCH has been on the forefront of the metal scene since the early 2000s, with a punishing blend of fast-twitch thrash combined with blackened metal sensibilities.
The little band from Athens, Ohio, took things to the next level, however, with the 2018 release of Devouring Radiant Light, which many critics contend is the best metal release of the year.
The new album mostly eschews the two-minute thrash/punk aesthetic for a richer, denser sound and lengthier, more sonicially complex songs.
Along the way, Skeletonwitch accomplished something quite rare: Successfully replaced their lead vocalist. Chance Garnette, brother of guitarist Nate Garnette, was fired from the band in 2015 after a series of incidents made it impossible to continue with him.
New vocalist Adam Clemans seamlessly stepped in, and Skeletonwitch continues their reputation as one of the hardest-touring bands in metal today.
We spoke to guitarist Scott Hedrick as he and the band were at an airport gate about to fly to their next gig. They return to kick off their U.S. tour in Savannah at The Jinx on May 13.
You’re coming back for this tour right after a European stop?
We’re about to get on the plane to go to the Ragnarok festival in Germany. We’re just over there for that one show. They made us an offer, and we were like, let’s do it! It’s a great way to sort of kick off the U.S. tour immediately after we get back.
I’m intrigued with the differences in metal audiences in Europe vs. the U.S.
It’s just more socially acceptable over there. They didn’t really go through anything like our “Satanic Panic” in the ‘80s. Metal is more mainstream in Europe. There are more people with tattoos and long hair, and they don’t get gawked at like they are here [laughs].
And there’s a more established metal festival culture there. They have so many successful festivals that have gone on a really long time. Here for example, Ozzfest ran into troubles, and they even tried to change the format to keep it going.
The new album is on everyone’s list of best metal albums of 2018. It’s definitely different from any previous Skeletonwitch record. Does a lot of that come from the fact that you’re contributing more songwriting than before?
For better or worse, that’s how it worked out. Historically, Nate was always the main songwriter. Then we kicked Chance out, and brought Adam in. He has some really great ideas. And that’s really changed the dynamic.
It all sort of came out of the time when Nate and I came close to the edge, and decided we would keep going. So in my head – I didn’t really say this out loud to anyone – I just decided it was time for the band to go to Mach 2, and time for me to step it up.
You guys have done something pretty rare: Successfully survived a change of frontman.
To put it bluntly, Chance was a bit stifling creatively. Some stuff I wanted to do that was outside the box, it would get a not so good response. I was told “this is too long” many times! [laughs]
With Adam on board the whole dynamic has changed. He’s open to constructive criticism, and has so many great ideas of his own. Before, you pretty much had to stay in your lane. Now we can really check each other, and we have a cooperative creative dynamic.
The new material does clock in much longer than previous work. You’re not doing the two and half minute thrash tunes so much anymore.
It was a risky thing to do. But for me, I was like, A), I don’t care, I have nothing to lose. And B) it feels great to still be around and finally now be able to really do what I wanted to do.
I feel like we’ve finally found our identity after all this time. It took awhile to make it work. At a certain point along the way we realized we couldn’t make this album and cut any corners. You can tell when you’re betraying your own creativity, and we didn’t want to do that.
But I feel like we’ve been vindicated in our decision. This album got glowing reviews right out of the gate, from pretty much every critic who heard it.
I’m sure some of our fans listen to the album and are like, “Fuck this, it’s too long and too weird.” [laughs] I’m like, if you want to go back and listen to Beyond the Permafrost over and over, you can do that too. You don’t have to listen to this record at all if you don’t want.
Even the first track, “Fen of Shadows,” is over seven minutes long. And amazing.
Yeah, we wanted to let people know right away this isn’t the same thing they might be used to. If you want to jump ship, now’s your chance! [laughs]
Not a lot of bands use the twin-lead guitar format, but you and Nate are some of the best out there at it.
We definitely look to people like Tipton and Downing with Judas Priest, and of course Maiden and how they’ve brought the whole twin guitar idea to such a high level.
Nate and I write independently, then we’ll bring the song to each other and maybe bounce more ideas around. We don’t write together – we sort of show up with stuff ready to go.
The classic Thin Lizzy lineup might be the high point of the twin-lead art form.
I totally agree, you can definitely make that case. With Thin Lizzy they also had the amazing songwriting. It’s not just the heavier stuff like “The Emerald,” but even “The Cowboy Song” is incredible.
“The Boys Are Back In Town” is one of the weaker tracks on the whole “Jailbreak” album. And of course that’s their one song that hit big in the U.S.
Right! It’s funny how that works.