Skeletonwitch: Ne’er Did We See Thee Coming Astride Thy Steed of Conquest

Posted: April 14, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Skeletonwitch Logo

…wherein we affirm the tautology of an age-old maxim: indeed, one never truly can predict from whence quality metal shalt spring. And of how a group of five unlikely but determined Ohioans leapt into the global metal limelight in the most unexpected of manners.

I’m from Ohio. I know very little about my home state in terms of relevant historical facts beyond our production no fewer than eight American presidents and uber-heart throb George Clooney. What I can tell you for certain, however, is that Ohio is a very metal state, and has steadily churned out increasingly brutal bands since some outcast kid with a tattered leather jacket and a fuzz pedal in Youngstown got a Black Sabbath import in the late 1960s. The list contains hundreds of almost-and/or-never-were groups but a few standouts with a degree of international renown, even historical significance. It begins with Necrophagia, formed in Wellsville in 1983 and credited as one of the first American bands to call itself by death metal’s namesake. Chimaira, from Cleveland, a band considered a major player in the reputed New Wave of American Heavy Metal (NWOAHM) in the mid-1990s, and whose former drummer Kevin Talley famously auditioned for Slayer in 2001 (the leaked videos for which are all over YouTube, and rightly so, since Talley decimated Slayer’s practice space that fine day). Mushroomhead, another Cleveland-based band (though of the industrial metal sort) whose masks and costumes never appealed to me but made them second-tier darlings of the average Slipknot fan, likely accounting for the band’s worldwide sales of 2 million albums. Underground death metal bands during the 1990s like Decrepit and Gutted, the latter enjoying a short-lived record deal resulting in one full-length album, Bleed for Us to Live, and a prime spot performing at New York’s DeathStock in 1994. A stack of metal-core bands are Ohioan: Miss May I, The Devil Wears Prada, The Crimson Armada, Attack Attack!, and other breakdown-offering groups of twenty-somethings with more tattoos than a super-max cellblock and faces decorated like a bait and tackle shop. The late Jani Lane of Warrant was born John Kennedy Oswald in Akron, and Brian Warner from Canton would one day morph into shock rock icon Marilyn Manson. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Ohio, and on a few occasions it’s done justice to music history by including rock and metal bands in its annals, most recently Guns N’ Roses.

And then there is Skeletonwitch.

From 2003-2005, I did grad school at Ohio University in Athens, a oasis of a university town in the Buckeye State’s extreme southeast.  Sprinting between classes one afternoon, I entered the Wendy’s on Union Street in downtown Athens to hook up grub with discount Skeletonwitchcoupons Santa had afforded me the previous Christmas.   On the Wendy’s door was posted a haphazardly sketched flyer, one clearly for a local metal gig that very Friday night. First came a minor sensation of shock: I’d been at school there nearly a year already, yet hadn’t spotted the first hint of metal in my college or surrounding community. Not so much as a random freshman roaming campus drunkenly in a Limp Bizkit tee – hardly passing the litmus test for metal but close enough for our purposes – outlandish when you consider there were over 20,000 students there from the lower-middle class backgrounds typically very friendly to the rock trend du jour. As for the flyer, it was minimally crafted with black pen on white paper, and lent the crude impression of having been fashioned by a 12-year old pimping every worn metal cliché – skeletons, pentagrams, and a nearly unreadable logo intended to convey evil. The artwork was scrappy at best, as though that 12-year old drew using his non-dominant foot, Sharpie squeezed tightly between toes, and with eyes taped shut. And so I thought: sweet! Kids getting outta the garage for their first real gig! I’ll make a showing, throw some horns, and support ‘em. They were called Skeletonwitch, which struck an immediate chord with in my balding rocker spirit, having played in the 1990s for a Virginia-based band called Witch Hunt.

And so Friday night came, I grabbed some friends, we went to The Union Bar and Grill in downtown Athens, and dicked with the billiards while awaiting show time. This was not the sort of venue I’d associate with metal, or live bands at all. The stage was nearly on the floor and looked as though it had been rigged solely for the occasion. There was no lighting rig, and I don’t recall even spotting a house sound PA. First, a teenage cover band playing Iron Maiden and Slayer songs went on and did a respectable job: “The Trooper” and “South of Heaven” were at least recognizable, and watching them struggle thru the leads transported me straight back to my own days of covering “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and thinking “War Ensemble” was the fastest thing I’d ever heard. I actually felt bad for the kids in this garage band Skeletonwitch: how would they compete with THAT?

And then Scott Hendrick and company hit the stage, forthwith undoing me of my pre-show, flyer-based impressions. They weren’t kids. All grown-assed men with facial hair and tattoos to prove it, Skeletonwitch were young professionals. Their songs were Skeletonwitch Live 2expertly structured and contained hooks both recognizable and infectious to my finely tuned metal ear. Each band member delivered his respective metal goods with a precision typically reserved for more seasoned acts. This was no minor feat considering the blast beats, dual-guitar speed riffs and harmonies pitching forth from Skeletonwitch’s sizable taken abyss and into the club’s poor acoustics were somehow all decipherable. The crowd loved them, applauding uproariously following the cymbal decay at the closure of every tune, and based on the studious looks and slow-spreading look of respect on the audience’s Abercrombie & Fitch wearing faces, I don’t think most present were the band’s friends or family. Instead, they were college kids who happened to be in the club for beer and pool and hook-ups, and didn’t realize Skeletonwitch were going to play or what they were about. And Skeletonwitch triumphed.  After they wrapped up the set and moved their gear out of the venue, I found Scott Hendricks at the bar cooling off, and introduced myself. He told me they’d formed only the year prior and hadn’t played many shows. But, he assured me, they wanted to get bigger, one day touring and recording. I wished him luck, and I meant it with all the sincerity I could muster, being a former metal musician and aspirant to touring greatness myself.

But did I realistically believe Skeletonwitch would snap the confines of the micro-cosmic and insular college galaxy of Athens, be catapulted into the broader metal universe, and attain acclaim amongst fans and musical peers alike? No disrespect to the guys, At One With Shadows Album Coverbut a resounding “HELLZ NO!” would have been my response were someone to query me for my sentiments on the topic. Your death metal band can be superior in qualitative terms, and yet you fail to keep your head above the waves, doggy paddle failingly in a tossing sea of exceptional sonic and resource competition. I’ve witnessed many solid bands never get beyond the bedroom, and prematurely chalked up an incipient Skeletonwitch as probable and unfortunate company among them.  Fortunately for everyone I’m not a gambling man, for my losses on that bet would have been gargantuan. Later that year, Skeletonwitch dropped their first album, At One with the Shadows, on the band’s own fledgling label Shredded Records. This release performed no miracles for the band in terms of international profile but did provide them an initial platform to make their first out-of-state concert appearances, though not properly touring. The greater United States and rest of the world would have to wait two more years before Skeletonwitch were unleashed for metal fans far and wide to behold. They best they could muster that would pass for true road work during this formational period was a three-day mini-tour in November 2006 with the band Cauldron, essentially a long weekend out of town, though this is hardly a strike against a band without a proper record deal and consequent label support.

In 2007, fortunes elevated rapidly and unexpectedly for Skeletonwitch, with the veritable flight velocity of a Napalm Death blast beat. After being signed to Prosthetic Records that year, Skeletonwitch released their third studio album, Beyond the PermafrostBeyond the Permafrost Album Coverand departed the comforts of home in Ohio to make their first protracted forays into the metaphorical metal frontline trenches. These trips underpinned the band’s simultaneous reputations as a nearly non-stop touring unit, and a group of affable, easy-to-hang-with and beer swilling Midwesterners who were uncommonly professional and organized in their approach to the business of touring. They played the New England Hardcore and Metal Festival, participated in consecutive tours with Weedeater, Withered, fellow retro-thrashers Municipal Waste and Toxic Holocaust, then ended the year on the Dying Fetus-headlined War of Attrition Tour.  2008 was no less exhausting for the band, by now a seasoned live unit. They hit the highways with fellow metal acts representing, with precious few exceptions, every genre of extreme music, even appealing to crossover audiences by performing alongside metal-core groups like A Life Once Lost and Veil of Maya. They slammed onto European shores for the first time on the Flames and Fury Tour, Breathing the Fire Album Covercriss-crossing ye olde continent with the likes of Hate Eternal and long-enduring Colorado weed and grind enthusiasts Cephalic Carnage. Closing out 2008, Skeletonwitch scored its biggest tour to date when they were picked up – amidst exceptionally stiff competition in the metal touring marketplace – for Danzig’s Blackest of the Black Tour, serving as one of four opening acts including Dimmu Borgir, Moonspell, and Winds of Plague.  2009 boasted much of the same, but with Skeletonwitch expanding its fan base and deliberately bounding its way up the package tour rosters in which they participated incessantly by this point. Spending virtually the entire annum in an extended touring mode, Skeletonwitch performed with a varied slate of contemporary metal acts from around the scene like The Black Dahlia Murder, Amon Amarth, Children of Bodom, and Kylesa, ultimately capping the year with another trip to Europe on a rotating tri-headline tour with Goatwhore and Toxic Holocaust. Late in 2009, Skeletonwitch released their third studio album, Breathing the Fire, which debuted at No. 151 on the Billboard 200 charts, evincing the band’s incrementing profile and amassing horde of fans.

2010 saw Skeletonwitch support Cannibal Corpse on the Evisceration Plague North American Tour (and scenes featuring Skeletonwitch were captured for posterity on Cannibal Corpse’s Global Evisceration DVD), kick a 10-day run on that year’s Ozzfest, return to Europe with Warbringer, and participate in a series of other runs across the United States and Canada Skeletonwitch livewith bands like High on Fire, Job for a Cowboy, Withered, and death-grind stalwarts Misery Index. 2011 brought Skeletonwitch’s fourth studio album, Forever Abomination, and witnessed the band touring relentlessly as ever, on what by this point appeared to be an inspired and eternal mission to bring Skeletonwitch’s staple variant of blackened thrash to clamoring audiences anywhere willing to receive them. Jagermeister-sponsored fellow Ohioans Chimaira invited Skeletonwitch to tour, then the band bruised through North America with Forever Abomination Album CoverArch Enemy, Devil Driver, and Taiwan’s own Cthonic, and enjoyed a major bonus illustrating both their recognized draw as a performing unit and the hard-earned respect they were enjoying from metal’s business powers-that-be: Skeletonwitch were finally asked to run Europe’s summer festival circuit. They continued supporting Forever Abomination throughout 2012, making extended touring runs through the same stomping grounds repeatedly, though they spent an increasingly portion of the year in Europe this time to avoid the curse of over-exposure in their homeland. Their final tour of the year saw them return to the United States, however, and featured a schedule utterly grueling by any standard: Skeletonwitch headlined 63 shows in 65 days.

Finally, after establishing themselves as considerably more than a fleeting flash in the pan of extreme music, Skeletonwitch spent 2013 on hiatus from touring, a break they’d earned after nearly six years of incessant road work. Their down time was not necessarily idle time, though, as the band wrote and recorded their fifth studio album, Serpents Unleashed, and climbed right back into their touring saddle in early 2014 supporting Amon Amarth and Enslaved in North America. They were scheduled to make their first run of South East Asia and Australia as well in 2014, but due to an unexpected illness in a key member of the headlining Skeletonwitch were slated to support on the road, the shows had to be rescheduled.

Had I only known, that Friday night in 2004, that I bore testament to the commencement of a metal phenomenon, I’d have offered to serve as a silent investor in Skeletonwitch’s band coffers.

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