THE BRIAN JOHNSON CORROLARY: When a band unexpectedly improves upon losing an important member. See: Johnson, Brian and “Back in Black”
Losing a band member can have a wide range of effects on a band, from no effect whatsoever (probably just a bass player) to complete and total ruination (lead singer or eponymous lead guitarist). Occasionally, as was the case with AC/DC and few others, bands can lose a vital member, sometimes to choking on vomit and sometimes not, and actually get better. Such is the case with Skeletonwitch, who up until this point were a decent thrash band most notable for their awesome name. After losing former vocalist Chance Garnette to the bottle, Skeletonwitch brought in Wolvhammer frontman Adam Clemans to fill the void for their newest offering, Devouring Radiant Light. What the band produced is something greater than either Skeletonwitch or Wolvhammer have ever put out, a blackened thrash instant classic and one of the deepest albums of the year.
From the minute that album opener “Fen of Shadows” kicks in, Devouring Radiant Light is a relentless assault on your ears, pummeling you with furious thrashy riffs that play an endless game of cat and mouse with dense, suffocating black metal. Clemans’ grimy, evil vocals up the black metal factor of the album to a level that I never heard on any of their early work. Most impressively, the album never sounds repetitive or monotonous, a problem that plagues both black metal and thrash in particular. But the intermixed styles, as well as their ability to add just a touch of melody (like at the end of “Temple of the Sun”) give the album a level of needed complexity that separates it from its peers.
Added to the metal mixing pot that is this album are the occasional light & warm guitar tones (a la Deafheaven) that creep into a few tracks, most noticeably the middle sections of “The Luminous Sky” and the chorus of “The Vault”. Most people are tuning into blackened thrash metal for heaps of heaviness, so those lighter moments were an unexpected and, yes, pleasant surprise. And make no mistake, they aren’t forced into the music, serving as a natural and continuous bridge between destruction and chaos, like an oasis in the middle of a dry, evil, death-ridden desert.
More than anything, the strength of Devouring Radiant Light is the depth of the album, with each and every track (all EIGHT of them) warranting repeated listens. Not since Rivers of Nihil’s Where Owls Know My Name has a metal album been so strong from front to back. Even when I started to think that the last few tracks weren’t quite as strong as the beginning (and that’s not an insult, as “Fen of Shadows”, “Temple of the Sun” and “Devouring Radiant Light” all should warrant Song of the Year consideration), “Sacred Soil” kicked in with its simultaneously heavy & melodic chorus, bringing the album to a raucous and deservedly magnificent close.
It’s hard to believe that the band could top this record, even with it being the first album with Clemans at the helm, since as far as I understand he means to continue fronting Wolvhammer (despite being replaced by good ol’ Ken Sorceron of Abigail Williams on their most recent tour). Even if this is the band’s peak, and I would bet on it, Devouring Radiant Light is an Everest-esque peak, one of the finest achievements of the year and as unique a metal experience as I’ve had recently. Listen to it. NOW.
“Fen of Shadows”, “Temple of the Sun”, “Devouring Radiant Light”