If I've learned anything about black metal over the years, it's that it's as much about an ethos as it is about music. Black metal has become a philosophy for people who don't understand what philosophy is (I'm a philosopher, so I'm allowed to say that). The legions of black metal bands, and the fans who pledge allegiance to the crusty heaps of brutality they create, use music as sort of a religion. Instead of worshiping a deity, they grovel at the feet of misanthropic noise.
So when I see the words 'black' or 'blackened' attached to a band that doesn't play black metal, I'm not sure what to make of it. If black metal is more than 8-bit production and screeching vocals, there's no way for any other form of metal to deserve the label. And yet, as we see with Skeletonwitch, there are plenty coming down the pike who play 'blackened' versions of more traditional strains of metal. In this case, we see what is referred to as 'blackened thrash', thus proving the old adage about two plus two equaling four not always true (look up vector math and you'll know what I mean).
Skeletonwitch bursts out of the gates with the title track, a two minute assault of furious guitars and curious vocals. Even before that brief track is over, the strengths and weaknesses of everything that will follow are apparent. The band is able to race through songs with some impressive guitar work, but the howling vocals are unable to do anything but ruin the experience. Not unlike the similar Children Of Bodom, Skeletonwitch struggles to fuse the most extreme elements with their songwriting in a way that will please fans of either of their stated influences.
Thrash fans will find more to like about “Serpents Unleashed”, as there is plenty of interesting guitar playing going on. The middle section in “Beneath Dead Leaves” is a very interesting little passage of thrash riffage, but the band feels the need to appease their other listeners by turning around and including standard black metal riffs, which don't fit in at all.
The band is essentially making a quilt from pieces of thrash and black metal, two colors which they can't keep from clashing. Perhaps they would be better served if they tried to focus exclusively on one side on each song, but the haphazard way they bounce between the two sounds does neither favors. “I Am Of Death (Hell Has Arrived)” proves my point, as the black metal influence is kept to a minimum, and the result is a still brutal, but rollicking and fun little song. It speeds along on its thrash riffs, with a vocal that actually makes the most of its limited abilities. If they could make an entire album like that number, I'd be on board with the project.
Ultimately, “Serpents Unleashed” is pretty much what I thought it would be. It's an uglier version of thrash that uses the word 'blackened' without grasping the message behind it. There is nothing the least bit truly 'black' about this album, but I would struggle to come up with a proper label to replace it. What I wish is that bands like Skeletonwitch would pick a side and stick with it, because mixing sounds that don't belong together is frustrating for everyone who tries to listen to the unholy soup that results. If Skeletonwitch was a pure thrash band, I'd probably like them, but as they are right now, I'm not really sure what to say.