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None so cold - 93%

BastardHead, November 18th, 2012

For a personal record, this marks the third time I've reviewed Beyond the Permafrost since 2008. Initially I had given it a good score but complained that the tracks were too samey, and the second time was just a short two paragraph blurb on Metal Crypt that I honestly didn't put much effort into because I just hadn't written anything in a while and wanted to get something out (Sorry Michel). Since then, I've been haunted by the memory of that first review. How many times had I listened to this album before crapping out a quick review during my poor (but productive) era? Like... twice? That's the only explanation for how a 17 year old version of myself could seriously manage to listen to this and come to the conclusion that it lacks variety. Not only is this Skeletonwitch's most varied album by a long shot in hindsight (this was their newest album when I reviewed it previously), but it's one of the most blatantly varied thrash records in recent memory, with more nods to black metal and shreddy trad metal than pretty much any other band in the genre.

Skeletonwitch belongs to the trio of bands that tend to get classified as retro thrash that I never, ever agreed with. To me, retro thrash is a tag reserved for bands who are doomed to hopelessly relive the 80s via staunchly opposing new and creative ideas. Bands like Violator and Fueled by Fire and Merciless Death whatnot who spend roughly 100% of their recorded material wishing upon a star that they could have been in Exodus. Bands like Cross Examination who try so desperately to capture the same lightning in the same bottle that Municipal Waste have, despite playing the style of music long after it became a popular and established genre again, thus making them look like yet another band of trendsters. These three bands who get grouped in with this semi-derogatory movement of retro thrash are Vektor, Exmortus, and Skeletonwitch. Vektor are worlds away from a majority of the silly movement they get lumped in with due to the fact that they're so far removed from the silly cliches that populate the scene. Not only are their lyrical themes unique, but their style of writing is so much more thought out and, dare I say, intellectual than most of the Havok's in the world that there really is no comparison. Exmortus should be obvious why they don't belong. Thrash is merely one component of their masterful blend of styles, and I'm hesitant to even consider it as their main style (Beyond the Fall of Time never happened in my universe, don't shatter my fragile psyche), they just tend to tour with a lot of silly thrash bands due to the band's connections/friendships and the fact that they hail from southern California.

And then we have Skeletonwitch, from the grim and evil fjords of southern Ohio. Normally I get pissy when I see the tag of "black/thrash" metal because it usually seems to mean "sounds like Pleasure to Kill" about 90% of the time, but Skeletonwitch are one of the few bands I've found who can successfully do justice to the genre (at least on their second and fourth albums, not so much the first and third). For real, the silly image you imagine when hearing a name like Skeletonwitch and the tag of retro thrash sure as hell doesn't bring to mind a band a serious, menacing, and vitriolic as this. I mean really, listen to the descending tremolo riffs and the blastbeats in "Limb from Limb", that right there is an honest to goodness black metal influence, not Kreator riffs with rough production. "Feast Upon Flesh" also flirts with black metal style dissonance and straight fucking evil sounding tremolo patterns. That is why I get just as frustrated when I see them lumped in with the retro thrash scene along with Vektor and Exmortus. Those three don't fit, and if you consider them to be a part of that whole thing, then I'm afraid we can't be friends.

The honest black metal influence is just one aspect of their sound, which is what makes any claim of facelessness factually incorrect. I mean, it doesn't take a classically trained music scholar to tell you that "Within My Blood" and "Sacrifice for the Slaughtergod" were written by the same band, but they really don't sound all that similar to one another. Some tracks are far more melodically focused ("Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery", "Within My Blood"), while others go straight for the throat with razor sharp thrashing intensity ("Upon Wings of Black", "Sacrifice for the Slaughtergod", "Fire From the Sky"), and some even go for a more slow building atmosphere of malice with a strong lead dissonance and churning sections of uncomfortable aggression ("Cast into the Open Sea", "Baptized in Flames"). There are so many different ideas on display, I didn't even touch on the melodic death metal inspired sections that are sprinkled tastefully throughout the runtime.

One thing that helps the band stand out are the versatile vocals of Chance Garnette. He mainly sticks to a high barking growl (I hesitate to call it a rasp, since there's a really coarse grit to it much like a deep death metal growl) and sparingly belts out a low bellow, sometimes overlaying the two. The thing about him is that he's good at both styles, and switches between them appropriately. Ya know, unlike Trevor Strnad who mars an otherwise stellar album in Nocturnal with his awful screech. In an album full of consistently high quality songwriting and performances, he still manages to find a way to stand out. I mean even the silly "TWO THREE GO!" part before the solo on "Within My Blood" (the climax of the album, mind you) manages to just be goddamn awesome. The entire record hinges on that moment, the climax of the last song, and with three completely unnecessary shouts he gives it a character that it would have never had otherwise, and makes the entire romp feel like it was all worth it. The fact that they're his last vocals before the very, very end highlight the fact that we're in the home stretch, and he's relieved to finally be reaching the end, he's almost home. It works, and the solo that follows does not disappoint. Beyond the Permafrost is one of the few albums I can think of off the top of my head that leave me with a smile and a feeling of satisfaction upon finishing.

Another thing that I feel gets understated a bit is Skeletonwitch's almost Bolt Thrower-esque ability to make their best material also be the most simple. I won't lie to you, there are some challenging passages and over the top technicality in bits and pieces ("Upon Wings of Black" and most notably "Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery") but I'll be damned if the best songs aren't the most stripped down and basic. I've mentioned "Within My Blood" several times already, and that's not just for the hell of it. It's based on a pretty basic melody and doesn't make any sudden movements or progress in any way other than exactly how you'd expect it to go, but it's satisfying because it knows what it is and doesn't try to be anything else. The title track is another brilliant example of a track with no surprises but makes up for it with sheer enthusiasm. If that bridge doesn't make you pump your fist or bang your head, then I don't want to know you. But the track that really takes the cake in this regard is easily "Vengeance Will Be Mine". Listen to it, it has like three riffs in the whole song and just repeats the same verse twice. But that verse is so irresistible to sing along with and the solo during the climax is so stupidly simple that I can't help but love it. It's easy to air guitar, easy to sing, easy to just rock all over the goddamn place. Skeletonwitch does this so well, they allow you to indulge in the big dumb caveman part of your brain while still having a ton of fun, giving you plenty of options of how exactly you can tard out, and keeps the presentation and production quality so high that you don't even feel like you're being stupid.

Most of the time an album tries to be a little bit of everything, it ends up bland across the board. That's where Beyond the Permafrost excels, it actually manages to be great at everything it touches. The dissonance is tasteful and the melody is powerful, the thrash is hard and fast and the trad metal leanings and dual lead melodies shred like nobody's business, the death metal tweaks and rhythms are crushing, and the black metal overtones are both subtle and prevalent at the same time. Everything works, and I think that is the album's downfall in a way. The following two albums (Breathing the Fire and Forever Abomination) would be much more focused efforts, with a lot less grabbing from random styles and more focusing on one or two niche areas, and as a result they'd be less interesting and less entertaining. Do yourself a favor and pick up Beyond the Permafrost, five years later I still spin it and enjoy it just as much as I did back when I realized how great it was.

2007 was a great year, wasn't it?


Originally written for http://lairofthebastard.blogspot.com/