A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that modern medicine is rapidly approaching the perfection of a procedure that would allow someone with a dysfunctional heart to have it replaced with that of a pig. Though I’m kind of a squeamish guy and the concept of such an operation initially struck me as grotesque, he assured me that, though there were still many underlying questions regarding the lifespan and standard of living of the patients, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the future.
Replace “pig heart” with “frontman,” and you’ve got a pretty common situation in the world of music. A change in the vocal department can in some cases rejuvenate and add a great deal of life to a band that desperately needed it, but the quality and longevity of their material is often negatively impacted by such a traumatic shift in gears. Thus, a band’s debut release with a shiny new frontman is often more focused on keeping the ship afloat and limiting damage rather than making a legitimate artistic statement.
The Apothic Gloom is a 4-song EP that marks Skeletonwitch’s first recorded output since the departure of long-time vocalist Chance Garnette, therefore ensuring that it would face a great deal of scrutiny upon release. Rather than filling his position with someone of an almost identical vocal style, however, the band opted instead to switch things up a tad, eventually settling on Adam Clemans of sludge metal band Wolvhammer. Choosing a guy like Clemans who isn’t a veteran of Skeletonwitch’s brand of blackened thrash metal was a real gamble, and the band met the challenge with a noticeable change in style; however, rather than making a beeline towards the more sludge-centric material with which their new frontman has the most experience, The Apothic Gloom could instead be best described as raw, bass-heavy melodic death metal.
Though I’ll admit to initially being somewhat baffled by this choice of direction, the decision began to show its merit almost immediately. Clemans’ vocal style is considerably smoother than Garnette’s, so a shift away from a more black metal-oriented style makes a lot of sense. With that being said, melodeath territory is just about the last place I expected the band to end up, but if that’s the genre they felt best-suited to pursue then I give them a lot of credit for having the guts and foresight to switch things up.
Granted, having guts is admirable, but whether quality material arises from said guts is the real question. On that front, I wouldn’t go as far as to say The Apothic Gloom is one of the best Skeletonwitch releases, but it certainly fulfills my criteria of “keeping the ship afloat,” and then some. The clean, melodic leads of the titular opening track will likely be initially off-putting to fans of the band’s previous work, but it’s nonetheless a fantastic song that showcases Clemans’ impressive vocals and serves as a near-perfect representation of the new direction. Equally parts thrash and melody, “Well of Despair” serves to bridge the gap between the new and old, and does so in stunning fashion; it’s easily the best song on the EP and among the band’s best work to date.
The other two tracks are solid, but neither comes all that close to matching the strength of the opening half. “Black Waters” has good energy, but it’s a little bit too close to the old Skeletonwitch style and doesn’t play well to Clemans’ strengths as a vocalist. “Red Death, White Light” is pretty much on the other end of the spectrum, bearing only minimal thrash influences, but its 7-minute run time is at least 2 minutes longer than necessary. Despite these gripes, though, the instrumentation is still as great as ever, boasting memorable riff after memorable riff. Additionally, the bass work has taken a huge step up, and has risen to become a truly integral part of the band’s sound rather than the afterthought that it’s often reduced to.
Serpents Unleashed marked a new high for Skeletonwitch, so Chance’s departure after such a promising album was more than a little disheartening. However, though the debut of a new frontman and direction doesn’t quite reach the heights of the band’s best work, The Apothic Gloom is a very strong EP in its own right; more than that, however, it proves the band can not only survive but also thrive without their longtime vocalist. These past years have been turbulent for Skeletonwitch, but I can proudly say that with their new pig’s heart beating in steady rhythm, the future is still as bright as ever.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, that might be the best album cover of the year.