In the January 2008 issue of Decibel, Skeletonwitch described their sound as "Immortal beating the shit out of Metallica at a keg party." This is an interesting image. On one hand, Immortal are only three guys (four if you count the guitarist crippled by tendinitis). On the other hand, Metallica have Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett, who are probably lovers, not fighters (Robert Trujillo, however, could probably hold his own). Since neither band would likely win said rumble, Skeletonwitch's self-description is accurate – blackened, thrashy, drunk.
However, they couldn't have been too sloshed while recording Beyond the Permafrost. It's a clinic in rhythm guitar – so much so that it obscures the band's other elements. Drums chatter away in the background, crisply but faintly. Vocals are reduced to thin rasps and growls (which is just as well, as they're quite monotone). Meanwhile, guitars boom out of the speakers like big-ass machine guns. Yet the overall sound is lightweight and antiseptically clean. This is metal, but it ain't heavy.
It's plenty fast, though. The title track features amazing, Kerry King-esque picking precision and endurance. "Baptized in Flames" boasts black metal tremolo picking headed straight for carpal tunnel syndrome. The power chords in "Sacrifice for the Slaughtergod" are blatantly Anthrax-esque – but instead of a gang chant of "Caught in a mosh," the song takes off on some Nordic shit, its Dragonforce hair billowing amid wind machines as 16th notes stream by. Guitar Hero makers, are you listening?
Unlike much of today's thrash revival, this record seeks more than just "a good time." "Upon Wings of Black" opens with a startling solo that climbs chromatically, like Hammett used to do. The song also has a wiry, mid-paced bridge straight out of …And Justice for All. "Beyond the Permafrost" has ominous tritones redolent of "The Thing That Should Not Be." With its closing descending chords, "Vengeance Will Be Mine" so wants to end like "Fade to Black." But it doesn't. Instead of letting its solo ride out into the sunset (i.e., fade to black), it pulls back and ends neatly.
So, not quite Metallica – but at least Skeletonwitch try. The only other bands who've aspired to early Metallica have been Trivium and Machine Head. Both have missed the mark much worse by trying too hard. Skeletonwitch's approach is more organic. They've mixed their hours studying Metallica tabs with blastbeats, bits of black metal, and whatever else metallic strikes their fancy. Despite the weak production, they've uncorked some epic polkas here. The eye-popping artwork, by John Dyer Baizley of Baroness, doesn't hurt, either.