SKELETHAL – Unveiling the Threshold (2020)REVIEW

If you’ve fundamentally understood the technical regiment, nuanced acumen, and rigorously competitive dedication of the highly evolved creative apex of thrash metal in the late 80’s you’ll likewise understand these high standards were yet fresh training in the minds of what we commonly refer to as real-ass ‘old school’ death metal. Though it does seem absurd that this genetic expression could be so predictable the fact remains that classic thrashers who can wheel back to 1981 and jam through the major points of evolutionary trait beyond 1986 most often end up re-creating the feel, texture, tone, tunefulness and most importantly the attack of late 80’s/early 90’s death music when prompted. That doesn’t mean it’ll end up landing that way regardless, no doubt modern bands like Suffering Hour and Auroch were death-thrashers to start, but in the case of French death metal act Skelethal it is classic thrash standards and a love of early Swedish death metal that defines their past and present expression. Their second album, ‘Unveiling the Threshold‘, is unfathomably the genuine article in this sense — Not a simple imitation of the Boss HM-2 assisted sound we’ve heard a thousand times over but, the most apt retention of the high standards of death metal guitar circa 1991 you’re likely to hear upon scouring this last decade of great, grotesque and grinding Swedeath revivalists.

However mundane or formative it might’ve felt to get their start as later additions to lesser known pure thrash metal band Infinite Translation, this is a pretty damn rad way to “cut teeth” as a musician. Both original members of Skelethal would feature on the second and final album from that band, ‘Masked Reality‘, in 2012 and although the band would apparently continue for a few more years drummer/bassist Jon Whiplash (Sépulcre) and vocalist/guitarist Gui Haunting would form Skelethal that same year; The project was a do-it-yourself minded take on their shared admiration for the early works of Swedish death metal, particularly Carnage and Dismember, and from the start it’d surely meant primal renderings but always a pretty genuine article. The first demo tape (‘Morbid Ovation‘, 2012) they’d kick out was pretty much instantly hailed not only for its garage-sized corpse thumping sound but for my own taste, the Sepultura cover was too fuckin’ cool. The duo took it upon themselves to self-record and produce their next two EP releases with the artwork coming from Whiplash himself.

Again these were raw recordings but all the better for it, informed by thrash and old science fiction movies and art Skelethal was pretty much instantly picked up via these EPs, hitting the right mark with Caligari Records and Iron Bonehead. We got to know the band better with each release as the first (‘Deathmanicvs Revelation‘, 2014) and second (‘Interstellar Knowledge of the Purple Entity‘, 2014) EP releases would include covers from Sacrilege and Carnage, two small windows into their taste and up until this latest full-length each release would include some manner of cover be it Dismember on their full-length (‘Of the Depths…‘, 2017) or Terrorizer on their most recent demo (‘Antropomorphia‘, 2019). I discovered the band via the first EP and wasn’t all that impressed until the debut LP released, the hollow early Unleashed sound of the album and its atypical treatment of Dismember‘s style of riff development meant an aggressive and not so obvious sound for a band in this style. I think at one point I’d actually confused them with Finnish band Skeletal and suggested they’d really sucked before hearing ‘Of the Depths…’, not realizing the error until quite a bit later. In the context of 2017 (see: Narthraal, Soulrot, Under the Church etc.) it’d been a raw and unique enough take on the style, to stand out; The riffs were there and the production was junk (in a good way) but the songwriting wasn’t yet in full gear. Surrealistic sewage-minded crawling and some ripping thrashed out pieces (“Chaotic Deviance”) made for a great record but it was the ‘Antropomorphia’ (2019) demo that signaled the way forward after Whiplash left in 2018. This recording would be the first to feature longtime touring guitarist Lucas (Mortal Scepter) and drummer Lorenzo Vissol (Bütcher, Schizophrenia) both of whom share a background in thrash among other styles of music.

Now fully in Haunting‘s hands as primary songwriter, and with the full quartet engaged in the arrangement process, Skelethal are armed with a much more energetic and technically sound attack. Since the band have signed with Hell’s Headbangers Records for this second record it’d sure as hell seem like the right time to leave some of the big league stuff (mixing, artwork, etc.) to the pros. In terms of the recording, ‘Unveiling the Threshold’ was still tracked in their rehearsal space but polished up by Earhammer Studios after the fact, providing a punched-up and polished presence that never blurs over any important details. More solos, refined patternation, and a huge guitar tone all begin to add up to that extra echelon of Swedeath worship we’re rarely treated to via Entrapment, Pyre, and are we reaching Repugnant levels of psychotic death? Just about, maybe aim closer to early Grave to start. You can hear hear the core Sunlight Studios archetypal attack in action throughout the rhythm guitar performances, largely aiming for the sophistication of each post-Nihilist band in different measures. From my point of view the swing of ‘Clandestine’ is interpreted via the more rigid standards of ‘Left Hand Path’, replacing any punkish sloppiness while retaining the horror film influenced fog of those records. Anyhow, the vibe is exactly right and Skelethal make sure to mix things up in the span of these eight songs, it is a remarkably well-rounded experience that rips just hard enough to avoid sounding like flaccid retro Swedeath. Sure man, how are the riffs? All killer, save one or two shorter pieces.

The first minute of “Sidereal Lifespan” is probably enough of a volley to sell the album up front and the next 2-3 minutes will be crucial for prompting you to take it seriously. Truly good threads of riff reinforced by this level of distortion must be contortions of the mind, inhuman visualizations too abrupt and infectious to analyze upon first glint. If you’ve no physical reaction to the almost grindcore twisted bursts of this five minute opener you might be dipping into the wrong sub-genre altogether. I’d definitely not gotten past this song until I’d heard it a few times on repeat, scratching that Nirvana 2002-sized manic itch but still managing a tuneful aggression all the same. From there we hit two familiar pieces that kick up way more dirt than when we’d heard them on the ‘Antropomorphia’ demo and a 2018 split with the venerable Cadaveric Fumes. The production values surely help but the core pace and experience of the previous versions of “Antropomorphia” and “Emerging From the Ethereal Threshold” is retained. Side A makes its case airtight with “Repulsive Recollections” and this is where I’d first point to ‘Into the Grave’ as a fair comparison of pace, brutality, and generally oppressive groove-heavy rushes. This is also where I’d felt Vissol really makes a case for himself through the change-ups, cymbal work, and the Steve Asheim-worthy blasts around the 1:30 minute mark. Sold, eh? I mean, in my case yeah I couldn’t get past the first side without a moment of reflection upon how hard Skelethal had nailed it.

Side B serves up a ~2 minute burner to start, a near death n’ roll buzzer that holds a simple and moderately effective groove before blasting out. “On Somber Soil” might have a bit of an Unleashed thunder groove when it finally gets swinging but the arrangement of the song itself is what sticks; A distinct intro, a dirging mid section and an exit straight out of ‘Severed Survival’ help to make this piece a strong highlight for the second half of the album without doing anything outrageously original, the result is yet skillful and memorable. The full listen isn’t too far astray from the quality and early promise of bands like Vanhelgd and Entrails, perhaps generally more “brutal” than either (and delivering more riffs-per-minute) when things warm up but this is the sort of record that is equally “accessible” for the sake of its undeniably high quality, lucid groovin’ stream of riffs, and uninterrupted focus on pure death metal. As per usual, do I think the use of the HM-2 is a hindrance in this case? Actually, not at all this time around since Skelethal make a great argument for using this guitar tone to emphasize the impact of their works, utilizing the overdriven effect to broaden range instead of wearing it like some kind of false ‘old school’ badge of feigned importance. ‘Unveiling the Threshold’ justifies every choice it makes with a memorable and sonically class experience, sporting a broadly appealing sound with riffs that always do their best to avoid a plainly standardized trip. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation. (90/100)

Rating: 9 out of 10.
TITLE:Unveiling the Threshold
LABEL(S):Hell’s Headbangers Records
RELEASE DATE:November 20th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Death Metal

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