Feb. 12 2014 03:40 PM

Ohio thrashers deliver high-velocity music with blue-collar pride

Photo by Chris Casella

Scott Hedrick knows how to put in work. A guitarist for Athens, Ohio, thrashers Skeletonwitch, he grew up in a rural community surrounded by farms. To make money as a teenager, he spent his summers baling hay, using a bale hook to stack piles of the stuff in a hot, dusty barn.

“Because of that, I actually have damage in my lungs. I got a test X-ray once—there’s spots on my lungs from inhaling hay,” Hedrick says with a chuckle. “Fortunately, the damage is minimal. I think I’ll make it.”

Hedrick’s years in the field are long behind him, but he and his bandmates haven’t lost their blue-collar pride. Skeletonwitch has been touring relentlessly for a decade, building a grassroots following largely on the strength of a gloriously intense live show. Meanwhile, the band has maintained a bare bones musical approach, delivering melodic, maximum-velocity riffage without the aid of down-tuned guitars, drum triggers or other common tricks of the heavy-metal trade.

The band’s newest album, 2013’s Serpents Unleashed, is their best yet. A mix of old-school thrash-, black- and death-metal sounds, it finds the five-piece locking together at top speed, with drummer Dustin Boltjes laying down fleet-footed boomchuck beats as Hedrick and fellow guitarist Nate Garnette engage in intricate guitar interplay. Playing this album full blast will almost surely lead to some frenzied mosh-pit shenanigans, with longhairs busting triple-backflips into the sweaty tattooed melée.

Serpents Unleashed was produced by Converge’s Kurt Ballou, an esteemed engineer whose crystal-clear, in-your-face mix helps capture the sheer momentum of the band’s sound. While Skeletonwitch get much of their power from drums and guitars, the production also underscores the importance of the rest of the guys: Bassist Evan Linger fills the bottom with some surprisingly nuanced lines, while frontman Chance Garnette serves up guttural growls that approximate a tryst between Cookie Monster and a demon banshee.

Skeletonwitch—who’ll play at House of Blues on Sunday, Feb. 16—stand in marked contrast to some of the more technical growlers out there. Where an outfit like San Francisco’s Fallujah plunges headfirst into heady atmospheres and mind-boggling guitar parts, these guys keep to the point. Serpents Unleashed runs for a blistering 33 minutes, with few slow parts and only one track that runs longer than four minutes.

For recording, the band took the same approach as with their previous four studio albums: recording Boltjes’ drum parts to a scratch guitar track from Garnette and building their way up from there. But though they played to a click track in the studio, just to get dialed in and work at a common tempo, they don’t do that sort of thing on stage.

“We’re just at the mercy of how fast Dustin plays it,” Hedrick says, speaking by phone from Columbus, Ohio, where the band kicked off a U.S. tour in January. “Sometimes we’ll see a cell phone video from the show pop up on YouTube—like, ‘Oh my god, how are we playing it that fast?’ At the time, we don’t even notice it. We’re just in the moment. It’s wild.”

Skeletonwitch formed while Garnette and Hedrick were both students at Ohio University. In the band’s early years, they played DIY spaces and house shows with fellow metalers like Savannah, Ga.’s Baroness (whose singer and guitarist, John Baizley, did the vivid cover art for Serpents Unleashed, as well as a couple of other Skeletonwitch releases). After many gnarly nights on tour, some spent sleeping on the same dirty floors where they’d performed, Skeletonwitch eventually graduated to bigger venues and, finally, the European festival circuit, where metal fans are a bit more discerning.

“In the U.S., if someone’s never heard of you before, but you’re fast and you’re loud and they’re drunk, they’ll go wild and beat each other up,” Hedrick says. “In Europe, if they’ve never heard of you, they’ll stand there and watch you like you’re at the zoo in a cage. They’ll study you. They get serious, almost scientifically.”

In this day and age of plugged-in hyper-connectivity, it’s not uncommon for a band to blow up before releasing a single album (or even playing a single live show). But Skeletonwitch have only recently begun to break out of the metal underground and gain more critical praise and attention from the outside world. Hedrick appreciates the slow build.

“We all know what it’s like to work in a factory…. We all know what back-breaking work is like. So to be able to do this fulltime, to be in Skeletonwitch and play music, we don’t take that lightly,” he says.

These days, when the band isn’t on tour, most of the guys live in different parts of Ohio, while Boltjes lives a short drive away in Indianapolis. Clearly, they take a lot of inspiration from their Midwestern roots. There’s that hardcore work ethic, but also a sense of good humor that explains how they ended up with an over-the-top, totally metal band name like Skeletonwitch in the first place.

And, of course, there’s also Hedrick’s mild case of farmer’s lung, the result of all those teenage years spent inhaling hay dust.

“I take a little bit of Ohio with me everywhere I go,” he jokes. “It’s slowly killing me.” 

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