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Skeletonwitch live at Somerville MA’s ONCE Ballroom

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For Athens, Ohio’s blackened thrash metal marauders Skeletonwitch, this summer’s North American tour isn’t just another run of dates for a band that never seems to stop touring. It’s the group’s first headlining trek with their new vocalist Adam Clemans, who recently stepped in as a permanent replacement for the ousted Chance Garnette and subsequent fill-in Andy Horn. Though Clemans made his debut earlier this year when the band supported Abbath and High on Fire during the annual Decibel Tour, this run in support of a forthcoming EP, feels like the moment for Skeletonwitch’s reconfigured lineup to prove itself.

With the band traveling solo for these dates, it was first up to a team of locals to set the mood for the evening. Black Mass kicked things off with perhaps the most satisfying show of the night’s three openers. A thrash power trio with an obvious reverence for the genre classics, they hammered out a set both furiously fast and deadly precise.

To paraphrase vocalist Tom Martin, some bands write serious songs, but Lich King isn’t one of them. The Greenfield, MA quintet’s set focused less on technicality than their primary interests of circle pits and 1980s action movies. We got songs about both ‘Robocop’ and ‘Predator’, and the band’s more modern references didn’t stray too far from that mold. The central figure of “Axe Cop,” based on the loony comic book and TV show of the same name, is – you guessed it – a cop who enthusiastically wields an axe. Lich King brought a dose of levity to the bill, and at Martin’s repeated coaxing, generated a fair amount of violence on the floor.

Magic Circle were the night’s lone respite from neck-snapping tempos, with a retro-flavored set of heavy metal trafficking in soaring riffs and vocals. The band was slightly out of place on a bill dominated by beer-guzzling, high-energy thrash, but a calm before the storm of Skeletonwitch’s set wasn’t unwelcome.

When the night’s headliners finally did take the stage, the impression was one of a band that has steadfastly maintained its identity and drive in the wake of a tumultuous few years. The setlist’s mix of fan favorites like “Beyond the Permafrost,” older album cuts debuting live for the first time this summer, and selections from new EP The Apothic Gloom found the group in tight, fiery form, and clearly having a good time with an appreciative crowd.

I somehow never managed to catch Skeletonwitch with Garnette as its vocalist, but even without a reference point it was clear that Clemans is up to the task of fronting the band. Sporting a creepy ‘Twin Peaks’ tank, he was frequently in his audience’s collective face and inhabiting the old songs like they were his own. His roaring rasp is a perfect fit for the material, and if one didn’t know any better, he’d look to have been a part of this band all along. If this is Skeletonwitch Phase II, longtime fans have nothing to worry about.

—Ben Stas

Black Mass

Lich King

Magic Circle

Skeletonwitch

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