posted on 1/2012 By:
From the ashes of New Orleans-based outfits Suture and Catholicon comes Excommunicated, debuting with this Vatican-bashing platter of respectable black/death. The promo of Skeleton Key came complete with a glossary of terms and explanations of the various points of Christian history and corruption that these songs describe, so it's nothing if not well researched and scholarly in its anti-Catholic rhetoric. And while its lyrical slant is commendably executed and learned, a minor downside is that that same thematic depth and scope becomes the album’s most defining attribute, which is all a fancy-pants way of saying that, aside from the few songs that truly coalesce, the lyrics and the history lesson often outshine the blackened death beneath them.
So what’s wrong with an album the lyrics of which are its most dominant trait? Well, by and large, metal of all stripes lives and dies by its riffs, regardless of how good or interesting its written subject matter may be. And Skeleton Key's singular flaw is that it doesn’t always quite connect on the musical front – there are moments that absolutely rip, but at times, the album rides through a rut of middle-tier vaguely blackened death metal that keeps it from being a complete success. (By way of clarification and further exposition, for those who may wonder, Excommunicated leans a bit heavier upon the latter portion of the black/death equation.)
The album’s first half is its finest – though it opens with a toss-off guitar instrumental, Skeleton Key truly starts with “The Incorruptibles” before really kicking in with the thrashy death of “Cry To Heaven” and the four tracks that follow. Though their styles scatter from a more typical death metal attack through nods toward blackness and thrash, this middle section comprises the qualitative pinnacle of the record, as well as its literal heart, with the best combination of solid riffage and Kelly’s most memorable vocal turns. For those songs, Skeleton Key is pretty killer, but unfortunately, by the time “When Death Claims Its Most Righteous Dead” comes along, Skeleton’s stride starts to slow, and after the boring “The Birth Of Tragedy” and the forgettable “Keys To The Kingdom Of God," the album drifts to a close with the dreamy and dull “The Sum Of All Life’s Pain.”
While Skeleton Key’s sub-genre-straddling stylistic approach doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an immediate cohesion, shifting slightly from one adjoining style to the next, it doesn’t distract wildly when Excommunicated is firing on all cylinders. The difference between the band’s thrash attack and their death metal barrage is certainly noticeable, but when the two are executed well, that difference is negligible, even welcome. Instrumentally, the individual pieces fit together nicely in any of the band’s approaches, though only rarely does one of the players really stand out, with the eternal exception of Kelly. (Occasional flashes of guitar work show some spark and provide a few nice moments – and a guest appearance by terminally underrated King Diamond sideman Andy LaRocque also helps.) But as with the overall conceptual theme, it’s Kelly’s work that defines the band – he displays an admirable array of growls and screams, from the thrashier and more distinct to the grunted and guttural, from spoken word to tortured scream.
All in, Skeleton Key is well performed and thematically well constructed, though it could definitely be streamlined and there’s some room for improvement in the riff department and in the overall songwriting. At the end of it, this is death metal done capably, offset with moments of a higher venom and vehemence, but it’s not an essential outing. Thankfully, the Catholic Church has a lengthy history and a lasting legacy of more than enough misdeeds to inspire a dozen more Excommunicated albums, so while Skeleton Key stumbles at times, it absolutely shows promise, and it’s a good enough start to warrant keeping a watchful eye on these guys.
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