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More metal than your mom’s kettle: (l-r) Longstreth, Keyser, Carpenter and Webber. Photo by Lefi Zurmuhlen

Once Morbid, With Feeling
Saratoga Springs death-metal magistrates Skinless turn horrific thoughts into inspired musical mayhem
By Bill Ketzer

Saratoga Springs. Birthplace of the potato chip. Voted “Best Place to Kiss” by Home of the newly famous chestnut gelding Funny Cide. Most importantly, however, it’s where hometown lads Skinless penned the horror-movie metal classic “Tug of War Intestines,” which, as coughed out over cutting low-B riffage and marathon airbursts of double bass, goes something like this:

“Hacky sack heart and monkey in the middle liver/Hot potato pancreas, these are games with my guts/Kickball kidneys, leap-frog lungs, soccer stomachs/Tennis ball tongues, tug of war intestines!”

Indeed, fans of American death metal just don’t care too much for songs about unrequited love, opulence or doing shots with the Blackhaus gals. And while Skinless’ lyrical content has become considerably more advanced since the penning of the aforementioned ditty, the band members—Sherwood Webber (vocals), Noah Carpenter (guitars), Joe Keyser (bass), John Longstreth (drums)—are happy to remain far more glib than many of their contemporaries. Throwing conventional harmony in the crapper in favor of insurgent progressions, blast beats and dead-emperor vocals, the quartet also have gained a reputation for their ability to juxtapose an almost vaudevillian splatter-speak with the heaviest of metal, a handiwork that continues to evolve with the band’s brand-new release, From Sacrifice to Survival.

“From Sacrifice to Survival is a huge step forward for us sonically, and the way the songs were written,” says Webber, who took some time last week to sit down with the rest of the band to discuss the new release, touring and the powers of horror. “There are all the signature elements of Skinless and much more on this record. It has mosh, speed, balls-out metal [and is] a more dynamic record than the previous two, we wanted to push our roles in the band, get the most out of what we were doing.”

Keyser agrees. “I feel like we have really been exploring different ways to be crushingly heavy,” he explains. “According to my calculations there are more heavy riffs in the first track off our new album then there are in the whole of the new Metallica album.”

“I have studied, compared and contrasted the new Skinless and Metallica albums, and have determined that Skinless has 16.25 heavy riffs for every heavy Metallica riff,” says Carpenter, who founded the band in 1992. “Thus, Skinless achieves the level of crushingly heavy while Metallica only musters attemptingly heavy.”

So new songs like “Don’t Risk Infection,” “Escalate Discord,” “Deathwork” and “Miscreant” abandon the Lucio Fulci themes of bloodlust and gore?

“We’ve gotten away from some of the tongue-in-cheek lyrics and have tackled societal change for the worse, aggressive nonconformity, mind control, the futility of guilt, the inevitability of war and straight-up killing,” says Webber. “But people who would view this step as a maturation of Skinless are completely wrong: We have never taken ourselves too seriously and still generally conduct ourselves with a 17-year-old mentality.”

When asked about the abject nature of death metal, about the appeal of morbidity and the macabre, the vivid scenarios of defilement in bodily fluids, cadavers and excrement, Webber explains that contemplating such scenarios—especially through music—can be cathartic and paradoxically life-affirming.

“I read a quote recently from an ancient samurai, who said something to the effect that every day we should imagine ourselves being burned alive, and gored by raging bulls,” Webber says. “It is only healthy to have such musings. It’s just the surface of why people get into death metal. Why deny yourself of these thoughts when it’s our occasional natural instinct to think in these terms? Celebrate it!

“It’s about being honest with yourself,” he continues. “People who deny themselves from themselves are not truly free. I think it’s a release more than anything, and perfectly healthy, just because this music sometimes has horrific topics doesn’t make it harmful—you’ll see way worse shit on the evening news. I think parents may get a little freaked out when their kid walks in with a bloody Skinless logo on their chest, but really, there are a lot worse things they could be into.”

The oft-revisited death-metal topic of nihilism arises here, as Webber himself has been quoted more than once as calling humanity a “sexually transmitted disease.” The much-bearded howler says he has moved beyond that, claiming that such a mindset is “a little 1998.”

“Nihilism is a popular musing for death-metal culture, [and nihilism suggests that] we really are nothing in the grand scheme of things,” he says. “I’m kind of over it, though.”

Keyser adds, “Nihilism is an interesting idea, but since it basically just rejects all philosophies and denies all existence, where do you go from there?”

“You go to the store and get some beers to drink while laughing at the new Metallica album,” says Carpenter.

While the band retained longtime Skinless engineer Brett Portzer to engineer their own new album, they brought in veteran U.K. producer Neil Kernon to guide the process. In the business for more than 25 years, Kernon has produced, among hundreds of others, Judas Priest, Queensryche, the Clay People and Cannibal Corpse.

“Neil helped us get the sounds we were looking to capture, the vibe we were looking for on each song,” Webber confides. “Having Neil was an awesome experience; anyone will tell you he is one of the nicest guys in the business, and he’s a really hard worker. He never gets tired and never loses his cool. It also took the stress out of recording: We didn’t have to fight with each other about the way we thought it should sound because we had an expert in the room who had it sounding great from the very beginning.”

“[He] also brought a calmness to the studio that really helped us get through the frustrating parts,” says Carpenter. “He would say, ‘Try that bit one more time and you’ve got it,’ even if it was after 100 tries to nail a part. At times when any of us were pulling our hair out he would remain at the same professional level, even after 15 hours of straight tracking. Now I understand why he’s so good. . . . It takes more than just a good ear for music.”

For Skinless, the upscale production capabilities came with the proportional growth and success of their label, Pennsylvania’s Relapse Records. Relapse’s burgeoning stable includes a spectrum of diverse acts like High on Fire, Dysrhythmia, Bongzilla, Mastodon and Nasum. Webber considers the band lucky to have a mutually respectful relationship with an organization that actually cares about its artists.

“Relapse remains an underground label built on integrity and diversity. . . . I’m a huge fan of nearly everything they put out,” he says. “We’re great friends with many of the bands on their roster and the employees of Relapse. Record distribution is a crazy business. . . . It’s extremely delicate, as there are so many variables, especially now with online file sharing. Nobody wants to buy music when it’s free. I’m not against the freedom of music that exists now, [but] we’re finding ways to make it work to our advantage. The more people who can get our music the better.”

“Also, Relapse gives us free shit,” Keyser chimes in. “I will never have to pay for another Relapse title again!”

Distribution is key, but Skinless also seek maximum exposure through constant touring—many times with other members of the Relapse ranch. They have drawn remarkably well in both the States and Europe (in July they head to Japan before kicking off another U.S. jaunt). And, according to Keyser, the only thing more fun than watching a Skinless show from the pit is watching it from the stage.

“While we entertain the crowd, they do the same for us. . . . Almost anything can, and does, happen during our set,” he says. “We’ve had people get naked, impromptu wrestling matches with fans, beer-can bass-ball . . . and Sherwood always seems to find a precarious high spot from which to launch himself into the crowd. Once, when Noah broke a string, we sang “We Are the World” with 3,000 drunk metalheads in Germany. I sang the part normally done by the Boss.”

“We get stronger with every show on the road; every night makes us tighter,” says Webber. “We do a lot of touring, as we feel that the band is most accurately represented live. If you are into our style, we throw down with the best of ’em. We try to be as consistent as possible and destroy the place every time we play. It’s one of our driving factors to be in the band, to travel . . . conquer new places and meet new people.”

Keyser echoes the sentiment: “When people ask me what I do, I tell them I am an international partyer/pizza-delivery boy. One week I will be partying with Pantera in Tokyo and the next week my highlight will be delivering 10 pizzas to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and getting a fat tip. It’s a very bizarre duality.”

Webber uses the term “hunting humans” to describe what bands do, trying to “bag” as many fans as they can on their own terms. “We’re not out to please anyone for the sake of pleasing them, but we want to reach as many people as we can who can get into our music,” he says. “All of what we have been able to do is firmly based on this local music scene. People need to stop bitching how the scene isn’t this or isn’t that and be thankful for what they have.

“We’ve been all over the world and there is no scene as diverse and fervent as this one here in Albany, he continues. “Every week you can go see a couple kick-ass shows. There are also tremendous resources like Step Up, Max Trax, Mastodon Media, Contemporary Designs and Overit for local bands to jump to the next level. Bands make their own luck, and there are people to help you on your way. We’re on the run in this world. Hunting humans.”

The Skinless CD release and DVD preview party will be at Saratoga Winners (Route 9, Latham) with Shai Hulud, Disciples of Berkowitz and Dysrythmia, tomorrow (Friday, June 13). Admission for the 8 PM show is $12 in advance and $14 at the door. For more information, call 783-1010.

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