By: Grayson Haver Currin Via Pitchfork
When the thrash metal quartet Skeletonwitch arrived in Columbus, Ohio, for a concert on October 19, 2014, they arrived without their singer, Chance Garnette. They had left him behind in Massachusetts.
After spending the previous decade rising through the ranks of American metal—inking a deal with genre leader Prosthetic Records, playing hundreds of shows a year, touring alongside the likes of Glenn Danzig and Cannibal Corpse—their continued ascent suddenly seemed in limbo. Chance was the reason why. Less than 72 hours earlier, police had arrested him in the lobby of a Worcester, Massachusetts, hotel on charges of “assault and battery on a family/household member.”
During a rare day off, guitarists Scott Hedrick and Nate Garnette (Chance’s younger brother) had gone to see heavy metal hero King Diamond when urgent texts summoned them back to the hotel. It seems other friends in town had bought Chance lots of shots, and he’d turned drunk and violent. The members of Skeletonwitch won’t share details of what exactly happened or to whom, and Massachusetts state law only allows the victims of domestic charges or their attorneys to access the police report.
The outburst in Worcester made it clear that Chance could not remain in the band. But, they wondered, could they remain a band without him?
The answer was an equivocal “yes.” They played the Columbus show without a singer, just like they had in their early days around the campus of Ohio University. They soldiered through their remaining 18 tour dates, crossing the country with Viking metal act Amon Amarth.
“I have never seen five Swedes so confused,” Hedrick remembers of his tourmates’ reaction. “They were shocked: ‘Well, who’s going to sing? Why don’t you have fans sing? How can you do that?’ I said, ‘We get up there, we plug in, and we play our instruments. Nobody sings.’ It worked.”
Now, after nearly four years punctuated by periods of self-doubt, Skeletonwitch has returned, reimagined. Devouring Radiant Light, released last month, is the band’s first album since firing Chance and hiring a new singer, Adam Clemans. Still heavy but newly heady, Devouring Radiant Light features their most vivid music to date. It is a triumph of making the right decisions, however hard or unpopular they may seem.
The morning after the arrest, Nate bailed Chance out of jail and returned to the hotel without him. He then drove the rest of the band halfway to Albany, booked another hotel room, and opened up discussion about the future of Skeletonwitch. Bassist Evan Linger offered his resignation, saying he refused to be in a band alongside an abuser, but that firing Chance wasn’t his right. Hedrick agreed.
“I looked at Nate and said, ‘I love you, but I can’t be in a band with your brother. That means that I’m tolerating this behavior.’ No amount of apologies can walk back certain behaviors for me,” Hedrick remembers. “If the band stops now, it stops now.”
Nate did not hesitate. He called his brother, told him he was out, and said he’d see him back at their parents’ home in Baltimore, Ohio.
“He is like my dad in that he has a short temper, especially when he is drinking too much,” says Nate, sighing. “And he is always looking for someone to blame. But I am a pretty big rule follower. If something stinks, then it’s not going to fly.”
In Chance’s eyes, he was kicked out of the band over his alcoholic tendencies—or at least that’s what he told fans. In an open letter published by Metal Injection in April 2015, he never mentioned the arrest or assault charges, only that he had a habit of “blacking out and turning into a raging lunatic.” He said he had enrolled in outpatient therapy for his addiction and seemed hopeful about his chances to rejoin Skeletonwitch or lead another band.
Even Nate scoffs at the idea that Chance’s banishment stemmed from booze. Something deeper than alcohol abuse led to his brother’s behavior. Alcohol was a symptom, not the cause. (Chance did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.)
“Everyone in this band has some struggle with alcohol,” says Nate. “It is impossible to drink too much to get you fired from Skeletonwitch. But what you do when you drink too much may get you fired.”
Despite the fraternal link between Chance and Nate, there’s a clear consensus that Chance had always been the artistic and emotional outlier—the brooding singer. He did not share the easy chemistry felt between Hedrick and his brother. He was also less open to musical experimentation than Hedrick, instead preferring to charge ahead with Skeletonwitch’s primitive death metal.
Amid their grueling tour grind, Linger would often confront Chance about the major tantrums he’d throw over minor things, like T-shirt designs or an amplifier’s onstage location. The mood on the road had turned particularly fractious and unstable following the 2013 release of their final album with Chance, Serpents Unleashed. (And not just for the singer, it seems: This past March, drummer Dustin Boltjes left Skeletonwitch because the excess and exhaustion of the road had started to rip apart his personal life, he says.)
Still, what happened in Worcester wasn’t some excuse they’d been looking for; it was the moment they realized that the verbal and emotional abuse they’d endured had become physical abuse for someone else. The incident alone was enough, but the pattern it exposed revolted the remaining members.
“You want to be able to say, ‘He’s actually a good guy, he’s just troubled,’” says Linger. “But you can’t do that when someone has a history of destructive behavior that only got worse and worse and worse.”
After Skeletonwitch finished those late 2014 dates as an instrumental act, they returned home to Ohio shortly before Thanksgiving. At the Garnette family home, the holiday spirit temporarily prevailed over debates about what had happened, Nate remembers. But for months afterwards, his mother would ask him why it couldn’t be like the old days, when her boys roamed the world together. He was blunt with the truth: “Mom, how would you even see that being possible?”
For a decade, the Garnette homestead had been the band’s rendezvous point—a practice space and merchandise hub when needed, the place they would begin tours with a homemade meal. That was gone now, as was Nate’s enthusiasm for writing new music. In the past, he’d penned most of Skeletonwitch’s songs, but now, he was at a loss.
“It didn’t make me want to stop touring or playing guitar,” says Nate. “But it’s hard to feel positive when you have just kicked your brother out of the band.”
As Nate temporarily took a backseat, a renewed Skeletonwitch began to take shape around him, with Hedrick taking the lead. Years earlier, Skeletonwitch had toured with Wolvhammer and bonded with the bludgeoning sludge band’s singer, Adam Clemans. They asked Clemans if he’d audition for the full-time job. It was a quick fit, though the stylistic difference was clear: Clemans was not the death metal barrelhouse that Chance was. His voice was versatile, even athletic. This was Skeletonwitch’s invitation to evolve.
“When you walk all the way to the edge and decide not to jump off, you don’t really care anymore. It’s the most freeing feeling,” says Hedrick. “There was always this stress to advance the band. But with Skeletonwitch 2.0, that weight has been lifted.”
Devouring Radiant Light throws open the doors to Skeletonwitch’s sound. With Hedrick now pulling from influences far beyond the band’s typical scope, like film scores and modern composition, eight-minute, multi-movement epics pirouette through fluorescent solos and billowing interludes. Shorter, punchier numbers recall Skeletonwitch’s time with Chance, but Clemans’ more flexible approach emboldens the refrains. What’s more, Skeletonwitch’s lyrical universe was once one of demons and deaths, blood and bone. On Devouring Radiant Light, though, the scene is mystic and the outlook is hopeful, with extended metaphors about casting off darkness and looking up from the bottom. That’s exactly what Skeletonwitch did when it decided to continue.
Like Skeletonwitch, Chance seems to have changed, too. He is drinking less, says Nate, and focusing on his home life in rural Ohio and the spiked leather arm bands he sells on Etsy. Nate now talks to him about Skeletonwitch again. When the band was touring Europe earlier this year, Chance asked them to bring back his favorite Austrian mustard. Nate visited three grocery stores to buy four tubes.
They remain brothers, of course, but they will never be Skeletonwitch bandmates again, despite the desire Chance has seemed to express. Nate is the only member who has spoken to him since his arrest. Linger hopes he never does, as he has no desire to revisit such a hurtful relationship.
“Nate could have said, ‘Fuck all you guys, I have to defend my brother,’” says Linger. “I don’t know that I could have faulted him. Family is family. But maybe that night, Nate saw us as his family.”