Last Night: Skeletonwitch, Havok & Legion at Walters

Skeletonwitch, Havok, Mutilation Rites, Legion Walters Houston October 17, 2012

Wednesday night's Skeletonwitch show at Walters was one I'd been looking forward to since it was announced. The speedy Ohio metallers nearly eviscerated a Warehouse Live crowd back in April opening for Nile and Black Dahlia Murder, but that was just an abbreviated set. I wanted to see how fast and loud they could get with their very own stage.

Because brutality loves company, Skeletonwitch made sure to bring along a few pals for their trek down to Naylor Street. Denver thrashers Havok are a welcome addition to any speed-metal bill, and New York's introspective aggronauts Mutilation Rites seemed worth checking out, as well. Game on.

If you're the sort of person who heads downtown to jump in a circle pit on a weeknight, you knew what you were in for with this gig: Devil horns, banging heads, and neck-snapping, beer-soaked riff after hyperspeed riff. Still, it was a little hard not to be taken aback a tad when these elements were produced right off the bat by a handful of teenaged locals.

Speed metal had already risen from the bowels of hell, ascended the mountaintop and died a horrific, agonizing death before the members of Houston thrash kings Legion were born. Somewhere along the way, an older brother, a cool dad or a headbanging pot dealer must have turned them on to the classics, because the flaying riffage these fresh-faced longhairs cranked out Wednesday was pure, vintage Bay Area thrash.

It was exciting to see a new generation take up the musical torch dropped decades ago by Metallica and Megadeth, and Legion had the musical chops to hold their own against the older, hairier and more established out-of-towners on the bill. Singer/guitarist Drew Habryl's clean, Mustaine-ish vocals stood out on the night, a welcome throwback that others in the neo-thrash movement would be wise to copy.

Legion's talent did not go unnoticed by the other bands on the bill. Both Havok and Skeletonwitch praised the openers' talent from the stage during their sets. Mutilation Rites, on the other hand, said nothing at all, preferring to abandon all pretense of between-song banter and focus solely on sonic punishment.

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The band's intriguing blend of crust, black metal, thrash and d-beat came together to form a sound that bordered on progressive at times. The group's busy drums and long, occasionally sludgy songs reminded at times of a more evil, less swampy Mastodon as the guitarists loosed titanic oceans of heavy fuzz.

Although Mutilation Rites' crushing assault was briefly interrupted by a tripped circuit breaker, energy was hardly a concern for the next band up. The young maniacs in Havok play a sped-up, classic brand of thrash reminiscent of early Slayer, Overkill and Helloween, minus the histrionic vocals. The shredding was razor-sharp during their set, particularly on the highlight "From the Cradle to the Grave," a slick tribute to Chicago's "Murder Castle" killer, H.H. Holmes.

The pit was wild and the floor was packed during the Denver band's set, with horns and hair flying both on stage and off. The group's youngest fans were their most enthusiastic, shouting along with singer David Sanchez and air-guitaring along with his riffs. Impressive as the guitar work was, though, bassist Jesse De Los Santos was the audience's favorite.

The four-stringer appeared in danger of tearing his instrument apart as he worked the strings hard with both his fingers and a pick. De Los Santos' fluffly mop of curls stayed in constant motion, and his clear enthusiasm for heavy fucking metal was infectious. The crowd had no trouble following his lead.

That metal-worshipping fervor was appreciated by Skeletonwitch singer Chance Garnette early on in his band's set.

"We've played at Rudyard's a couple times, and Warehouse Live, or whatever the fuck it is," said the majestically bearded Ohioan. "I'm gonna tell you straight-up, this is looking like my favorite Houston show of our career."

The feeling appeared mutual. Heads rarely stopped banging during Skeletonwitch's blistering set of death-thrash. This was not chin-scratching, thoughtful metal. There were few cogent political messages or social criticisms to be found in songs such as "Bringers of Death" and "Beyond the Permafrost." Skeletonwitch went straight for the gut, not the head, with mondo metal riffs stacked one on top of the other - each faster than the last.

The band kept things interesting with some remarkable dual-guitar harmonies between quick-twitch pickers Scott Hedrick and Nate Garnette, systematically wearing the audience down with fast n' furious fingerboard flourishes. By the time set closer "Within My Blood" rolled around, the crowd had been thoroughly squeezed dry of its collective adrenaline.

Nice as it was to get a full set at last out of Skeletonwitch, it was even more amazing to see the young metalheads both onstage and in the audience share such an out-of-control speed fetish. Thrash was considered a nearly-extinct metal dinosaur not too long ago. As a semi-reformed speed freak myself, the sight of teens and twentysomethings completely enthralled to its majesty gladdened my heart.

Personal Bias: Heavy fucking metal, dude.

The Crowd: A room full of black T-shirts.

Number of Beers Spilled on Me: One

Random Notebook Dump: Hallelujah, Walters has a new parking lot at last. It's just across Naylor, with an entrance off Main.

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