Louisiana is generally a territory most associate with the sludge and doom scene, but when I read that Excommunicated balanced a hybrid of black and death metal, I admit I was expecting a direct parallel to the sound of their statesmen Goatwhore. Instead, they are actually quite versatile, and I can hear everything from thrash and grind to the advertised death and black (the last through only a handful of riffs and snarled vocals, admittedly). The lyrics and titles would seem to suggest a sacrilegious leaning akin to many extreme metal acts out of the US, but the sound they've pinpointed is distinct enough that they could call it their own, even if it does occasionally spread the quality of their debut, Skeleton Key, somewhat thin.
Variation is the crux of their ability, and thus one should not expect any two tracks here to sound precisely the same. For example, "The Incorruptibles" begins as a rather average melodic black metal passage, then peters out to brutal death metal with a hint of grind. "Cry to Heaven" flows from an eerie folk/blues intro to a warm, almost majestic mix of pagan metal bombast and post hardcore threads, while the double bass hammers away underneath. "The Vatican Orgies" has a more technical bent to it, with intricate and catchy riffing cycles and bloodcurdling vocals. The array of weaponry at display is formidable, and the competence in both drumming and guitars is unavoidable. Excommunicated have also seen fit to adorn their compositions with all manner of surprises, like the atmospheric bridge of "The Sum of Life's Pain" with its doomy drawl and drifting, dark pianos. The use of vocal samples, chants, and stylistic segues leaves a more novel and complete impression, a well rounded experience.
Skeleton Key also benefits from a clear, yet punchy production that capitalizes upon the obvious proficiency of the band. Clear without seeming over-polished, they keep their time well, and the various outside influences on the music are mixed seamlessly into the froth of extremity and groove. The one real element that stymied my enjoyment was that the riffs, as acrobatic as they are, are never all that memorable. A few exceptions, like "The Vatican Orgies" or "Keys to the Kingdom of God" do exist here, with a taut and penetrating notation, but the lions share of the tracks don't quite sink in. That said, they always keep the composition busy enough that you don't have much time to actually dwell upon this fact, and the band's myriad talents and compounding of metallic sub-genres surface more than not.
Skeleton Key is an experience of which the components all possess a precedent, but the precise fashion by with the Louisiana quartet formulate them into a bludgeoning, writing whole is distinct enough for those seeking something both punishing and clean. The potential here is staggering, even if this debut doesn't hit all the marks of a classic.
Verdict: Win [7/10]