While the early ’00s proved to be the golden age for alternative and drone-inspired metal, Khanate were arguably the anchors, spending much of the era raising hell from the portals of doom alongside other notable purveyors, Boris, Earth, ISIS, High On Fire and, of course, Stephen O’Malley’s other tonal outlet, Sunn O))).
The tension within the Khanate ranks was there for all to hear, from their self-titled 2001 debut all the way through to their final dispatch from the perilous frontiers, 2009’s Clean Hands Go Foul.
Over their four album reign, it was essentially a brutal slanging match between O’Malley’s ear-splitting, amplified fury and Alan Dubin’s searing vocals which cut across the feedback with frightening force. The rhythm section of bassist James Plotkin and percussionist Tim Wyskida adding the necessary embellishments to this ungodly racket. A trembling mess, and together Khanate flailed the torch from deep within the black hole that was their greatest source of inspiration.
Speaking to Rock-A-Rolla magazine in 2009, Dubin confessed that a reunion was highly unlikely, however 14 years on, through the vestiges of torment and horror, the overlords of the void return. Yes, Khanate are back, and today they grant us a new passage into the abyss: their new album, To Be Cruel.
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In the lead-up to the album’s release, in the words of biographer, Ian Christie, “Personal grievances have become generational vendettas. The old scratches are sacred engravings. Scars are deep ravines.”
Such as the acerbic nature that led to what can now be considered a pause, these things have a certain inevitably when a band operates so close to the fault lines. A labyrinth leading to hell, on To Be Cruel Khanate create the kind of diseased torrents of noise that sees them return to the pilgrim of those very fault lines.
This isn’t some half-cocked, last hurrah victory lap. Bands like this don’t believe in victories, just despair. Only full commitment is deemed an acceptable and logical outcome to derive from such a resumption. Anything less would be sheer fallacy. A legacy in tatters. In was never on the cards, and enveloped in thick, sinister atmospheres of conflict, the tension through these three compositions could barely be cleaved with an axe.
In true Khanate fashion, the three movements span over an hour long. It’s rather blithe to suggest the wait was worth it, but for all those who still felt an emptiness despite the number of other projects the members of Khanate have been involved in over the years (not limited to Jodis, Gnaw, Krallice, Insect Ark, Blind Idiot God, and of course Sunn O)))),well, surprisingly it’s the kind of hope that doesn’t kill you. Yes, this is neither a dream nor a nightmare. The reality is at your fingertips.
From Plotkin’s metallic rumble, O’Malley’s eye-watering tonality, and Wyskida’s ear-perforating percussion, Like A Poisoned Dog screams with an array of morbid sonics for Dubin to sink his fangs into. And the venom is fierce, with his abstract chaos clear from the start (“I sink and swim in gasoline through a net / Might as well cremate my vision of you/ Like a poisoned dog / Not playing dead / It’s dead / Oh No/ That’s the feeling / I feel dead”). A black swarm of terror re-lived from the vaults.
Hissing and howling like a feral animal, Dubin’s vocals cut through the sea of O’Malley’s guitar tracks that hit with brute strength on It Wants to Fly (“I’m going to take you apart / It’s alright/ You can look away / Your body is alive / Look if you want to/ You can look if you want”). Alongside Wyskida’s cascading percussion and Plotkin’s booming bass, Khanate emit the kind of hypnotic wall of sound that leaves you as stunned as a deer in headlights.
And the needle doesn’t shift with the closing title track. Like scaling the walls through a haunted house, the passages so quiet, you can almost hear the blood coursing through your veins. Wyskida’s percussion is high-watermark, as he perfectly anticipates the space between Dubin’s blooding-curding shrieks (“Look in the closet / The things in the wall/ They speak / Of revulsion”). The quiet/loud contrast forming a new dimension of dread, curled with malice and tremors that could move planets.
And as strange as it sounds, To Be Cruel is an album to let wash over you. With its epic expansiveness, each listen unfolds with variation and nuance, such as O’Malley’s masterful manoeuvring of tone and Wyskida’s subtle shifts from behind the kit, both adding to the trepidation and uncertainty of the Khanate experience.
Initially, it was suggested that To Be Cruel will break the borders. However there were never any borders to begin with. Just a void, and Khanate find wonderful new depths in it, as Dubin attests during the fearless head charge that is It Wants to Fly (“We’re going down”). While many couldn’t have envisaged such possibilities, believe it. This is a pure metropolis of misery that many thought wasn’t possible.
Yes. Khanate are back.
To Be Cruel is out now via Sacred Bones. Purchase from Bandcamp.
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