Khanate “Things Viral” Southern Lord, Sunn28CD
Before Sunn O))), guitarist Stephen O’Malley joined forces with Drummer James Plotkin along with singer Alan Dubin to start an experimental, industrial, grindcore band. O’Malley had fronted the band Burning Witch in the nineties. Burning Witch were a very strong Sludge and Doom act, highly influential in their own right, they brought an even darker approach to the already heavy genres. Then there is O.L.D. (Old Lady Drivers) formed in New Jersey in 1986, a caustic, often humorous outfit, they were the American counterpart to Britain’s Lawnmower Deth and Metal Duck. Dubin’s signature growl stood out among contemporaries like Prong, Godflesh, or even Big Black. O.L.D. were an odd addition to the grindcore sound, they even once had ex-Nirvana guitarist, Jason Everman fill in on bass. They had that funk metal bass that dates it in the nineties. But there was something too eerily sinister to just dismiss this band with a very silly name as a mere metal novelty.
While driving around Southern Oklahoma with a friend who sang for a blackened death metal band, he popped in an O.L.D. cassette. I was immediately sucked into the odd time signature, quick changes, bizarre noises, and the pummeling drums. Lo Flux Tube was at one time both hypnotizing and discomforting. It was their most serious effort, no joking around. I fell in love with what they trying to do, though I ultimately forgot about the band for a long time. They stayed busy, release four albums, and two singles (one worth picking up is their split seven inch with late-era crossover grind kings Assûck). The plucky little, usually very comical, band from New Jersey hung up their hats in 1995. Plotkin and Dubin would join guitarist Stephen O’Malley’s burgeoning empire of harsh doom in the late two-thousands on the Southern Lord label.
Doom, especially drone has never been a particularly smart commercial enterprise, but that didn’t deter the dedication to this dark and cavernous world, a sick and demonic place that can barely be tolerated by even seasoned heavy music fans. in the late-eighties, Samhain, the high point of Danzig’s career was a complete smack in the face, an undeniable force that pressed the boundaries of the metal genre, but undeniably heavy; compared with the lesser-known arc, Plotkin meanders down a similar road, with Khanate being the truly bravest work created by the pair. Like Samhain, I love this music. I get that rush of adrenaline that most people get from horror films. On the other hand, I already run to heavy music. I know someone who sings for a seminal metalcore band. he once complained about not being able to share his love for metal, even his own band’s music with his family. The music that you really love can disconnect you from the people you love most. I certainly can’t convince most of the people I know that sludge is a valid genre for chilling to. That’s the way it is though, it’s their loss for not refining the aural pallet to more than inoffensive music. Skip to Things Viral: the album you play when you want everyone at your party to leave, even if everyone at your party loves heavy metal.
From the hollow hall sound, tube amp crackle, the burnt ozone smell of a burst bulb, large and lonely, hollow spaces haunt the listener. The song, the album, doesn’t really kick in for a full eight minutes. The anticipation that is created at the beginning of Things Viral, sets the tone and hints at the contents inside. A festering, blistered mess of rotting chords and shrieks that, like any dark ride, needs to be shared with unwitting victims. “Commuted” is the first track, and you are instantly struck by how slow the band plays. Yet the guitars waste no time introducing the nightmare theme, highlighted by the guttural, effluvial illness of distressed, mechanical vocal work. Suddenly, a long possessed and detestable scream comes piercing through you like a bolt. With nothing left but shredded nerves, we’re left with long introspective whispering. The guitars, drums, and drone effects play on toward a moribund coda, the virus dormant, thrumming low, patiently waiting for another devastating chance to destroy so many lives. We are rewarded with silence, a moments solace to build up the stamina it takes to give the very intensely moody, bizarre, and infected album the careful listening it deserves. Music that isn’t typical funeral doom, though they are a close cousin to a band like Candlemass, Khanate tips the scales with the dirt of their guitars, masterfully bent notes… and of course there is the hollow pleading cry that reverberates like from cave walls: the singer/alien/beast, the monster in the shadows, screaming, pinched yet clear; the shrill sound which pierces directly to your primal core.
The pounding guitars drive the beat for so much of the score, but there is also a sparse but effective drum rhythm to keep the axes swinging. Tim Wyskidia most-sparingly adds to, and helps in building the nerves-crushing suspense. Maybe it’s because The track is called “Fields,” but it’s hard not to sense early goth, angular post punk, reminded of the antics of Nik Fiend (Alien Sex Fiend). On Fields, the flat fields are roaring with wind, produced on album by heavy drone effects and guitar drenched in reverb. we are transported to barren landscapes, reminded of early deathrock days by the cavernous sound and heavily scratched E and A Strings. Fields on the other hand, at a full Nineteen minutes, fifty-one seconds, clocks in at something far beyond what bands in the eighties could dream that any listener would tolerate. Khanate, with their blackened, sludge, drone, doom metal, evokes emotions, that dark and brooding feeling that you get from industrial and deathrock, but without the watering down effect of dance rhythms and pop sensibilities. No, it’s definitely metal, extremely spooky music that drifted its way up from the darkest corner of a club in the underworld. It is a step forward in a style of music that will always remain occluded because it makes the listener so uncomfortable. People want to confront their fear, on Things Viral, fear comes with the eternally wounded, what is rotting inside of you, and it’s begging to have a very long conversation.
“Dead” is the shortest song on the album. It starts off strong with guitars and drums kicking in full force, lyrics right up front. Intermittent whispering / screaming, the serial killer, the unhinged whisper, the crescendo–shouting, you could recognize the pedigree in the King Diamond’s vocal styling. The narrator tells us they are alone; we all face death alone. In life we are always reminded of our mortality. Everything can rush by so quickly while things are good, but inevitably problems occur, our worlds break down, entropy rules; We can’t always face the fact that life is precarious, but when you are told at the end of the track, “you could have stopped it,” what could I, the listener, have stopped? I know I’m reading far too much into this, the overall tenor of Things Viral is paranoia, entrapment, confined space, blame, and humankind’s nature to destroy itself. Any prophecy of doom, of pestilence, doesn’t necessarily need to be mystified, you can trace the steps of history to see we are on a course for destruction. Nature is not something you can bargain with, and one day life could be fraught with more difficulty, and death. While this is an interpretation from me as a listener, based on the little clues Things Viral gives us, we could be in the den of crazed monster, forced to listen to his deranged thoughts. We are left to piece together what these thought fragments have to say. This would be an effort that probably seems futile, even unwarranted, I could just be listening to seventies soft rock, reminiscing about car rides with my parents. But things weren’t serendipitous as they seemed, and the dark edges of Khanate’s medium leaks over every crack of our reality. Facing the things that scares us is scary, but inevitable. Be honest, look into the void, come back wiser, sadder, stronger. There is release soon, but not before…
The final track, “Too Close Enough To Touch,” shows the frays at the seams in that it sounds improvisational, but where a lot of bands fail, Khanate show their passion for making soundtracks to waking nightmares. The song introduces us to a walking shadowy winnowed shell of a man with knife-like pointed fingers, loudly whispering about how sick you are, and that you must “stay inside.” After being quarantined for the past two months due to the devastating effects of the novel virus, Covid 19, the sentiment resounds deeply with me. Every so often, fear of myself or someone contracting this disease stunts my movement, makes it impossible to breathe for a moment. I get that fight or flight feeling, but there is nowhere to run. Tonight, I return to the soul-crushing sludge of Khanate. After eleven minutes of decrepit, ghastly pleading, you will probably want to lock your doors, board the windows, and turn on all the lights. You’ll also want them on to appreciate the band’s album’s artwork: always abstract, expressions of the cracked, broken, yet somehow striking, beautiful sound of comforting dead silences in the spaces between each aural assault. The cover art is always visually striking, this time with Stephen O’Malley credited for “visuals.” The inked cover gives the impression of artistically burnt paper, or rotting flesh, there is an organic feel to it. Like many other facets of the band, aesthetically Khanate evoke a barren landscape cut with jagged lines and empty a nod to industrial music’s early days, bands like S.P.K.. Z’ev, and Chrome come to mind. For me, someone disillusioned by the current state of heavy experimental music: how it all seems cursed by the streamlining effect brought on by promise of small commercial success— That is why Khanate impress me so much. Their passion to making noise sound so uncompromising, something that they’ve displayed for decades now, from their expansive roots exploring what influenced classic grind, to early drone forerunners, into the hooded, altar dwelling, amplifier worshiping monks we know to this day. It gives me unwarranted hope for tomorrow, but hope nonetheless. If Khanate were to weigh in, I’m sure they would tell us that our only hope lies deep in the underground with the worms.