Seemingly coming out of the blue — like the sudden emergence of a horrible memory buried for years — drone doom supergroup Khanate returns with To Be Cruel (released digitally on May 19th and on physical formats on June 30th via Sacred Bones Records) the group’s first album since 2009’s Clean Hands Go Foul. Shrouded in secrecy prior to its release, To Be Cruel delivers three tracks and 62 mins of harsh, cold, sparse, experimental sounds fit to ruin any good day.
Perhaps most identifiable as being one of the many musical projects of guitarist Stephen O’Malley, when he isn’t making music as part of drone metal legends Sun 0))), Khanate’s family tree is multi-faceted, not just because of O’Malley’s many groups, but also his bandmates Alan Dubin (Vocals), James Plotkin (Bass guitar, synthesis) and Tim Wyskida (Drums, percussion) — whose shared credits also include Burning Witch, Gnaw, Scorn and Blind Idiot God. If you dive into the various projects of Khanate’s band members, there’s a great variety of extreme and experimental music to sink your teeth into.
Sonic extremes can manifest in different ways — in the visceral, pounding heaviness of Cop-era Swans, the overwhelming ear-piercing bombardment of Whitehouse (in any era really), or the raw misanthropy of any number of second-wave black metal bands, just for a few examples. Khanate is yet another variety of off-putting sound exploration. Calling the group “metal” has its logic, but if you enter this room expecting a digestible derivative of Black Sabbath riffs, a tough time lies ahead for you. Between Khanate and Sabbath lies many miles of musical deconstruction.
To be fair, a tough time lies ahead for anyone approaching this album (or indeed Khanate in general), but that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a negative (just a friendly warning).
To Be Cruel might be envisaged as what would occur if Bon Scott of AC/DC was kept in a windowless basement for 20 years, surviving on insects and puddles of water, then somehow found his way out and onstage with Neurosis, but with the band on tranquillisers to mitigate the impact of collective stomach cancer.
Has it become apparent that To Be Cruel is not a “fun” listen yet?
The funny thing is (funny peculiar) that if you have the “right” mindset (perhaps some long-term emotional damage) Khanate offers something deeply satisfying that is hard to get anywhere else. To Be Cruel doesn’t hit the listener over the head with pounding brutality, rather it shreds the nerves with relentlessly slow, skeletal expanses of deconstructed, strangled anxiety — in sonic form.
Is it music? Just about. Is it art? For sure.
It’s hard to write about Khanate without sounding pretentious, but then, the press release of To Be Kind is pretentious too, stating, “Borders will be broken, limits overstepped, and faithful yardsticks cursed and thrown aside. Hearts will be shaken. Minds will tremble. Bodies are tested.”
When you listen to the album though, it makes complete sense.
Another comment from the press release about the band, as it was in 2001, illuminates their approach, “Khanate was not preaching of coming doom or offering emotional catharsis. The band was totally post-dread. The worst had already happened, and would continue to happen, over and over.”
Opener ‘Like a Poisoned Dog’ shows exactly how To Be Cruel continues in this approach, with twenty minutes of what feels like a painful, drawn-out, never-ending death as vocalist Alan Dubin’s strangled moans/screams deliver lines like, “You’re the reason, you. I feel dead now. You’re boiling like my blood. Let’s all die.” The soundtrack is fittingly horrible and slow, with screeching guitars, ringing feedback, bass, percussion, synths, and effects all together effectively creating a grim, barren, and abrasive landscape without a payoff.
The next track ‘It Wants to Fly’ is another nightmarish bad trip. With Dubin seeming to describe the ripping of the listener’s soul out of their body: “You can look away but I think you should see under the skin that crawls”.
Dubin’s own comments on the album’s intent offer another helpful insight. “The album viscerally and metaphorically portrays a self-immolating destiny that perhaps ironically blames outside entities. There is a need for revenge but… against who and why?” To Be Cruel is much less about answering questions than it is about creating an all-enveloping atmosphere, a really grim one. It does this very well.
To say that the closing title track offers some relief could be an overstatement, though for the first three minutes or so it does feel like it, with the band emphasising ambience over dissonance and Dubin employing a hushed, whispered delivery. Here the band comes closest to resembling the earlier-mentioned Neurosis (particularly their more minimalist A Sun That Never Sets album from 2001). Unsurprisingly though, at around 03:20 the track explodes into gnarled screams and slow, crashing chords, and the same type of drawn-out undefinable horror returns, continuing to the end of the record. No relief and no resolution.
To Be Cruel is not one of these “you have to listen to this music” affairs. 99% of people should probably never listen to this (and would never choose to), but for those with just the right type of spiritual sickness, well those people, they should definitely listen to this.
This is poetry. This is art — a very uncomfortable and unpleasant type for sure, but not everything of value is pretty.
The band has simultaneously made their back catalogue, including Clean Hands Go Foul (2009), Capture & Release (2005), Things Viral (2003), and Khanate (2001), available once more via the various streaming services and with plans to reissue on physical formats in the near future.
Buy the album here:
8 / 10