Khanate return to haunt the dreams of anyone brave enough to listen to this experience in extremity.
On June the 24th, 1982, Pilot Eric Moody, who was on route to London from Auckland, found himself flying through a volcanic ash cloud over Indonesia. He proceeded to calmly address the passengers on the plane with the following message “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped”. Don’t worry, the plane landed safely but the reason I bring this up, is to give you some idea of the level of understatement required when I say that the new Khanate album was a bit of a surprise.
Khanate consist of James Plotkin (bass) and Alan Dubin (vocals) of transcendental grind merchants OLD (short for Old Lady Drivers), Stephan O’Malley (guitar) of Burning Witch and drone royalty Sunn O))) and Tim Wyskida (drums) of Post-Rock outfit Blind Idiot God. Now, the word supergroup gets bandied around a lot, but in this case it genuinely is an apt description. Their 2001 self-titled album is almost comical in its unabashed anguish and desolate fall into depravity. Feedback and tortured screams are the name of the game here. The 2003 follow-up and further journey into the void of despair was Things Viral. This was then followed by Capture and Release in 2005 which followed the same squalid blueprint laid down in the previous two albums.
The issue with producing music with such gut-wrenching sincerity and laser focused ambitions is that the band placed themselves in such a pressure cooker situation that things were never going to stay inert for long. A year after Capture and Release was released, the band split in acrimonious circumstances. Then apart from a posthumous album of older material in Clean Hands Go Foul nothing, until today when the band released this slumbering giant of an album called To Be Cruel. The roots of this new record are now already more than five years old which also shows how much deliberate planning goes into this kind of music.
Consisting of three songs, the shortest of which is over 19 minutes long, this is less an album, more an exploration of terror, and not in a Scooby Doo sense of the word, more like the drenched in sweat nightmare sense. This isn’t something you merely listen to, it’s something which envelopes you completely, trapping you in a maze you can’t get out of with walls which are getting closer the more you try to escape.
Opening song “Like a Poisoned Dog” is (like the rest of the album) in no hurry. Droning feedback from the guitar clashes full-throttledly into the abrupt clatter of drums, like a crash test dummy getting thrown into a wall at full speed, then dragged back only to go full tilt into the same wall, over and over. Then on top of this unsettling noise you throw Alan Dubin’s anguished yelps and screams. This has the effect of pushing the already disturbing cacophony off into full blown desolation territory. Everything seems precision engineered to unnerve and to unsettle, and it succeeds in a way which is very deliberate and highly affecting.
The second song “It Wants to Fly” takes even longer to unfurl and dig its talons into you, Dubin’s lyrics go to places which shudder when dragged into the sunlight. Alternating between screams and a twisted monologue, it dives deep into some seriously dark places. Album closer and title track “To Be Cruel” is more restrained than the previous two songs and (whisper it very quietly lest the demons hear) veers ever so slightly towards the conventional. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still spine-tinglingly confrontational and liable to induce nightmare and trauma, but still.
OK, so, is this album fun to listen to? Resoundingly no. Is it music in the traditional sense? Mildly. What it IS though, is a cathartic exercise in expulsion. There is something about it which is beguiling and intoxicating. It’s very difficult to listen to but for the people this appeals to, it is a work of genius which should be cherished, just don’t expect to go into this album expecting a pleasant experience. It’s artful and poetic for folk with issues, sometimes things don’t have to be pretty to have merit.