Something new for Monochromatic, here I sat down with my good friend Tom to discuss the newest album from Khemmis, 'Hunted'. Here's our conversation. If you have recommendations for what you'd like to hear discussed or reviewed next, contact me.
Khemmis, Hunted, it’s a record. We both feel pretty good about it.
T - To say the least.
Right off the bat. Do you want to introduce yourself? It’s not like we’re making a podcast, but even if I’m doing a write up… How should I talk about you?
T - Music aficionado, music try-hard, whatever you want to establish; I think they’re both applicable.
Well, you have a pretty wide taste in music too, which I also like to attribute to myself. Obviously we’re both leaning towards the harder end of the spectrum, especially in this review,-
T - I mean I only listen to metal and flamenco, that’s kind of where I draw the line.
T - Maybe a little bit of 80s synth-pop.
Copy, copy that. We both have a background in metal appreciation. When did you start listening to metal?
T - Oh god, I think that was probably Mastodon, circa 8th grade?
Yeah, Mastodon is an easy lead-in, gateway drug. I think mine was probably System of a Down.
T - I think it would’ve been System for me too, would it not for my parents who were rather strict about this sort of thing.
T - Yeah, they wouldn’t let me listen to records that had the “Parental Advisory” sticker on them.
Really. They cared about that sort of thing?
T - Yeah, at least back then.
I don’t remember even going to a record store, or actively searching for music. Music just became like… it was never a “process” for me until now. I don’t really know when that changed. It was always just a natural thing.
T - I definitely have to attribute it to my dad though. I remember the room we had the computer he had these big racks full of CDs, and he always kept the Jesus Lizard records above where I could reach them, because they had inappropriate albums covers for me at the time. So I established this sort of fascination with the Jesus Lizard at a young age. It took me a long time after I started actively listening to music to actually check out the Jesus Lizard, but that was like my foundation of my music fascination, just browsing his CD racks.
So you then built your way up from there?
T - Yeah, then pandora happened…
Yeah, Pandora was such a big [deal]. I’m the same way: my music all came from my Dad’s taste and preferences. He is — unbeknownst to him — a big prog rock fan. He’d never know to call it that, but he’s listening to King Crimson and Pink Floyd, stuff like that. So he kind of lead me in through that.
T - My dad was the same way, but he’d know he was a prog rock fan; that’s the majority of his taste, that and singer-songwriter sort of music.
It’s funny, my Dad especially, feels strongly about music, about what he likes and doesn’t like, but he’s never laid down the ground rules. There’s never been like an aesthetic for him. And there clearly is, I know what records my Dad will like and won’t like, but he’s never —
T - but he prefers to go on a record-by-record basis of recommendation?
Right, it’s never stated. I don’t think he’s that involved of a listener. I’m not sure I am either. Maybe less so now, but when I started; I had no idea what I was into.
T - I think that’s a pretty good way of going into it though, because at the end of the day, genre’s only good for deciding if you want to listen to a record. After you’ve listened to something, it’s irrelevant how it’s grouped at that point.
Genre is a really weird convention, but especially weird with… actually I think Khemmis is an interesting look at genre. How would you classify this record?
T - See it’s so hard for me to classify Khemmis, because on one hand, all of their elements are so clearly based in various genre, but they stand outside all of them. As a doom band, you can’t really escape the Sabbath influence, but they’re laying down much more interesting lead lines than Sabbath, kind of along the lines of Angelwitch, but more downtrodden…
But you’ve already placed them in doom?
T - Closer than anything else? Doom with a little traditional heavy metal?
Yeah! It’s this weird thing, because they’re somewhere between trad and doom, but their music really runs the gamut. It’s kind of slow, which brings us to doom, but there are so many different elements to it.
T - Just the soaring element to the backing tracks that elevates it from the doom slog…
Totally agree. A lot of the big doom bands right now, Pallbearer, YOB, Windhand, all of them are really “in the thick of it”, put you in the swamps.
T - Those guys all have more sludge elements, too.
This record from Khemmis, is almost the other side of doom, a reanalysis of it from a more traditional sense. Going back to the Sabbath era and seeing how to make a natural evolution from there.
T - I’m glad you opened on this point, too, because I think that was the hardest part to figure out my specific thoughts on, other than this is a really damn good record. It has so many ties to so many ancestral units but it stands out from everything. For me, more than a point of comparison to any other band, even Pallbearer which is Khemmis’ closest cousin, was the original Wicker Man film.
How so? In terms of aesthetic?
T - Just mood! I almost want to say campy, but not as a pejorative. It had that sort of b-movie sense to it, but done in a way that is legitimately frightening. It’s not a record that goes for the easy way by writing gory lyrics and playing creepy tritones…
There’s something more genuine about it. It’s really honest about how it presents itself. I definitely get the sense that they went into this record with a specific sense of what they were trying to do, but [Hunted] is so varied it’s hard to get down to that core. Acoustic solos, soaring bits, uptempo, slow, it’s all over the place.
T - I’ve been knocking at that wall all week, trying to get at it, and I can’t say I’ve come to any conclusion about the specific intentions, but I was noticing one thing done really well is the sequencing of the track list. In Above the Water, when it kicks off, it sounds like it’s about to burst out into a riff, but then it stops itself into a stutter-start, and the lead lines accompanying those, they drop out, and then you get the riff about a minute in.
I think it’s such an interesting start, especially in 2017, when so many bands want to get into the meat right away, it feels brave to have the restraint to let it get to that point. They have 2 good buildups, but then it doesn’t happen, and that’s such an odd phenomenon especially now.
T - And metal especially.
So much of a metal band’s rep is based on how hard they are, how genuine they are, bands feel the need to rush into some slamming opening.
T - Or the opposite of that, to have a keyboard or nature sample intro track on a folk metal album or something. This is a nice middle ground because it’s still very ambient, and yet heavy.
So you think this does a good job setting up your expectations for the record?
T - Definitely.
The whole track is really interesting. It’s one of the longer ones. For me, one of the first things I look for in metal is vocal quality. There’s so many options with growling, mixed, clean singing, and they all have such a different texture. So on this record I’m waiting to hear how they’d handle mixed vocals. It sets a tone for the rest of the tracks.
T - And of course on “Above the Water” they have clean vocals through the entire track. Since Absolution, they’ve really tightened up their songwriting. They evoke this feeling of being trapped on a ghost ship, adrift. There’s something about it that makes you feel like you’re not really in control as a listener. It’s always playing with your head.
And playing with your expectations, too. They set this up with their intros like we talked about. When the vocals come in, it just captivates you right away. Honestly I don’t listen to a lot of clean vocalled metal bands right now, but this... It sounds almost like power metal. It’s super catchy.
T - Yeah, the melodicism trumps the heaviness for the majority of the runtime.
And isn’t that interesting? It’s unusual for me to find a metal record catchy, but I found myself humming choruses from it even when I wasn’t listening. It really sticks with you.
T - That’s what makes it so compelling. It’s playing with your expectations, but in a way there’s something about it that’s very on the nose.
It’s functioning at a few levels at once. I think that’s part of their ethos. They knows it’s a lighter, poppy album, as far as metal goes, and doom especially. Each song is a ballad.
T - Even though it’s a doom record, it’s so far removed from a lot of other music in the scene, which makes it tremendously refreshing.
It’s a trend in metal lately to make records that are short and dense.
T - This one is a fairly short listen for a Doom record, but it feels really expansive.
This record more than some others, is a front-to-back experience. I can’t see myself putting this on shuffle.
T - I was talking about the unsettling quality earlier, and this thinking has sort of clarified it for me. We’ve been talking about these dense dense records, which all feel very claustrophobic, whereas this record stretches closer to agoraphobia. There isn’t an active malevolence to it. It doesn’t feel aggressive towards its listener.
Not to say either experience is less valuable than one another. They’re just such different goals. I think lately we’ve seen such a push towards more Satanic records, which can be hard to get through. This is so much more listenable. It kind of came out of nowhere.
T - It did for me.
I was drawn to their first record because of the art. They’ve definitely kept that trend up with the bright blue this time around. I could see a lot of people listening to this that might not normally because of the cover art.
T - That goes more towards the “b-movie” aspect I mentioned earlier, too, with the blood on the swords, and the torn flesh, etc.
Yeah, it’s not a dungeons and dragons cover, but it has this quality to it that’s rarely seen.
T - It’s very user friendly, and especially putting the foot forward with “Above the Water”, the most accessible track here…
I could see myself recommending this album to non-metal listeners.
T - For having not listened much to Khemmis, for track two, “Candlelight”, when they do bust into it with the shrieks and the deep guttural lows on the same lyrics.
Especially with “Above the Water”, you’re almost not set up for it.
T - It lulls you into a false sense of security.
That sort of shock to the system is such a great feeling, but hard to convey intentionally.
T - It’s a surprise, but it doesn’t feel out of place at all. It constantly builds itself into new surprises, new revelations, that you hadn’t really been prepared for based on the previous track. Each track here, there’s something new that’s being brought to the table. On “Three Gates”, we reach a new high with the most aggressive music here.
“Three Gates” might be my favorite track on the album. I totally appreciate the sequencing, but on my first listening I thought this should’ve been the first track. It is sort of a standout on the record.
T - The whole record is mountainous. Where you have different heights of aggression for each track.
It’s a bell curve album.
T - Yeah!
So our x-axis is time, y-axis is aggression…
T - And “Three gates” is right at the fiftieth percentile.
And it’s such an ease down from there, down to “Hunted”, which is just a jam.
T - And including the 2, 3 minutes of really minimalist sort of ambient guitar work and thick rolling drums. I don’t think there’s really a precursor to that on the rest of the record. They never pull back to complete minimalism before that moment.
I’d say it’s the opposite, most of the album prior is layering, even from track one. We start from nothing, and we get drums, then riff, then vocals. It’s a building up from that point until “Three Gates”, and then they kind of deconstruct as they go on.
T - It’s a record full of dichotomies, where you have the harsh vocals and clean, and even in the harsh vocals you have high and low pitches.
I want to talk about that too. To layer both, it almost feels indecisive to me. They hit separate modalities, in a way. It seems like one or the other alone would’ve been stronger. Did it work for you?
T - I liked it quite a bit. Now that you mention that, I don’t know if it conveys the same overwhelming atmosphere that the rest of the album has, but from a gut-feeling, it’s so visceral that it works for me.
I guess layering so much, it does set this precedent as, “this is the pinnacle”, this is their peak of vocal aggression. I’m just not sure if it works as well for me. It has a purpose…
T - It has a purpose, but it might not be the same purpose as the rest of the album is building towards. Sort of a cognitive dissonance for you?
Yeah. With our bell curve here, with “Three Gates” being the climax, what are they trying to get to?
T - Looking at that [graph] now, it’s not as accurate as it could be. We get a spike of aggression in both “Candlelight” and “Beyond the Door”. “Beyond the Door” especially, the bit with the harsh vocals is the one spot on the record where I get this sort of interior antagonism. It’s a call and response that sort of attack each other.
That’s the point for me where Khemmis is most wrestling with an idea, almost even with an identity as a band. Like they’re presenting both sides of an argument. Looking at the record as a whole I think it’s clear what side has won out for them, but this spot is almost a call to listeners as a, “See, we can do both sides” sort of thing. We’ve sort of being toying with this idea of intention, but it seems like it’s all a middle ground. I’m not sure they fully commit to anything.
T - Except for “Above the Water”.
So do you think “Above the Water” is their thesis then?
T - I don’t know if it’s a thesis or an outlier. All of the other tracks have moments of interior experimentation, whereas “Above the Water” presents a singular melodic vision.
It’s dreamy, it’s drifting. Your analysis of feeling like being on a boat is so on the nose. I can’t think of anything more apt. Clearly they hit those notes in the lyricism as well, but everything about it conveys this floating and soaring. Then they get more into the call / response, conflict, mirroring sense of the rest of the album.
T - Then I think the question is, is that sort of conflict the thesis then?
You mean the contrast being the ends and not the means?
T - Precisely.
This album — perhaps it’s just because we’re both writers — but I can’t stop thinking about it being it’s own sort of narrative arc. Five act structure, a self contained argument. Presenting a singular idea, different sides, and then resolving to the most minimalist conclusion. The construction, the sequencing which we’ve talked so much about, the “point” of the record has to be the mirroring or dichotomy showcased. In in that regard it succeeds.
T - In both of those regards. Any negative we’ve brought up, at least on my end, seems so minor. I’m almost struggling to provide something critical because this is such a joy to listen to.
It’s such a fun record. They never alienate you as a listener. With so many metal bands these days, it’s sort of “ride or die” but I never feel that demand from Khemmis here.
T - All of the emotions are presented to you, as opposed to an attempt to manipulate you to feel a certain way. It’s very genuine in that way.
All the emotions are inherent here. That might be it’s biggest downfall for me; it’s almost too passive. They explore such a huge range in tonality, musicality, minimalism and maximalism, and just conflict in general that it sort of lends itself to discussion.
T - Khemmis is making metal go organic!
We talked briefly about lyrics. They have a lot of obvious motifs in the songwriting. They talk of “flickering lights” often; something on the precipice of going out.
T - But it’s not just about the light itself, but what it reveals in the room or the space, as it’s going out, the shadows that enshroud everything around it. I couldn’t quote you specific lyrics, but while it isn’t a concept album of course there is this sense of incessant paranoia that acts as a through line. There’s always a sense of fear but you aren’t really sure what that’s a fear of.
Like an omniscient, omnipresent spiritual energy just at the bounds of our vision.
T - There’s an unnamed spiritual energy that’s so implicit that it could even deny itself. It’s more supernatural than a slasher film, but it comes from the same psychology as one of those victims before they know they’re being chased.
The lyrics and the music is so well intertwined too, and that sense just compounds across the melodies. Final thoughts?
T - I don’t see myself putting this record away for a while. 2016 was a great year for music, but perhaps not a great year for metal. In spite of that, this was one of the strongest records I’ve heard from the year. It’s cerebral, but also has a primal quality. Both of those facets work so well together and engage many different parts of your listening.
Yeah, Khemmis puts together a record that hits a spot that hasn’t really been hit before, or at least not as effectively. They’re in a league of their own now.
T - And what’s so interesting to me is that it hits that unique spot by returning to the roots of the genre, and reimagining forward.
Especially since doom carries such a connotation with it now, it’s amazing in a way to see what else can be done with it, and in a really genuine way.
T - It’s experimental in a way that doesn’t feel experimental while you’re listening to it.
I just wish it was more active. There’s moments that are lost on me for sure. I tune out for certain parts. I’m not as enthralled by it as you are, but I think that’s perhaps because I’m coming to this record while on a sludge and black metal kick. It’s just not exactly the aesthetic quality I’m looking for right now.
T - I get that. I definitely expect I’ll be listening to this in a year!