Forget indie sleaze – there was something much, much darker and more captivating growing in New York’s underground in the early 2000s.
Khanate were stretching doom metal far beyond conventional musicality, as guitarist Stephen O’Malley’s [also of Sunn O))), drone-metal pioneers] strums hung in arrested shock, bleeding out more than reverberating. Drummer Tim Wyskida bashed those riffs down from the sky while bassist James Plotkin accented with more subterranean emanations. Vocalist Alan Dubin, who previously sang with Plotkin in experimental grindcore band O.L.D., screeches in disgust at what he’s witnessing, penetrating any perverse comfort one might find. [The way he yells “CHOOOOOOOKE” in “Under Rotting Sky” is the stuff of nightmares for the most far-gone.] There was no sense of time, no exit strategy, only everlasting torture. Yet they were also at the forefront of metal bands embracing outre music, putting modern classical and Sabbath on equal footing.
With members having many outside commitments, Khanate couldn’t sustain their slow-dearth campaign all that long. By the time Clean Hands Go Foul was released in 2009, they had been broken up for three years. “Every God Damn Thing,” the album’s nearly 33-minute closer, was an apt coda for them, with Dubin bearing the weight of the world while the band creeps deserted and defeated. O’Malley continued with Sunn O))) and numerous other projects, Plotkin kept busy with mastering work, Dubin formed the noisier experimental unit Gnaw, and Wyskida continued to play with NYC avant-rockers Blind Idiot God.
That was it.
Until a couple of weeks ago, when Khanate surprise released To Be Cruel through Sacred Bones. In the works since 2017, when the band quietly reunited and worked on the record in between their main projects, it sounds like Khanate never disbanded, which means it sounds totally fucked up. O’Malley and Dubin dominate, naturally, but Plotkin’s subtle synth work and Wyskida’s sheet metal “percussion” warp Khante’s sound into something richer and yet even more miserable. Who in the right mind would enjoy a song called “Like a Poisoned Dog,” much less make it? Why is Dubin likening humanity to a spider getting its legs plucked off in the title track so soul-stirring? The cruelty is the point.
We chatted with Plotkin about Khanate return, how they’re more relevant than ever, and the surprising humor found in their uncompromising music, all of which you can peruse below.
SPIN: Khanate’s music has always been really, really bleak, so it resonates now more than ever. Do you find that even a little disturbing?
James Plotkin (bass, synths): There’s always room for angry music out there. Everything in society at this point, especially in this country, is so tense and there’s so much pent-up anger everywhere. Maybe the fact the music is aggressive and there’s a lot of vitriol in the sound that I guess will make it relevant.
How do you think this record explores the theme of cruelty?
I know [Alan] explores those themes quite a bit in his own head. There’s something poetic about the way he expresses it through words, it doesn’t seem to me it’s directed in a way where he’s promoting, it’s just an exploration of the human condition and the things humans are capable of. Alan, in general, is a very likable guy. He’s got a pretty good mindset and he’s not an angry person in general. It’s more an exploration of the human condition and the atrocities that normal, everyday people can experience in their own heads and how they act on them.
It’s almost like he’s just venting or it’s a cry of agony because of all of these things, not necessarily promoting them or excusing them in any way, it’s more an exclamation of the horror of life in general.
I’ve heard that Alan actually has a great sense of humor. Is there any humor to what he does in Khanate?
There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek in Alan’s lyrics. There are moments on this new record where the lyrics are acknowledged among the band to be absolutely ridiculous and during the recording some of the delivery just punctuated that. He’s reciting the most horrific lyrics and we’re basically sitting there watching him do it and laughing about it because it’s so absurd.
It kind of goes hand in hand with how metal embraces its more ridiculous aspects. It embraces the absurd in ways other genres don’t.
I agree. It’s a little more difficult to take a band seriously who themselves are incredibly serious about such an absurd image. I guess Manowar would be a good example. Part of what draws me to stuff like that is when the artist themselves can acknowledge that it’s just so embrace and they fully embrace that. Black metal, for example – if you take the image seriously and there’s no room for laughter in there, I mean, what? I guess you wind up stabbing your band members and stuff like that.
Of all the songs on the new record, “It Wants to Fly” stands out the most. What did you get from that song in particular?
I think it’s easily the darkest song on the record. Alan visits a theme every now and then of post-death that I find really interesting, he did it before on “Fields” from Things Viral. Some of the lyrics sent a chill down my spine – every human wonders about post-death and there are vast amount of ideas about what the reality is and of course nobody’s gonna know for sure. Musically, that track, I think, is the darkest and lyrically I think it’s the darkest as well. My favorite part about Khanate is when it gets into the areas and ideas of the bleakness of existence, the unanswerable questions that some of Alan’s lyrics provoke.
“Every God Damn Thing” from Clean Hands Go Foul felt like a coda for the band, yet this record proves that there’s more. How does that track and this new record relate to each other?
It actually makes a lot of sense. That track in particular was easily the most sparse and minimal that we had done. Then at the end of the track, it starts to pick up into something that we probably explored a lot more had the tape not run out. We basically stopped because that reel of tape ran out right at the precipice of something new about to happen, something a bit more explosive. That was it for the band. It’s kind of the perfect segue into the new record, I’m glad that you bring that up because that’s something I’ve thought about but didn’t anybody else would catch on.
How else did you feel that Khanate had more to say?
There was always something going on in Khanate that sort of presented new directions we could have taken. Improvisation, while it was not such a huge part of the songs, it was always a theme that would come up in the band. All members of the band are actively engaged in improvising in other projects and it’s a big part of what we love about music in general. There was always a “what comes next” ideology in Khanate.
I guess when we ended, it was cut short to the point where we never really thought we had explored everything we wanted to explore, and we still haven’t. I think the new album is a pretty good indication of where we would have been headed had we not called it back in the day. I can’t really say now if there will be any new material in the future. When we start to put this together in a live situation, our songs always seem to morph into something a little bit different. That was a really good testing ground what might be plausible for the next step in Khanate. Maybe there is still more that needs to be done, it’s hard to say.
Khanate came up in the early 2000s, when metal, particularly doom metal, and experimental music were engaging with each other in interesting ways. What did you make of the crossover between the two?
It’s odd, we didn’t really discuss anything when we got together. Steve played us what he was working on by himself [and] the wheels started turning. We started patching things together and it was a short time after that more unorthodox metal elements were being introduced into the music. It wasn’t ever a conscious decision to push it in an experimental way. We were pushing ourselves to make the most honest, forthcoming music we could possibly do. There wasn’t any restraint other than trying not to play too fast, and that doesn’t even really make sense to me because now I listen to the early material, it’s much faster than what it became after years of performing it.
Fuck – how did Khanate get even slower?
It just happened naturally. I recently had to put together digital masters for the first Khanate album and listening to the first track compared to a live version of the track from three-to-four years later and it’s twice as long. Once we started getting together and playing regularly, the flow of everything became more natural. I’m happy about that transferring to a slower flow of everything – usually when people just let their instincts take over, they tend to speed things up. That speaks to a lot of the general sound of the band and how it’s not a deliberate attempt to be as slow as possible. It’s just giving the sound its own space to live its own life out without being rushed. I personally like music that I can become fully immersed in and I think having a real natural approach to either tempo or lack of tempo and just feeling it out, so to speak, makes becoming immersed in the music much easier for me.
Life is indeed quite cruel, here’s more new metal to help you cope…
Yakuza – Sutra (Svart)
Chicago’s Yazkuza, led by metal’s saxophone colossus Bruce Lamont, return with another album that plays with the edges of genres. Sometimes they’re proggy, sometimes they’re sludgy, sometimes you wonder if this is where Mastodon would go were they less commercial. It always hits. Anyway, why are they still not on Metal Archives?
Nocturnal Effigy – Unveiled Dark Majesty (Self-released)
This enigmatic black metal entity, known for their quite unkvlt light pink covers, returns with another mix of classic lo-fi buzz and dungeon synth. Leadoff track “The Bloodied Chantry” incorporates piano much like the long-deceased, greatly missed Lifelover, punctuating bittersweet melodies. Perfect for modeling chain mail around the house.
Krallice – Porous Resonance Abyss (Hathenter)
I really wish I could have seen members of Krallice perform with Eartheater at Jesus Piece’s release show in Philly. Guess I’ll have to sink into their new album, which imagines symphonic black metal with keyboards as the front-entity, as a compromise. Life could be worse.
Spinebreaker – Cavern of Inoculated Cognition (Creator-Destructor)
San Jose’s death metal crushers lose the HM-2 sounds and broaden their old-school tastes with their latest EP. There’s a hardcore no-nonsense attitude at work here, even with the addition of a third guitarist, Dead Heat’s Justin Ton. If you’re gonna pummel, go all the way.