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Khemmis Joins the Heavy Metal Elite with ‘Desolation’

Confidence oozes from Khemmis' Desolation . It's a six-song, 41-minute battle cry of triumph—and that's exactly what you want from doom-brandishing heavy metal.

20 Buck Spin / Nuclear Blast
22 June 2018

In recent years we have seen an upsurge of young, hungry talent taking the classic songwriting of metal’s early torchbearers—big, boisterous vocal melodies, twin-guitar heroics, and iron-clad riffs and rhythms—and combining those timeless traits with more contemporary ideas, such as genre cross-pollination, to plenty of acclaim.

In the US for example, Pallbearer’s creative and commercial ascent has been exciting to witness for anyone who’s been a fan of the progressive doom act since their 2010 demo. And now we have Denver, Colorado’s Khemmis, who’ve been following a similar career arc as their Arkansas-based peers. In fact, both bands are now label-mates in Europe, as Khemmis have joined Pallbearer on the books of industry behemoth Nuclear Blast for their third album, Desolation. While in North America, Khemmis remain on 20 Buck Spin—a cult label having a whopper 2018 so far, particularly with Mournful Congregation’s latest doom-death opus and Tomb Mold’s riff-splattered death metal masterwork.

Khemmis showed plenty of promise on their first two albums for 20 Buck Spin, yet their music wasn’t quite deserving of the press accolades. It appeared as though the talented four-piece were still honing their craft, developing the riffs, and trying to improve the melodies and positioning of the vocals (both clean and harsh) as well as the phrasing and harmonization of the guitar leads and solos.

Desolation, however, is the complete capitalization of their potential. The songwriting is teeming with fresh ideas while still utilizing classic motifs; the structures are vibrant, ever-evolving and come to sensible resolutions; the performances are excellent, and the blending of their extreme and old-school influences is more seamless than before. Confidence oozes from this album. It’s a six-song, 41-minute battle cry of triumph—and that’s exactly what you want from doom-brandishing heavy metal.

Just like the aforementioned Mournful Congregation, the lead-guitar work on Desolation is simply stunning. The dueling guitar interplay of founding members/vocalists Phil Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson is rich, bright, melodic, soulful, yet technically dazzling when the songs call for it. Their interchanges are immediate, as the grandstanding harmonized intro of “Bloodletting” opens Desolation and is underpinned by the slamming heft of the bass and drums, manned by Dan Beiers and Zach Coleman respectively. The guitar lines are intricate while the Candlemass-worthy riffs land with hammer-on-anvil impact, the former careening to a spiraling crescendo at the song’s end.

“Isolation”, the second track, is a great example of the fat-free song-writing found throughout this album, and it highlights the refinement of Khemmis’s sound through its immediacy. Stylistically speaking, the chug and gallop of the riffs and the sharp leads sound not unlike Iron Maiden circa Powerslave if they had Paradise Lost guitarist Gregor Mackintosh and former Megadeth virtuoso Marty Friedman amongst their ranks. High praise indeed, but completely warranted when you hear the expressive trade-offs.

It’s the melding of doom metal’s hulking riffs and regal tones with the energy of thrash and the drama of traditional metal that distinguishes Khemmis. But also, these players know when to scale the vocals back to allow the instrumental sections room to shine, and that’s what makes “Flesh to Nothing” so effective as grows from slower, emotive passages to a determined percussive jolt and back to a mid-paced tempo which leads to a flourish of solos, all without a second drag.

Phil Pendergast has made the greatest strides between albums, however. His vocal melodies are hook-heavy, and his delivery is rousing, impassioned yet never melodramatic, even when he adds dark-cast emotion to “The Seer”, contrasting greatly with Hutcherson’s sparsely used array of screams. As mentioned above, the incorporation of the more extreme influences in Khemmis’s arsenal could be jarring on their previous albums, particularly vocally, but here they are carefully positioned. On the thunderous and dominate “Maw of Time”, for example, the layered higher screeches and deep growls and the exchanges with Pendergast’s ill-omened melodies are something the band should explore more in the future.

According to the press release sent out with this album, Khemmis “felt more inspired by the likes of Mercyful Fate, In Solitude, Celtic Frost and Metallica on this album than ever before”. Without being aware of this fact you could still find moments where the signifiers of those bands are indeed apparent. Some of the back-and-forths of the guitars are reminiscent of the chemistry Fate’s shredders Hank Shermann and Michael Denner. The austere atmospheres conjured by In Solitude on modern classic Sister share commonalities with the dynamic closer “From Ruin” especially. The patented stomp of Celtic Frost is a more subtle influence, but the chugging riffs of Metallica circa The Black Album are very defined during one particular passage of “The Seer”, and Metallica’s early sense of adventure can also be felt regarding the labyrinthine nature of the arrangements.

But, in saying that, those influences and others are blended in such a way through intelligent, honed songcraft that Khemmis’s new songs sound fresh and dynamic and not overly indebted to any one act in particular while also being devoid of the lulls in momentum synonymous with doom metal. With Desolation, Khemmis has now joined the heavy metal elite, and the band’s future is now brighter than ever.

RATING 8 / 10