Never content to rest on their laurels, Denver’s premier doom group Khemmis is back with their third album Desolation. Fresh off an excellent split EP in 2017 and a widely-lauded set at this year’s Roadburn festival, they could be forgiven for taking 2018 off. Instead, they’ve pulled out all the stops and brought out what just might be the best doom record of the year.
Opening with the one-two punch of lead singles “Bloodletting” and “Isolation”, Desolation is immediately a pacier affair than its predecessors. “Bloodletting” has a noticeably quicker tempo than the openers of either Hunted or Absolution, which points to a much-tightened chemistry within the group. Even the shredding and guitar solos in its denouement are less sprawling than they have been previously. Underpinned by a galloping rhythm section that’s pure Iron Maiden, courtesy of Zach Coleman’s thunderous drums and the biting crunch of Dan Beiers’ bass, the guitars of Phil Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson are given the freedom to go wandering. Where previously they might have languished in the abyss of long notes and reverb, they shred their way through instead. No noodling here though – those flourishes actually demonstrate that the group have struck the balance between their proclivity for downtempo gloom and penchant for pace.
Let the “Bloodletting” begin!
It’s that balance that’s most important. The band’s sound is best described as “doom ‘n’ roll.” Pendergast’s clean vocals are incredibly gloomy at times – see “how could I pray for salvation, when I’m the only mourner left to grieve?” on “Isolation” – and the slower musical passages on songs like “Flesh To Nothing” elicit comparisons to YOB. His harsh vocals have taken on a much more evil slant, clearly channeling the voice of abyssal depths as yet un-plumbed. However, the whole product is given a knowing swagger that Thin Lizzy would be proud of, and the aforementioned quicker tempo stops it getting too bogged down in the same emotional depths plumbed by Pallbearer. Thus, doom ‘n’ roll.
They manage the balance between doom and everything else very well – better than they have done previously. On their first two albums, Absolution and Hunted, and even on their contribution to the Fraught With Peril split EP, the transitions between slower and faster passages, between the doom and the roll, felt clumsily handled on occasion. For a metaphorical comparison, imagine Death the Grim Reaper learning to control his skeletal horse. Now, after much practice, the proverbial Pale Rider has successfully broken in his steed. There’s no hard tugging on the reins to slow to a trot from a gallop, nor any sudden kicks with spurs to get it moving. The band have achieved a fine balance between the swaggering melodic styles and thunderous rhythms of Iron Maiden and the abyssal emotional depths of YOB, bringing the listener an album that feels confident and assured.
Found yourself trapped in “Isolation”? Listen to this song…
Album closer “From Ruin” is an excellent example of getting the balance exactly right. Its opening bars are slow, the lone guitar building a sense of gloom, before everyone else joins in. But half way through the course of its nine minutes, the tempo accelerates. The Pale Rider has kicked his steed into a gallop. But that acceleration, and the gentle ease back into the slower tempo towards the end, both feel very natural rather than turning on a dime like it might have done on previous albums. Pendergast’s clean singing is also given an excellent airing during the breakdown at the 2:30 mark. The anguish of the lyrics – “Deep in the forest, I am alone again… fighting back the dread” – is clearly highlighted to show off just how emotive the doom can really be.
That’s just one example though – all six songs on the album highlight this balance, showing that the band’s chemistry has tightened considerably since their debut album just three years ago. It’s not just a balance between slow and fast, it’s also a marriage of melody and dissonance. Take “The Seer”, which exhibits a slow tempo, but has guitars soaring above the slab-heavy rhythm section that make it into an incredible marriage of beautiful melody and doom-laden dissonance.
Down with what the band are doing? Stream the full album here.
It’s the successful merger of the doom and the roll together that gives the album its edge, its swagger, and ultimately what makes it so exciting to listen. What might sound like an odd coupling is actually a match made in heaven. Tricky to pull off it might be, but Khemmis make it look and sound easy. Desolation is easily their best album to date, and a very strong contender for doom album of the year.
Desolation Track Listing:
03. Flesh to Nothing
04. The Seer
05. Maw of Time
06. From Ruin
Run Time: 41:35
Release Date: June 22, 2018
Record Label: 20 Buck Spin, Nuclear Blast