Khemmis - Hunted
Listen and buy on their Bandcamp
Doom metal and stoner metal don’t do much for me. In my experience, they’re insular genres resistant to change, sticking to the sluggish bpms that defined it in its infancy. I can appreciate a crushing doom break or a fuzzy riff, but without some contrast, a change of tone or tempo, I tune out. There are bands that transcend the limitations of their genre--Warning and 40 Watt Sun spring to mind, both fronted by Patrick Walker, and Elder released a very cool album earlier this year--but they’re exceptions to the rule. What elevates these bands is the way they dig into and project emotion, using the tools of the genre to enhance it rather than the other way around. To that list, I’m officially adding Khemmis as my undisputed favorite based on the strength of Hunted, a record so flat-out awesome that it has motivated me to reevaluate my position on the genre.
From what I understand, Khemmis’s first album is a more niche effort that was lauded in doom and stoner circles for its fusion of different doom and stoner subcategories I won’t even try to identify, while Hunted takes a more “classical” approach, discarding a lot of the stoner influences in favor of more twin-guitar harmonies. That’s fine with me, and totally apparent from the album’s killer opening track “Above the Water,” which lays out almost every trick Khemmis will use on Hunted. The riffs are intricate but not overly complicated, favoring mournful leads (think a bedraggled Iron Maiden) over downtrodden hard rock riffs for an atypically accessible blend. But it’s the vocals that seal the deal, covered by Ben and Phil (I’m unable to find last names for either). One’s strong bass voice soars over the music, anthemic and forlorn, utilizing simple and powerful melodies to stir the heart, but “Candlelight” shows the album’s true colors. It rides its heart-on-sleeve melodicism for a while before cutting the tempo in half and dropping the listener into a chasm of rattling low chords and the other vocalist’s death growls, making for quite an introduction to the heavy side of Khemmis.
“Three Gates” a great mid-album rocker, capturing the band at their most infectious, and it’s this song that may tip the listener off to the fact that they’re listening to a concept album. Although it’s not necessary to understand the story to enjoy the music, it’s fun to imagine how the album’s wizards-and-warhorses artwork sync up with this song’s medieval-horror lyrics and how they relate to the seafaring tales of “Above the Water” and “Candlelight.” The song then thrusts into the nine-minute behemoth of “Beyond the Door,” a plunge into some of the album’s most oppressive material, while we’re riding high on the catchiness of the previous track. The opening lead sways mesmerizingly from one note to the next, setting us up for the long game as the track phases through passage after seamless passage of quality doom, some galloping and warlike, some clean-strummed and vulnerable. These nine minutes go by much faster than they should, a testament to the band’s deft songwriting, which makes the closing thirteen-minute epic of “Hunted” seem even grander in contrast. You feel every moment of this track, its ever-evolving structure guiding us through adventurous technical detours toward a downbeat climax of resignation, one that feels at once new for the album and consistent with its emotional direction. Hunted ends without a lot of fanfare, in line with the genre, and yet leaves such an impression that the only way to follow it up is to play it again.
It may just be my inexperience, or I may be jumping the shark, but I feel that Hunted, along with Elder’s Reflections of a Dying World (as well as Pallbearer’s three full-lengths, although I don’t enjoy them to the same extent) represent something of a turning point for the genre, a pivot toward a more accessible style that remains true to the core tenets of the sound even as it maps new territory. Clocking in at forty-five minutes over five tracks, Hunted is counterintuitively digestible, and exciting despite its depressive atmosphere. If, like me, you’ve had trouble getting into the style, this could be the album (and the band) that changes that for you as it’s changing it for me. Against all odds, Hunted is a doom record that leaves you smiling.