Monday, June 08, 2009
Creeping death: Goodbye Khanate
There's been a fair amount of eulogizing/stock-taking/tying-up-of-loose-ends going on re: Khanate and if this were a lesser band, I might be a little fatigued by the hubbub over the demise of a project that only really existed for five years. But the devotion evident in both Phil Freeman's killer Voice homage and this remarkable interview with bassist/sound-manipulator James Plotkin are wholly justified. This was a special entity.
Strolling after work today, I took in the entirety of "Every God Damn Thing," the sprawling 33-plus-minute concluding track off Clean Hands Go Foul, a new posthumous Khanate album on Hydra Head that seems to officially close the book on the band. I struggle with words here. I want to say things like "horrifying" or "scary" or "fucked up" or what have you, but those seem like placeholders for what I really think and feel about this music.
There is a very heavy element of abstraction to what Khanate did, zeroed in on and unpacked excellently in the Plotkin interview above. He discusses how the band's utter abandonment of tempo made it unique in the metal universe, and indeed, it's a herculean thing these musicians did, to just toss meter out the window. Again I struggle, though: What is the unique achievement? What is it that makes this stuff feel so bone-deep? Because it's not simply the freeformness. You could call "Every God Damn Thing" a "soundscape," I guess, peg it as some sort of ambient-metal drift piece. But that's just a bummer as well.
Let's call it cave music, then. A feeling of humidity, of sad, sad delirium in Stephen O'Malley's absent-minded wisps of melody. And these creaking, dragging sounds in the background. Like a mind limping. There's that line in Apocalypse Now, when Martin Sheen's character recalls entering Kurtz's chamber: "It smelled like slow death in there." That's what "Every God Damn Thing" sounds like. (Another movie that springs to mind is Blair Witch Project. A line from the Clean Hands track "In That Corner"--"I made that corner for you to stand in!"--makes me think of that film's unforgettable last shot. O'Malley's humid guitar again sets the mood: a grisly, epic sadness.)
I also think of the phrase "horror vacui," for some reason. Not really a fear of open space, but rather a fearful open space, this awful sparseness, a drift of crazed thoughts, shouting. Nothing to respond. You imagine vocalist Alan Dubin, brilliantly one-dimensional on "Every God Damn Thing" as always, locked in a basement, just clanking toward madness. Raving. Shrieking things about people, roaches, hell. Some sort of ubiquitous blackness. The instruments creak and moan terribly.
Considering how visceral and haunting Khanate's music is, they make me think a whole hell of a lot. First, I ponder the notion that Khanate is widely considered a metal band. "Every God Damn Thing" bears even less relationship to metal than most Khanate, which is really saying something. There's nothing remotely resembling a riff here. Just that murmuring guitar, stray drum thumps, zapping feedback and ugly string scrapes. It's like this canvas of lulling mania. The sounds drift, and they'd really mean very little if it weren't for the vocals and the words (Dubin's screaming being really the only element signifying "metal," or any genre whatsoever). Amazing, considering that the instrumental track was, apparently, entirely improvised, with Dubin layering on his part afterward. The shrieking and the cruel, horrified monologue--"It's all bad! It's all bad again!"--somehow renders the weird stasis of the music profound, makes you hang on every little gesture. If you saw an improv group perform this background track, you'd think "eh." The reason this is so great is because even in a freeform setting like this, Khanate is a band--the music animates and responds to (or at least seems to respond to) the vocals. And also they are a metal band, which means they care deeply about atmospherics and mood-setting. Improv musicians could learn a lot from an outfit like this, specifically about how to make abstract, gestural playing feel enormously weighty.
If Dubin wasn't so hugely evocative, he could ruin the music. Instead he makes it. The music becomes a manifestation of the diseased consciousness of this man-monster-poet that he portrays in pretty much every Khanate song. And the players give voice to the feelings. It's music about a sick mind, totally adrift, music that doesn't let you do anything other than be mesmerized by it. You can't put Clean Hands, or any of the other Khanate records, on and just do something else. You're either listening to it fully or you're not. There's a lot of avant-garde metal floating around these days, but very little of it deserves and commands your undivided attention the way this does. It's a sickening kind of hovering suspense with no payoff and for those of us with masochistic listening tendencies, it's something like heaven.
Things Viral ('03) was the first Khanate disc that grabbed me, and it grabbed me hard. I never spent much time w/ the first, self-titled disc, or '05's Capture and Release, but I always retained these very strong memories of sitting alone in the dark in my former apartment, an East Village studio, just tripping out to Things Viral. I saw them around the same time at Tonic. I remember a lot of splintering drumsticks and tense anticipation. In a way, though, Khanate is more something you deal with alone. It's music about solitude and it's best experienced in that state.
I've read that there are military torture methods where the perpetrators isolate the feeling of panic or terror and simply extend it ad infinitum in the victim. "Every God Damn Thing" is sort of the same thing, but with pure dread. "Even flowers disgust!" Dubin yowls. There's nothing to make of this but what it is: a revolution in scaring the living shit out of you via sound. Pick up Clean Hands Go Foul and go somewhere where you won't be disturbed and just live with "Every God Damn Thing" in its entirety. It's a chore to stumble back to reality afterward, but it's worth the trauma. There's a very delicious kind of madness on display here. In other words, hail to these guys: Don't take for granted the magnitude of what they did.