When describing Khanate, there are a few words which instantly come to mind - "disturbing", "abrasive" and "torturous", for example. One word that you would almost certainly not use, however, is "beautiful" - and yet, that is exactly what this album is. While it is still just as extreme and harrowing as anything else released by the band, if not moreso, with this album Khanate exchanged most of the horror-movie style tension and dread of their earlier releases to create an atmosphere of misery, self-loathing and even raw, palpable sadness. This release is a four track, hour-long assault on your ears and your sanity, and yet, amongst all the noise, Khanate managed to create something genuinely powerful.
Khanate began life as a drone-doom supergroup, featuring guitarist Steven O'Malley from drone metal icons Sunn O))), as well as vocalist Alan Dubin & bassist James Plotkin from experimental grindcore band OLD/Old Lady Drivers (drummer Tim Wyskida would later go on to play with Blind Idiot God). Their self-titled debut demonstrated the most obvious combination of the separate members' influences, featuring Sunn O))) style ultra-slow droning guitar riffs, combined with shrieking feedback and some of the most distinctive, spine-tingling, nightmare-inducing screams ever put to tape. Combined with the often gory, yet subtle lyrics, which usually read like something torn straight from the diary of a deranged serial killer, Khanate had created something truly unique. This style was further experimented upon in the next few albums, with the nightmare fuel of the debut mostly exchanged for a maddening sense of tension and suspense, leaving you with your body clenched and with dread curdling in the bottom of your stomach. Clean Hands, though, is probably the clearest example of a stylistic shift for the band. Instead of the big, biting, bass-heavy chords and thunderously slow drumming of the previous albums, the listener is instead assaulted by screeching guitar feedback and minor chords, distorted bass usually playing in an entirely separate key altogether, and random cymbal crashes & free-time drumming. It's cacophonous, noisy, and barely musical, but man, can these guys make it sound good - as a prime example, the heart-wrenching "guitar solo" about halfway through In That Corner, which somehow manages to make atonal feedback sound almost epic, and anthemic.
Given that this album only has four tracks, each being rather different from the others, I think analysing each of them individually is the only really practical way to approach this review. The album begins with Wings From Spine, and from the very second the album starts to play, the first thing you hear are trademark Alan Dubin shrieks. For about a minute, Dubin just screams and screams wordlessly, each scream being played back and layered upon another. Then, for a second or two, there is a silence, before the lyrics rip through you like a knife. The track is (relatively) short and simple, and probably the most accessible on the record, but at the end of it, you feel thoroughly and entirely emotionally drained. But there is no time for you to recover, because the second the song is done, in comes the absolutely brutal In That Corner. This track starts off by seeming to deliberately go out of its way to sonically beat you to a cowering, quivering pulp - but then, around three miuntes in, the vocals subside, and the song opens up to the aforementioned guitar solo. There is a real sense of relief at this moment, leaving it feeling like after all of the weight already piled on you by the album, you can finally stand up and cry out, and get some much-needed emotional release. As the solo finishes, the song quiets down and becomes much more sparse. The distortion is turned, the drums go from crashing to airy, and the vocals are filtered to be, at times, almost inaudible. After the massive buildup and release of tension, you are finally able to just sit, sweating and panting, and contemplate all that you have just undergone. As the song fades out, it sets the stage perfectly for Clean My Heart. This track begins with vague, reverbed out screams, and droning, dissonant guitar feedback, which start as inaudible and gradually swell into the mix. It builds and builds up, until Alan Dubin is once again torturing your ears, this time with what are probably some off the most visceral and brutal vocals I have heard from him. This song is more to the traditional Khanate style - it is slow, rhythmless, droning and has no clear structure at all. This is, however, by no means a bad thing - by minimising the variation in this song, the band is able to create an unrelentingly dark atmosphere, which simply will not let up, and, again, just piles up on you until your breaking point. This time, though, there is no real release or closure - the track continues droning on, and then simply stops. Then, enters the grand finale - Every God Damn Thing, which is possibly the most misanthropic, non-musical song I have ever heard. It is 33 minutes of whispering and agonised screeching, accompanied only by the occasional dissonant guitar chord, or click of the drumsticks. This piece of music is entirely devoid of structure, tempo, rhythm or melody, until the last two minutes or so, at which point the instrumental section briefly pounds out the "climax" of the song, with Dubin's shrieks just that little bit louder.
The lyrics for this album were also significantly different to the usual Khanate fare. They also fit perfectly with the heart-wrenching brutality of the music, and take this album from being simply dark and experimental to some of the most extremely emotionally devastating listening I have heard. The opening track refers to how the author "broke an angel". While there is no explicit explanation of what this means, the lyrics seem to be full of guilt and shame, and suggest that the author is not in control of his own actions. Without directly stating or calling anything really specific to mind, the lyrics are still able to create a definite feeling of unease - a complex combination of fear, pity and grief. In That Corner describes various, somewhat bizarre acts of dominance and torture - and while some of the lines would, in another context, seem so strangely worded as to be ironic or even comical ("a kick will fix it"), you can tell from the delivery that the author seems to truly mean it. This track perfectly evokes genuine raw terror and discomfort, creating a sense of evil and insanity that is more convincing than any standard-issue black metal band. Clean My Heart follows a similar subject matter, but expands more upon the psychological perspective of the torturer - while the author describes, apparently, dismembering the listener and corroding their body with acid and bleach, he also refers to himself as being, alternately, "king", "demon", "human" and "garbage", and seems to see this bizarre act of torture as some way to purify himself (or "clean [his] heart", as stated in the lyrics). This song expands upon the fractured psychology of a stereotypical horror-movie serial killer with such a degree of complexity and subtlety that is so seldom seen in works covering this topic, and is all the more convincing because of that. The final song, however, truly takes the cake for having the most relentlessly depressing lyrics on the album. It is written in a long, stream-of-consciousness style, and discusses the author's growing psychotic misanthropy, misery, self-hatred and general descent into insanity. It is, lyrically, some of the most raw, brutal stuff I have ever heard. The most affecting lyrical moments here, in my opinion, are when the slightest glimmer or symbol of hope (for example, a singing bird) is represented, before these symbols are subverted, and all hope is extinguished. And yet, as brutal as the lyrics throughout this album may be, there is also a certain subtle, evocative quality to them, whereby leaving out or being intentionally obtuse about certain details just creates an even starker image in the listener's mind. Whether it is opening Clean My Heart by simply referring to "ribs, and liquid, and begging", or throughout the entirety of Wings From Spine stating that the author "was bad" and "broke an angel", without expanding upon what any of these motifs really actually refer to, the listener is left to fill in the blanks with their own mind. It's a masterfully executed technique, and one that makes these lyrics so much more effective than they would be otherwise.
So, as you can probably tell, this album is hardly for everyone. In fact, I would probably suggest that the vast majority of people would simply not be able to enjoy this, no matter how much effort they put into listening to it. Even I had to go through and force myself to listen and re-listen to these tracks several times to really appreciate the qualities of this album. But if you've got the patience, the nerve and the desire to take a glimpse into some of the ugliest music ever made, you may just find yourself also listening to some of the most beautiful.
REVIEW SUMMARY: Incredibly dark and difficult listening, but very well-done and rewarding if you can get into it.
OVERALL RANKING: A