As in any creative endeavor, metal involves the chasing both of trends and of tails. Young, or in embarrassing circumstances, well-established musicians will spend years embedding themselves in whatever sounds hip, while others toil in obscurity for an entire career, refusing to innovate. Neither of these approaches is ideal, but they’re at least comprehensible responses to creative pressures. It takes something else to make music that, even if it has obvious roots, seems to have been produced entirely out of these cycles. Such was the case with #!%16.7, the last release from Krakow’s oddball djent group Ketha. It had everything you’d never expect; grind-length grooves, a horn section, and even that Casio patch that’s just a dude grunting. Immediately, it put the name Ketha on the level of inexplicable oddities like ni and Planetarisk Sudoku.
Zero Hours Starlight is a wholly more conventional effort than the band’s last EP, but it still refuses easy categorization. It comes from a place divorced from our trends and timeline, utterly alien, like an exotic bird flying in through an open window. It’s a djent record in that Ketha obviously take a lot of inspiration from Meshuggah, but much like Car Bomb or C.B. Murdoc, that inspiration is channeled through a bustling creativity with a knack for the odd. Something sounds just a bit off with “Monarchs,” and even when the groove kicks in, there’s an odd distance to the music, as if it’s playing out across a radar screen rather than the air between speaker and eardrum.
Perhaps the croaked vocals are to blame for the feeling, or the way everything seems to get sucked into the drumkit at the end of the song, swirling like hair around the drain. Maybe it’s the downtuned guitars, which burp like tipsy digeridoos in “Bliss” and make the opening to “Grudge” sound like Pantera being played by a compost pile. Whatever it is that makes Ketha weird, it’s still here even sans the horn section and wacked-out keys of #!%16.7. Yet without the continuity and extra oddity that really pulled that EP together, Zero Hours Starlight feels a bit lacking, especially in the album’s less ambitious passages, like the first minute of “Grudge,” or the first two minutes of closer “HyperGiant” which overplay the album’s chunkiest groove.
Yet Ketha‘s oddness is still enough to keep most of Zero Hours Starlight upright – or rather, at a jaunty angle. The album opens with Khanda, the beginning of a strong a-side, and the b-side sets up similar expectations with “Mokomokai.” The chunky production and odd vocals give off an obtuse air throughout, though when vocalist ‘mrtrip’ tries out a bit of melodic croaking, he toes the line between strangeness and poor execution. The style is an obvious homage to Tomas Haake’s spoken word segments on Nothing and Catch Thirtythree, but it works best as an effect rather than a basis. The short run-time and frenetic pace of #!%16.7 meant there was too little time for just about any part of it to get old. This new, more grounded record is easier to find flaws with, but by any measure it’s less bizarre than that EP, and that’s a bit disappointing.
The more grounded music of Zero Hours Starlight can’t really match that of #!%16.7, but that EP’s sense of identity still lurks. And while the music doesn’t recapitulate Ketha‘s last full length, 2nd Sight, it nonetheless feels like a step backwards for the band that had so much potential just a few years ago. Now their fireworks and neon have burnt out, and without those gaudy hues, Zero Hours Starlight feels just a bit more normal.