Khemmis – Deceiver Review

Khemmis, along with Pallbearer, Crypt Sermon, and Spirit Adrift, were once at the vanguard of an exciting new wave of American doom metal. Between 2012 and 2016 these acts burst onto what appeared to be a promising and burgeoning scene, each offering an exciting mixture of old and new sounds, marrying doom with traditional metal. 2021 finds most of these once-promising acts on a bit of a downward trend, with recent outings being somewhat tepid or lackluster. Now Khemmis is set to release their fourth full-length and first since 2018s Desolation. That platter was very good, experimenting with a more traditional metal-forward approach, but it felt like a comedown from killer outings like Absolution and Hunted. As a fan, I hoped Deceiver would see Khemmis move back to the top of the heap and show their full potential in a genre I find very exciting. After spending a good amount of time diagraming, dissecting and drilling down into what Khemmis is doing on Deceiver, I’ve come to some mixed conclusions.

First things first, Khemmis remain a very talented and promising band. When the stars align, they can craft stirring, memorable music that resonates in the mind and soul. There are moments like that here, in fact. There just aren’t enough of them. On Deceiver Khemmis continue their search for that elusive sweet spot between doom and traditional/trve metal. In this mission, they are only partly successful. Opener “Avernal Gate” bursts out of said aperture with galloping trve metal fury, but soon slots into what is the classic Khemmis doom sound, and they’re at their best in this space. The various side quests into trve, death and thrash metal the band undertake provide variety, but these feel forced at times and take away from what is a good doom tune at its core. This ultimately becomes the story of the album. The best moments occur when the band focuses their efforts on being a doom band, as on “Living Pyre,” where the riffs, vocals and gloomy atmosphere showcase everything I love about them. It’s the shortest song on Deceiver but provides the bulk of the album’s memorable moments, and Phil Pendergast’s forlorn vocal lines have been floating in my head for several weeks now. “Shroud of Lethe” delivers its share of winning moments as well, opening in a very soothing Opethian manner and slowly building toward an epic doom sound with references to While Heaven Wept’s glorious endeavors before giving way to nasty death-doom surges. It could be shorter but it definitely works.

On the flip side, several songs fail to find the right genre balance and underperform. “Obsidian Crown” sees Khemmis once again raiding the territories guarded by Tyr, which should be a win. However, it feels underdone and underwhelming. Lengthy closer “The Astral Road” sees the band shifts hard toward trve metal, with a Visigoth / Argus vibe present for much of its 9-minute runtime. It should be 100% in the wheelhouse ov Steel as it even features a return to While Heaven Wept-adjacent environs, and I do enjoy parts of it, but the whole never fully gels with me and it feels overlong. With six songs running 45 minutes, it hurts when the final two tracks are the least inspiring yet combine for 15 minutes of the runtime.

Talent-wise Khemmis are top-flight as always. Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson are excellent guitarists, capable of conjuring beautiful, poignant moments. For all their ability, however, there’s a noticeable absence of big money riffs on Deceiver. There are plenty of pleasantly sadboi harmonies and some enjoyably trve metal gallops, but few truly crushing riff lines to shake the molars and rattle the ribcage. The band walks the line between several genres, but since they forge their best material within the doom sphere, this ends up resulting in less A-level product overall. Vocally, Phil continues to evolve as a singer. His performance on cuts like “Living Pyre” and “Shroud of Lethe” is emotional and compelling, imbuing the songs with class and gravitas. The way Ben ‘s harsh death/black vocals are utilized however feels overly predictable this time. You usually get a few minutes of Phil’s soulful singing, then Ben erupts around the midpoint. It’s generally effective but after a while it becomes formulaic and you almost get the sense the band feels obligated to regularly include harsh vocals.

Deceiver is a good album from a very talented band, but along with contemporaries like Pallbearer, their latest continues a diminishing trend in overall quality. It’s got high points, but weak cuts prevent the album from soaring higher, and that’s a shame. Khemmis is capable of great things, but this makes two “lesser” releases in a row. I’m still hoping the new wave of American doom can right the ship, but Deceiver doesn’t have the proper tow ropes for the task.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 192 kbps mp3
Label: Nuclear Blast
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: November 19th, 2021

Written By: Doom_et_Al

In the middle of the decade, it seemed as if doom was experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Young, hungry bands like Pallbearer and Spirit Adrift were rethinking a sub-genre that had felt at times uncool, melancholic and humorless. Denver-based Khemmis were at the vanguard of this group. 2015’s Absolution was a progressive yet extremely entertaining take on doom, but it was 2016’s Hunted that really turned heads. Heavy without ever dragging, propulsive without sacrificing its emotional core, it slapped harder than a tornado through a mannequin factory. It was my AOTY, and I return to it regularly. 2018’s Desolation hinted at a more experimental, traditional heavy metal direction for the band, but the song-writing was beginning to fray, which rendered it a frustrating listen that lacked the replayability factor of its predecessors. Which leaves the band delicately poised for Deceiver. The doom renaissance has flagged, with Pallbearer disappearing into noodly prog, and Spirit Adrift into humorless hard rock. Are Khemmis able to continue carrying the torch?

Khemmis’s brand of melodic doom has always felt like it was a few tweaks away from some real mainstream success. Which makes it surprising that Deceiver, while retaining the DNA of the band’s core sound, is by far their most somber and melancholic effort. Guitarist and vocalist Ben Hutcherson has publicly discussed his struggles with major depression, suicidal ideation, and a sense of isolation during the pandemic. Deceiver, as a result, is cloaked in sadness and hardship. Even the more upbeat moments tend to give way quickly to struggle and disappointment. There is little light in these six long tracks. The music has been stripped down to accommodate the monolithic nature of the songs, jettisoning much of the experimentation of Desolation but continuing the slow move towards more traditional heavy metal. There is the nagging sensation, however, that Khemmis may just have lost their bearings slightly in the process.

Deceiver and its songs are oddly structured. Whereas Hunted was thrilling in its unpredictability (tracks would whoosh between intense thrash, galloping doom and fuzzed-out stoner doom, all within a few whizz-bang minutes), Deceiver quickly finds a groove and settles into it. Songs begin with a big crunchy riff, followed by Phil Pendergast’s clean vocals. There’s some cool guitaring before a slow deconstruction in the middle section punctuated by growls. It’s a tried-and-tested formula, but it’s applied to many of the cuts on Deceiver, which removes not only the novelty, but also the gut-wrenching emotional catharsis, which were the band’s hallmarks. Deceiver, as a result, is even less engaging than Desolation. While the early tracks are enjoyable, the album only really seems to come alive in its middle section, when “Living Pyre” and, in particular, “Shroud of Lethe,” showcase the band at their best: catchy riffs, unpredictable song-writing and soaring vocals which combine to hit right in the soul. It’s a pity they are the exception, rather than the rule.

Khemmis are such a talented band that very few parts of Deceiver are poor. Pendergast’s epic clean vocals, the huge riffs, and the solid production create a very real sense of scale. Much like the journey the album’s protagonist is on, Deceiver feels imposing and dangerous, even when it’s not being original. When Pendergast sings about feeling alone and betrayed, the music successfully conveys his state of mind, and from a purely atmospheric perspective, Deceiver is the band’s most cohesive effort to date. Khemmis specialize in epic tracks, and the two longest cuts (“Shroud of Lethe” and “The Astral Road”) are its best. As these both occur on the back end, this means that Deceiver ends on a very high note.

Deceiver is an album I want to like more than I do. It’s clearly very personal, reflecting a band that has had a tough few years battling personal demons but has emerged stronger and wiser. But while the songs are epic in scope, the predictable song structures, and a continued shift towards a more traditional heavy metal aesthetic have dulled the sharp edges of music that used to pierce my soul. I enjoyed large parts of Deceiver, but little of it thrilled or moved me the way the band used to. This is still a worthy effort, but we’ll have to wait a little longer for the dimming torch of mainstream doom to be reignited.

Rating: 2.5/5.0

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