Perspective. It’s something even the most seasoned music fan and reviewer can lose sight of at times. Case in point, Colorado doom champions, Khemmis. They hit the scene like a ton of bricks in 2015 with their Absolution debut, awash in massive riffs, emotional vocals and a big dose of that X factor that makes a band stand out. Within a year they’d followed up with the massive Hunted, which showed an evolution and maturation as well as some new tricks. With such rapid fire successes, it’s easy to forget that Khemmis is still a young band. They’ve stumbled into a lot of buzz and adoration early in their career, and it’s easy to think of them as this consistently dependable act, but they’ve only been on the scene a few years. That brings us to Desolation, the 3rd release in their brief lifespan, which features yet another shift in style. This time there’s a healthy dose of traditional and “epic” metal injected into their original doom construct, bringing to mind the works of Argus and Týr. It’s still Khemmis, but through an 80s metal prism. So does this young band continue their upward trajectory toward the perfect doom album? Perspective, folks.
The party kicks off with the very retro metal sounds of “Bloodletting” which borrows a lot from Týr‘s traditional metal tinged with doom. Tinged is the key word here, as this is definitely more heavy metal than doom. Whatever the tag attached though, the music is sweet and delivers a butt-ton of hooks. Phil Pendergast’s clean vocals continue to show marked improvement, accentuating the melodic leads perfectly. Because the song is so melodic, the abrupt shift into black n’ roll around 4:30 becomes all the more impactful and entertaining, keeping things diverse and spicy. “Isolation” continues the 80s revival, merging Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy inspired leads and culminating in a big, anthemic chorus that sticks on first contact. Interestingly, I also hear traces of Deathwhite‘s brand of gothy melo-doom, causing me to reflect on how the two bands’ styles are becoming more aligned over time1.
The Týr similarities shine through again on “Flesh to Nothing,” with Phil’s vocal delivery sounding a lot like that of Heri Joensen’s. The doom side of the band makes a welcome comeback on “The Seer” with mostly positive results, including some rip-roaring harsh vocals, but it’s still a very melodic tune overall. It’s also uniformly solid music-wise, but something prevents it from resonating as much as their previous works did. It just doesn’t feel as sharp and vicious as the material we’ve heard from them before. Epic album closer “From Ruin” is much better, bringing a darker, more downtrodden atmosphere and touch of Agalloch melancholy for the album’s best and bleakest moments.
At 6 songs and just over 41 minutes, Desolation feels a bit longer than it is. All the songs work and none drag per se, but the overall lower energy levels contribute to a slight feeling of stagnation by the album’s midpoint. The biggest surprise apart from the style shift is how improved Phil’s vocals are. He’s gotten better with each release but the difference here is stark. He’s developed a rich, emotive voice perfectly suited for doom, even if they’re drifting away from the genre, sometimes reminding of Scott Reagers (ex-Saint Vitus), other times Brett Campbell (Pallbearer). He’s complimented by the harsh vocals by Ben Hutcherson, who gets more airtime than on Hunted. His blackened rasps and death croaks are great and add punch and weight to the melodic material whenever they appear. Guitar-wise, Ben and Phil focus more on the classic gallop of traditional metal than the crushing chords of doom, but they still know how to craft compelling leads and melodic flourishes that elevate the material with class and polish.
While Desolation is a very good heavy metal album, it’s the least engaging Khemmis release to date, and the shift toward traditional metal seems to water down what made the band so interesting. They’re so damn talented that I’ve come to expect unreasonable things from them over their very short career, and this is where perspective must come into play. If this is what we come to consider a lesser Khemmis release, the band is in great shape going forward. Not the album I wanted, but one I’m enjoying nonetheless.