Khemmis sat atop my list of very pleasant surprises for 2015, with their unheralded Absolution debut being one of the best doom platters of the year and one of the top metal albums overall. I assumed 2016 would see these youngsters flushed with newfound success, touring extensively and carefully prepping to battle the dreaded sophomore slump sometime in 2017. Instead they chose to come right back at us with Hunted, and I wondered if they might be rushing things. Especially when I saw the track-list consisted of but 5 songs clocking in at 44 minutes. That means fewer, much longer songs than last time, which could spell trouble even for a seasoned doom crew. It didn’t take much time with Hunted to realize such fears were unfounded. Hunted is another huge platter of mammoth riffs and emotionally gripping vocals held together by stellar writing chops and enough rock sensibility to drive the songs through your skull. Sounding anything but rushed, Hunted is a more refined, streamlined beast and though a few of the extraneous influences from the debut have been sloughed off, the end result is a kind of doom that’s so accessible and easy to digest, it almost defies genre conventions. I guess when you’ve got that “it factor,” you’ve really got it.
From the opening chords of “Above the Water” until the fading strains of the closing title track, this thing reeks of superior writing and solid musicianship. While Absolution existed in a grey area between classic doom and its uncouth stoner cousin, Hunted is clearly in the former camp, sounding more like Pallbearer and While Heaven Wept than before. There may still be a certain rock-centric vibe lingering in the riffs and builds, but the desertcore, and at times, southern-fried stoner elements are all but erased as they double down on a classic doom template. The presentation is more polished and, dare I say, classy than before, as they marry earth-shaking doom riffs with weeping melodies that share lineage with traditional doom and the Finnish school o’ sadboy led by Insomnium and Rapture. There are also strong traditional metal elements woven through the music, grounding things in the early days of doom yet maintaining a modern sheen.
“Candlelight” could easily appear on a While Heaven Wept album with its forlorn riffs and “broken soul” vocals. It’s a beautifully downtrodden piece full of emotion and weighty riffage. “Three Gates” brings the most heaviness, rumbling along on aggressive, thick-as-a-brick riffs and harsh rasps, sounding like a musical road grading machine.
Oddly, it’s the longest songs that cut the deepest, as if the band needed the extra time to allow their material to fully blossom. “Beyond the Door” is doom fan’s dream – from the trilling riffs that depress the spirit even as they perpetually reach toward the heavens, to the lofty vocals foretelling hope and loss simultaneously, this is what the genre is meant to be. And somehow the title track takes it even further, making its 13-plus minute runtime feel as crisp and fleeting as a top 40 radio hit. The urgent, plaintive vocals, and beautiful solos swirl and blend with Tuomas Saukkonen-esque cascading riffs and classic metal influences to form a wonderfully moving musical panorama guaranteed to impress.
The biggest downside comes via an overloud production, which while not awful, does deform some of the material’s essential beauty. The individual instruments are well mixed, but then everything gets dumped in the loudness blender and it can get muddy when you want it clear as a mountain lake. At 44 minutes, the album flies by despite the song lengths and you’ll be left wanting another 8-10 minute monster when it ends. This is also the rare album with long tracks that doesn’t scream for editing, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
The biggest departure from Absolution are the vocals, which are more soaring and emotive than before. Phil Pendergast elevates his vocal game significantly, turning in a moving performance sure to pluck at the heartstrings of even the most taciturn metal ogre. Sometimes he reminds of Scott Reagers (Saint Vitus) but with much more range and depth. The death croaks still put in a few appearances, most notably on “Three Gates,” but they seem more of an afterthought now. The guitars also feel less raw than on the debut, and with the stoner elements stripped out things sound cleaner and more elegant. Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson craft an iron skeleton of classic doom riffs then decorate the bones with flowing, ethereal harmonies that rip melancholy from the very air itself. The rock-solid rhythm section of Dan Beiers (bass) and Zach Coleman (drums) lay down a solid base upon which Phil and Ben build their church and the whole construct sounds ready for gold plating.
Khemmis was great before, but now they’re deadly. By shifting direction toward classic doom and refining their vision and writing, they’ve unleashed a musical Kraken on the doom scene. Hunted is stronger than Absolution, and somehow more accessible too. My only question is, where do they go from here? This will be a tough act to follow, folks.