Denver’s Khemmis materialized as quickly and supernaturally as the panel van wizard-style illustrations that grace their album art. Absolution, their impressive debut album from the not-so-distant 2015, bubbled up as a critical favorite, garnering attention from publications large and small – no small feat for an upstart band in an already populated scene. Taking nods from old-school progenitors like Candlemass and Thin Lizzy, Khemmis carry diverse classic vibes into the modern era, zeroing in on a more alloyed kind of retro revival than peers like Pallbearer or The Sword. Somehow, in wizard-like fashion, they’ve quickly conjured their follow-up, Hunted, a record that polishes the ideas presented on Absolution, but ultimately feels like an all-too-familiar sequel.
That they think of themselves as a rock ’n’ roll band is significant – it gives a glimpse into the intent and direction of their sound. No doubt, there’s finesse and giddy-up to be found in each track, whether by means of bouncy drumming or flurries of acrobatic guitar techniques, and they’re successful methods to break up the monotony that can set in with long, slow tempo songs. Zach Coleman (drums) really comes to life on the rock end of the spectrum, and proves to be serviceable through their gloomier paces. This is where Khemmis seem to get their edge, where others rehash a more strict traditional approach, these dudes have the freedom to boogie and groove.
Opener “Above the Water” immediately runs this gamut by capturing some doominess in an epic harmonized intro before rolling off into a rough-and-tumble fuzzed-out biker rock shuffle. It’s devastatingly heavy, but, as weird as this may be, it might even be too fuzzy and grizzly for its own good, on the brink of turning into static, unnecessarily muddying up the mix and losing impact. Bassist Daniel Beiers packs a helluva wallop, but it might be too much for some listeners. This super distorted, amps on fire sound gets to near-fatiguing levels, but the album is ultimately held afloat by guitar flourishes from Ben Hutcherson and Phil Pendergast, summoning harmonies, tags, and solos that keep things interesting, proving Khemmis are simply at their best when they aren’t at full doomy blast and instead utilizing dynamics and developing contrast to their colossal tone (see: “Hunted” and “Candlelight”).
Fortunately, the evolved song structures accompanying fretboard sorcery coupled with superb vocals break things up enough to prevent this from becoming too much of a distraction. Pendergast’s vocals are still nothing short of outstanding, arguably among the best in the genre. His performance is technically sound throughout the record, without dipping into cornball operatics, but sometimes comes off a bit stiff or restrained. Possibly a symptom of genre conventional lyrical storytelling, there’s moments that feel disconnected or lack emotion. They’ve even pared down the amount of harsh vocals, dually underlining their effectiveness when used and also creating much needed room for Pendergast’s cleans. The smoky roars on “Three Gates” (courtesy of In the Company of Serpents’ Grant Netzorg) are the exception to this, but serve as a perfect foil to Pendergast and complement to the sludgy High on Fire gallop before it melts into a spacey, bluesy vamp. While the ambitious title track serves as the record’s crown jewel, “Three Gates” crystallizes Khemmis at their ideological best, tapping into primal rock ‘n’ roll, chugging along to a quicker tempo and then spiraling out of control.
Hunted isn’t a sophomore slump album, and there is some intriguing untapped potential on display, but overall it’s not much in the way of progress from Absolution, feeling more like a stepping stone than a masterpiece. There’s still plenty of substance and style, but Khemmis seem to merely embellish a doomy framework with more elaborate arrangements and guitar work. It’s a lot like the Taken or Die Hard movie series. There’s familiar components and atmosphere, just in a slightly modified presentation, and while it’s entertaining, it’s nothing they haven’t already explored. It may be unfair to fault a band for refining their brand, but Hunted is a safe play with few risks. Having a sound that has ample room for experimentation, it would be nice to see them play to their strengths even more, yielding to the whims of rock ‘n’ roll rhythms and dynamics, or dooming the fuck out of the further reaches of their classic rock influences. The third time’s the charm, right?
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Khemmis released on October 21st over on 20 Buck Spin. You can get it right over here.