Success, the cliché insists, is a double-edged sword. History (and the Encyclopedia Metallum archives) is littered with now-defunct bands who toiled away for years in storage units and near-empty basements, yearning for record deals and the elusive larger acclaim that remained just beyond their grasp. But what of the bands that, against all odds, actually achieve some measure of success only to wilt away under the bright lights of expectation? Those cautionary tales seem just as numerous and serve as an unhelpful and discouraging warning for any up and coming band: be careful what you wish for. As soon as a band reaches some level of tangible recognition, it seems the deck – via artistic stagnation, fickle fan backlash, or debilitating commercial expectations, just to name a few potentials – is stacked against them even more severely than when they were unknown. The true unicorns, particularly in our niche-reinforcing, hyper-accessible listening age, are the bands that manage to break through the saturation, achieve success, and thrive under the bright lights.
All this to say that Khemmis is a unicorn. The Denver quartet exploded onto the metal scene with 2015’s Absolution (somehow only three years old) and, since then, have only continued to climb the ladders of both critical and commercial success alike. The band’s style of “doomed heavy metal” has dangerously high crossover appeal and it’s easy to see why critics from Rolling Stone to (famously) Decibel to seemingly every blog in between quickly jumped on board and praised 2016’s Hunted with just as much fervor as the band’s debut. Marrying thundering heaviness, mid-paced tempos, earworm-sweet melodies, and open-hearted songwriting, Khemmis’s first two records exude near-universal appeal for the most casual of hard rock listeners and the most discriminating trve cvlt metal heads alike. It’s a combination as rare as it is ensnaring: success has come deservedly but dangerously quickly for Khemmis and, with it, the audience to witness (and perhaps even, most cynically, to root for) a potential fall from grace. And yet, even in the most glaring of bright lights, a unicorn they remain: Desolation is as confident and enjoyable as anybody could have hoped for and serves as the worthy third blade in Khemmis’s nearly flawless doom trident.
The six tracks that comprise Desolation feel like both a natural culmination of the band’s sound to date as well as a purposeful expansion of their sonic footprint. Khemmis have always operated in the greater doom tradition, but the songs on Absolution and Hunted never felt chained to any rigid genre dogma. In fact, part of the band’s broad appeal was their willingness to incorporate a smorgasbord of influences into their doom stew. Desolation sees that willingness morphed into a confident insistence: prominent elements of traditional heavy metal, power metal, rock and roll, and even liberal doses of pop sensibility all get blended into the album’s doom-rooted sound. In a lesser band’s hands this sonic expansion could make for a watered-down product; Khemmis, thankfully, conjure something immediate and powerful out of the disparate ingredients and, perhaps most importantly, prove that heaviness is not the enemy of accessibility.
The album’s highlights are legion and spread throughout the tight, roughly forty-minute runtime. The one-two punch of openers “Bloodletting” and “Isolation” is Khemmis at their up-tempo, fan-pleasing best, complete with blood-pumping tempo shifts, soaring choruses, and some of the most searing lead work Ben Hutcherson has ever displayed. The vocal performances on Desolation are the best the band has ever recorded (Ben is rarely as grimily guttural than as on “Maw of Time”) and special recognition must be given to clean man Phil Pendergast for his complete transition into front man extraordinaire. Cleans are always a tricky proposition in metal, but Phil’s performance is noteworthy across the entire record (“How could I praaay for salvaaatiooon…?”) as he channels his golden throated, vowel-bending heroes to catapult the record’s potent emotional climaxes into the stratosphere (“I fiiind the strength to caaarrryy ooooonnnnn…”). The band’s songwriting is notably stepped up as well. The tracks are limber and fun but also contain saturated, goosebump-inducing climaxes (see “Flesh to Nothing”) usually found more in the swelling structures of black metal. Khemmis sprang from the head of the Rocky Mountains as an unusually cohesive unit but they’ve never sounded as tight, dynamic, or liberated as on Desolation.
It’s been a fun ride for Khemmis fans ever since Absolution, but it’s particularly gratifying to hear the band record the album they’ve always wanted to make. Fan and critical goodwill is sky high, and Desolation secures the band’s legacy by ramping up almost every element that made Khemmis great from the jump. It’s all here: the dual-guitar lead attack, dramatic vocal deliveries, the thick, propulsive rhythmic undercurrent, and – crucially – the headbanging, beer-drinking, good-time atmosphere. Khemmis is no party band, but Desolation is a welcome reminder that serious metal can also be exuberant and fun. Cheers to that.
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Desolation is available June 22 via 20 Buck Spin