Full disclosure. Cards on the table. I’m a big fan of Khanate and have been since their 2001 self-titled debut seeped into my ears and shrouded me in layers darkened distortion. The haunting minimalism of the music and deranged theatre of the vocals appealed to me greatly. I’d never heard anything quite like it. Sure, guitarist Stephen O’Malley’s day job, Sunn0))), had similar earthquakes of feedback, but Khanate was a very different beast. It wasn’t just challenging to listen to, it was genuinely disturbing. This is not music you want to be listening to while walking down a darkened alley or passing an abandoned warehouse. The closing section of "Skin Coat" gives me chills to this day, as Alan Dubin describes wearing your skin like a human shield in amongst stuttered whispers of “ssshhhhh”.
We hadn’t heard a peep, hiss or rumble from Khanate since 2009’s Clean Hands Go Foul. Its 33-minute finale "Every God Damn Thing" felt like an apt farewell. Most of us thought we would never hear new material. Fourteen years is a long time to be holding your breath, especially as all four members are active in so many other projects. Then, on May 19th, with no fanfare or warning, a new Khanate album dropped upon an unsuspecting world. To Be Cruel took everyone by surprise. There was no marketing, no advance single releases, no social media teases. Just three new slices of terror, clocking in at over 60 minutes. I felt like a kid in a dimly lit candy shop.
"Like A Poisoned Dog" kicks off proceedings, and it’s comparatively fleeting 19 minutes start as you’d hope, with copious amounts of buzzing reverb, screeching feedback, and pounding drums. The guitars don’t stay solely at the bottom end however, there are stabs of higher chords thrown in for good measure. These elevated, twisted notes complement Dubin’s disturbed cries of rejection and torment. It almost feels wrong to take joy from such macabre subject matter, but the mental images of swimming in gasoline and setting it alight with a match are intoxicating. Listening to this track was like being reunited with an old friend…who then tells you all the terrible things that have happened to them in the fourteen years since you last saw them.
“I’m going to take you apart. It’s alright you can look away. Your body is alive. I can see the skin crawl. Look if you want to. You can look if you want. I think you should look.” This is how second track "It Wants to Fly" opens. These are some of Dubin’s most troubled lyrics to date, essentially describing dissecting someone and persuading them to observe the whole thing. Khanate have never been an easy listen, but this could prove too much for some. There’s admittedly more to it than meets the eye, but even James Plotkin (bass and synth) has stated this track is one of the band's darkest moments, both musically and lyrically. It’s a testament to Khanate’s art that they can go to these places and leave us asking questions about how we interpret the offering. While some may find it cathartic, others will find it deeply uncomfortable. Either way, it provokes a reaction and is utterly immersive.
The third and final title track is a meandering serpent of a song, that evokes the Things Viral era of Khanate. Starting with hushed vocals floating eerily over humming guitars and lingering cymbals, the track then bursts into life. The minimalism and sparseness of the track is striking, with some sections having no drums at all, just letting the reverb bleed out while stark vocals fill the air. It feels like you could get lost in the space between the notes. The use of distance is brave and purposeful. It has quickly become one of my favourite Khanate songs.
This album has been in the works since 2017, when O’Malley and Tim Wyskida (drums) recorded some initial sessions in the UK. They didn’t set out to make a Khanate record, but the tone was undeniable, and it has grown organically over time with each member adding their own mark and influence. They all clearly had more in the tank than they realised for this project. The record feels mature and weathered. Confidently slower than their debut and more focused than Capture and Release.
Overall, To Be Cruel is not just a triumphant return, it’s some of the best work that Khanate have ever created. All three tracks have stand out moments, but they also work together as a curated collection. This isn’t an album you’re going to put on when your parents pop in for a cup of tea. It’s an album you’ll want to listen to alone in a darkened room with your own thoughts. This is music for grown-ups. Embrace the gloom and see where this remarkable album takes you.
Khanate's To Be Cruel was released on May 19th. You can head on over to their Bandcamp to grab it.