Across three full lengths and a handful of shorter releases, Khanate wrote drone/doom that stretched abrasive musical elements out to their most tense and dread inducing levels. Perhaps that wasn’t surprising given the involvement Stephen O’Malley and James Plotkin, who were already well into their exploration of slow, rumbling drone and all other forms of experimentation by that point, but alongside the spine-chilling vocals of Alan Dubin Khanate’s material left a lasting impression. And just like that, the band was finished, releasing Cruel Hands Go Foul posthumously in 2009. With its members all involved in a slew of other projects in the years since, it’s always seemed unlikely Khanate might re-emerge, but that’s exactly what 2023 has brought us in the form of To Be Cruel. Spread across three tracks that each stretch past the twenty-minute mark, the group once again revels in deliberate slow motion and the tension that’s achieved through this approach. Some notable tweaks make for a tense, edge of your seat listen, and while this is once again going to be for a very specific sub-set of listeners, those that it clicks for will find To Be Cruel one of the year’s highlights.
I don’t review drone or doom of this type nearly as often anymore because it doesn’t often click, feeling like it meanders for too long and wastes the space it’s creating. But when a group really comes together as a unit and every stretched-out chord and drum hit feels deliberate and thought out, there can be a sense of tension that makes longer songs feel short. Some of Khanate’s discography has hit this level for me in the past, and To Be Cruel is able to achieve this through tight and controlled songwriting. While not quite as abstract as a Sunn O))) album or even some of the band’s past discography, the drums drive forward thing here at a methodical, almost glacial pace while the guitar, bass, and synthesizer provide low end rumbling and eerier tones. It’s delivered in such a way that the listener is drawn into the build-up and starts to anticipate the tension that each stretched chord or pause in the percussion delivers. Compared to some of Khanate’s past material there’s a bit less space and stretches of near silence, as even when things get sparser there’s still some feedback or the hum of the synthesizer there, and I think this is what makes the three songs a bit more engaging compared to some of the others in the genre. Each track wallows in decay and misery the way only Khanate can, and while the construction is familiar between them there are specific moments of feedback, darker atmosphere, or scratching synths that will grab your attention.
The grimy, decaying instrumentation is just one facet of what the band has to offer, and longtime fans know that it’s the deranged and over the top screaming dialogue from Alan Dubin that brings everything together. Despite Khanate’s disbandment in 2006, Dubin’s still been pushing his vocal cords to the limit in the years since with Gnaw, and so it’s not surprising that seventeen years later he’s as abrasive and in your face as ever. This has always been one of the elements that makes the band an acquired taste even for those with a taste for the extreme, and while it does make To Be Cruel exhausting at times that’s always been part of the appeal for me. He moves from screams and howls into spoken word that’s creepy as hell, and lines like “you can look away, but I think you should see, under the skin that crawls” the material’s sure to stick with you. So many vocalists in metal go for over the top performances based only on power and intensity, but Dubin’s always pulled it off with a mix of in-your-face abrasiveness and whispered, terrifying spoken word that’s much more subdued.
You should have a pretty good idea whether Khanate’s lengthier drone/doom approach and tortured vocals are your speed or not, and if they are this is an album that will suck you right into its madness. These guys have shown once again why they’re masters of their craft, stretching out riffs and effects in ways that create tense atmosphere and keep you on the edge of your seat even for lengthier runs. If you’re looking for any bright flourishes or sense of hope this one isn’t for you, but if you want to explore the lowest of lows and true misery Khanate is here to deliver it. To Be Cruel is available from Sacred Bones Records.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg