The Denver doom metal band’s third album is streamlined, expansive, and melodically sharp.
Of all the heavy-lidded legions frequenting Denver's thriving doom-metal scene, Khemmis are far and away the most primed to cross over. Their first two records, 2015’s Absolution and 2016’s Hunted, set the parameters (or perhaps more accurately, endless horizons) for their hometown’s blend of metal almost immediately upon their release, uniting Denver’s various underground communities—traditional doom, debaucherous stoner rock, filth-ridden sludge metal, showboating, Thin Lizzy-style hard rock—under one, majestic banner.
Desolation—Khemmis’ third album and first effort since signing with heavy-music institution Nuclear Blast last year—is the band’s most streamlined, expansive, and melodically sharp release yet. Its six tracks are the type of long-form rippers tooled for cavernous theaters, as opposed to cramped clubs. The most candidate for radio play is opening track “Bloodletting,” a six-and-a-half-minute doom crusher driven by dueling stoner licks, galloping tempos, and cleanly-sung melodies: accessible to all, but amenable to the acolytes. Not a bad compromise.
Desolation also marks a shift in the primary dynamic engine, the guitar-wielding duo of velvet-throated belter Phil Pendergast and guttural yowler Ben Hutcherson. When Khemmis started out, the pair played more like adversaries than co-frontmen, bellowing into the din from opposite ends on the sonic spectrum. As with Hunted, though, Desolation have put an ever-increasing premium on the former’s swelling croons, reducing the latter’s larynx-shredding outbursts to select moments, like the death-metal-inflected refrains of “Maw of Time.” Hutcherson still has plenty to roar about: It’s just his guitar that does the yelling now.
Granted, Pendergast no pushover: the lithe baritone runs on “Flesh to Nothing” and “Bloodletting,” prove him more than capable of commanding the mic on his own. If there was an “American Idol” for doom metal, this guy would most likely emerge victorious, even as booming, hyper-enunciated delivery style devolving into oversung silliness at times (the chorus on “Isolation,” with its exaggerated, over-extended syllables and grating melodic progression, is by far the worst offender). Still, Khemmis’ power has always stemmed from collective onslaughts, rather than individual displays—and without Hutcherson’s acrid roars to prop up that dynamic buffer, the record’s overarching gravitas takes a hit.
Khemmis’ triumphant arrangements on Desolation—emboldened with care by the band’s longtime producer Dave Otero, who’s lent deep, crisp production to Primitive Man, Cephalic Carnage, and others—are juxtaposed with Pendergast’s plaintive, plainly-stated reflections on mortality, memory, and nature. On album closer “From Ruin,” he frames his personal growth by way of the vernal lexicon typical of a Colorado band: “Sure as the spring casts a light on the snow/I have awakened to the ashes anew/They’re burning away though I yearn to hold on/Knowing that I can accept this life unblinded, renewed.” If that means pissing a few acolytes off, so be it.
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