Before doom became the cool thing, the most extreme end of its spectrum was positively terrifying. Before hordes of amp worship bands, before two-cent Electric Wizard clones with gear that costs more than the van it’s hauled in, before seemingly every new “doom” band was basically layered feedback with screams on top, before needlessly prolific outfits started churning out one collaboration right after another and captured the ears of millenials who are oblivious to the development of extreme metal and its past…. there was Khanate. Their self-titled debut scared the living hell out of me when I was 16, and even amidst the current scene’s Primitive Mans and The Bodys (Do I conjugate that to the proper plural or not?), Khanate is still the most grippingly bleak and abrasive band in doom metal, even after their demise.
As I got into American black metal via Krieg, Xasthur, and Leviathan, I soon learned about Sunn 0))) and immediately bought White 2 and Black One, the latter of which is probably one of the most influential albums I own. These albums turned me on to the Southern Lord roster as a whole, and I as dug around their website circa 2005, the then-named side project Khanate automatically intrigued me with their bleak, stark aesthetic. Via a friend who had an actual broadband connection at home, I got a burned copy of their debut album. I had no clue what to expect, and upon turning it on fairly loudly on my crappy little home stereo, was turned into a puddle of blood and ground bone.
Khanate’s brand of drone/doom is confrontational yet never gives its aims away too soon — the audio equivalent of having someone hold a shard of broken glass to your neck without ever actually going for the kill, or like being submerged underwater and being brought back up just on the verge of running out of air. The album erupts with tinnitus-inducing feedback that reaches a droning equilibrium between the two guitars, and a pummeling, glacial, ugly riff drives the opener “Pieces of Quiet,” though it is nearly beaten down by sparse, hammering drum patterns that border on free-form improvisation. If you can imagine Eyehategod’s Dopesick without its savage hardcore parts, its sludgiest moments slowed down even more (minus the blues licks), and Mike Williams driven to madness within an inch of his own life, that puts you in the ballpark of Khanate. In its five songs spread over the course of nearly an hour, Khanate’s self-titled debut is about as close as music can come to waterboarding.
Even more unnerving than the music itself, though, and the undisputed crowning jewel of this release, is Alan Dubin’s vocal performance and the lyrical content. Forget the yowling cat imitations of Silencer and the monotone howls of The Body –– Dubin’s vocals are madness personified. Not quite a screech, not quite a yell, Dubin’s vocals are high-register echoes of pain and insanity that are equal parts catharsis and terror. In combination with lyrics that are like the scrawlings of a sociopath in solitary confinement, rarely has metal ever sounded this convincing in its aim to unveil the depravity of humanity. “Skin Coat,” if its title weren’t enough to describe its subject matter, takes us right inside the cerebral cortex of the worst of humanity and yet, avoids the gory direction that most bands would take. Instead, we get the speaker’s sense of –– dare I say it, comfort –– from wearing another person’s skin:
I wear, a human shield. Through the elements, stay warm
I put you on, crawl inside. Human shield, skin fold back, crawl inside.
I want so badly to make a joke about The Revenant there, but I won’t.
Similarly, opener “Pieces of Quiet” leaves little to the imagination but uses unlikely word combinations to paint an impressionistic picture of brutality:
Under a bed, a leg and a saw, red teeth gnaw
Silence, while I strip — bones (gnaw, so quiet)
Dark — and quiet, we go… into quiet time
No more whine
For all of its savage, destructive nature, though, Khanate’s craft borders on improvisational, sometimes even borrowing from ambient music to achieve its ends: Closer “No Joy” has no squelching feedback, instead relying on mountains of bass throbs, spring reverb, and Dubin’s whispers juxtaposed by skin-shredding wails. As the most minimalist track on the album, it’s probably the most affecting since it brings Dubin’s vocals to the forefront, and with the repetition of the phrase “no joy” and “please don’t breathe,” certainly drills itself into listener’s skulls.
There will never be another band quite like Khanate, in my opinion. While Earth and The Angelic Process got drone metal up and going, Khanate took it to terrifying new heights, the likes of which haven’t really been topped up to this point. (For the record, I’ve never been a big fan of The Body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) Khanate’s later works, especially Capture & Release, are just as nightmarish, but their debut stands as a monument in doom metal. Mandatory listening.