This flame has been buried for a long time, by music industry standards – and given the intense schedules of the musicians involved it’s small wonder as to why. Fourteen years after their last release, the doyens of discomfort bear another rotten fruit. The Khanate formula remains much the same; Stephen O’Malley leading us in and out of chords with yawning swells of feedback, James Plotkin doing much the same but lower (while doubling as engineer), Tim Wyskida apparently trying to run up a five-figure bill of damaged drumkit and Alan Dubin trying to get our attention while trapped inside a burning car. But it’s been more than twenty years since the first calamitous shrieks of this ensemble – so how does the Swans-rebuffing To Be Cruel compare?
Very well, as it happens. This may be their most minimal and graceful(?!) release and certainly their most exposed mix, especially notable when compared to the distanced unjazz din of Clean Hands Go Foul, their 2009 collection. There’s also more structured interplay between the members than we’ve heard before – on the opener ‘Like a Poisoned Dog’ the snare marks our passage through Dubin’s prevailing anguish, verging on an instruction to move our bodies which is then repeatedly dismantled. Dancing, after all, sounds a bit too much like fun for Khanate’s agonizing brand of droning sludge metal. On this album we’re also treated to some of SOMA’s defter strokes, with bends, augmented chords and spring reverb shaking the stoic brutality of his persistent drone ’n’ squeal.
However it’s Dubin’s voice which is especially elevated on To Be Cruel. ‘It Wants to Fly’ has his piercing, airy tone drop an octave as he implores us to behold the (disturbing) object of fantasy, and it’s here that he sounds even more threatening and demented than in the more hysteric mode to which fans will be accustomed – the intimacy of the performance is a harrowing intervention. “Look at your lung” he repeats before the track heads back into head-crushing territory. On the title track Dubin begins with a whisper, which rather than the faux-dramatics of a thousand nu-metal cuts plays out genuine disquiet, the sound of one’s unconscious stirring at the worst possible moment. When he then bellows “Look in the closet/The things in the wall/They speak of revulsion” it comes as a welcome relief. I won’t share any more lyrics, as a form of enticement.
All supporters of debased aesthetics and morbid curiosity should listen to this record. Aficionados of masochism should be especially delighted, as much of the album has the tenor of waiting for one’s own execution – grimly slow, gnawing, reflective and spacious. Khanate’s return is a surprise for sure, but also a devoted continuation and development upon their miserable dynamic.
To Be Cruel is out today via Sacred Bones Records and can be ordered here.
Words: David Burke