at the Empty Bottle, March 24

Grief used to be a big part of pop music: Bessie Smith, Roy Orbison, the Shirelles, Hank Williams, Smokey Robinson, Black Sabbath.

Yep, Black Sabbath. Early Sabbath songs bitterly mourned the godless vapidity of the modern world, often at an appropriately funereal tempo. And though adrenaline- and testosterone-fueled metal since the 80s has generally favored the roar over the moan, a stream of ponderous gloom has trickled steadily through the genre since those early days, from Saint Vitus and Hellhammer to the Melvins and Earth.

But the brontosauruslike trudge of slow metal has come to a near standstill of late thanks to the recent emergence of doom metal bands like Khanate, now on tour promoting their second album, Things Viral (Southern Lord). Khanate’s music is closer to the score for a Japanese Noh play than anything in mainstream metal. Seemingly endless stretches of meditative silence, illuminated by otherworldly discord and pocked with tiny abrasive sounds, are shattered by precisely placed bursts of thundering agony. The dynamic range is symphonic; the pace is glacial.

On Things Viral and their eponymous 2001 debut (also on Southern Lord), Khanate’s raw elegance is articulated through James Plotkin’s production. Plotkin, who also plays bass for the band, has a 15-year history of recording in experimental noise and music projects like those of Jansky Noise, Scorn, and Mosquito Dream. He and vocalist Alan Dubin worked together in the electronically enhanced metal band OLD. The way Plotkin scrupulously modifies, delays, magnifies, and repeats sounds, he’s not just making heavy metal with an extra layer of experimentation–he’s testing the limits of what metal can sound like. He leaves plenty of room for sounds to come and go above and below each other, creating an undulating, occasionally crushing mass of hallucinatory disharmony. Like all great metal, Khanate’s recorded music stands up to scrutiny, and like great minimalist experimentation, the monotony offers surprises on repeated listenings.

Guitarist Stephen O’Malley is a veteran of several exceptional underground metal bands, such as Thorr’s Hammer, Burning Witch, and Sunn O))) (the latter named for the amplifier preferred by Earth, the band that, until Khanate, set the standard for slow). His work on Khanate’s first album is memorable; his haunting themes lending a melodic structure to the death-march slog. But with Things Viral, the band has moved from the grandeur of Richard Strauss to an aimless meditation on extinction more reminiscent of modern avant-gardists Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Gorecki. O’Malley’s guitar generates rapturous explosions and smoking fields of chiming tones, mutterings and grindings and screeching exclamations. Tim Wyskida uses the bass drum to create a comatose heartbeat. The toms intermittently mete out exact blows accompanying the colossal power chords, and his cymbals wash, toll, clang, and crash in sync with the waves of cacophonous unrest. Plotkin’s subsonic bass rumble is like a distant avalanche, with variations and overtones twisting the sound into a knot of intestinal fear.

But in metal as in opera, a special place is reserved for the voice. Dubin hisses, snarls, and shrieks like Bon Scott on a really bad bender. Distorted fragments of his voice, echoing and crackling, flicker in and out of the sound like a disturbed spirit. Dubin doesn’t sing; rather, he acts out a monologue, bringing to life a blurry collection of gruesome images and a vicious and vulnerable consciousness. The free-verse lyrics, written in a spare, Gollumlike dialect, are repeated obsessively, hysterically, insistently.

It’s hard not to find welcome comic relief in Dubin’s mannered delivery, and Khanate shares a penchant for gore with horror-movie bands like Mortician. But the ghastly images can also be tragic and tender, infusing the music with a despondent internal narrative that recalls the young self-flagellating Ozzy. As in the story of Frankenstein’s monster, Gothic props of dismemberment and rotting flesh are used to express the paradoxes of existence. Dubin laments the repugnant, suffocating necessity of depending on others, the impossibility of finding truth, and the lack of hope or satisfaction offered by spiritual faith or bodily pleasure. Apparently addressing a corpse in the song “Fields,” he wrings from his throat, over the course of minutes, a plea for knowledge of what lies beyond death: “Mother father ghost? / Almost there–almost here / Is there light? / Tell me, tell me, tell me / I did this for you / Ancestors strangers? / Are they there? / Come back / Tell me, I’ll follow.”

Khanate’s recent show at the Empty Bottle, while exhilarating, was more austere than their richly nuanced recordings. Instead, the punishment was blunt and visceral. Absurdly loud, the band effectively simulated the experience of getting shock treatments in a wind tunnel during an earthquake. Wearing identical black shirts, mostly staring at their instruments with their backs to the audience, Khanate almost seemed, but for the long hair, like any other indie darlings. They played a 50-minute set consisting of three songs rendered with mechanized accuracy. And only a few semiaudible samples and vocal effects run through a delay hinted at their craft in production. Live they’re just a metal band playing tight arrangements, albeit creative ones; the sonic depth and experimental flourishes of multitracked recordings are impossible to reproduce in performance. But the primary irritant for me was trying to determine whether they were channeling somber priests at the state funeral of a cruel despot, or just being the affectedly indifferent elder scenesters that they are. Between songs one audience member shouted “Hail Satan!” The band responded by…not responding at all.

In the end, though, who really cares if Khanate’s attitude springs from arrogance or morbid torpor? Their stubborn refusal to cheer up is both alienating and admirable. They obviously respect the traditions of metal; Dubin’s vocal stylings seem intended as a tribute to the evil wizards of Scandanavian black metal bands like Emperor and Darkthrone. While their demented excess can be endearingly silly–imagine Gollum shrieking, as Dubin does, “No good times in here!”–Khanate’s uncompromising helpless misery is what makes them special. Music that won’t hide its frustration and self-pity behind fantasies of sex, drugs, or war, attempt constructive arguments, or shrug and say it’s all good, may be doomed to the margins. Khanate will never be as well liked as the stoner rock they inevitably get lumped in with: slowed-down, fuzzed-out, pedal-happy noodle rock by bands like Kyuss, Monster Magnet, and (bless ’em) Bongzilla. But the Khanate fan doesn’t mind. He’s content to brood alone in a locked, dark room to the accompaniment of a lurid, shapeless dirge, while his parents consider intervention and therapy. And pray that they can get the 35-year-old bum to move out and start paying back his student loans.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.