REVIEW: KHEMMIS – “Deceiver”
On his critically lauded track “Shelter from the Storm,” Bob Dylan sang the lines “Well the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount, but nothing really matters much it’s doom alone that counts.” The song’s tempest-tossed narrator looks for peace of mind in a “world of steel-eyed death.” Kemmis’ fourth full-length LP ‘Deceiver’ follows a similar thematic path, as the band reflects on a myriad of effects brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The cornerstones of the doom genre – isolation, depression, mental health, mistrust, fear, are all on display with a deliberate crushing heaviness both musically and lyrically that adds a high level of depth and immediacy to ‘Deceiver’s’ efficiently compact six songs.
“Living Pyre,” the record’s dark and monolithically heavy first single, showcases a focused and serious band not content to merely navel-gaze into the mystical void, as can often be doom’s “modus operandi.” Rather, the band seems to be legitimately working their shit out in real-time. It’s not hard to read into Ben Hutcherson’s (guitar/vocals) publicized battle with depression in lines like “My body is a frame that’s weighed down by its sins, an anchor cold and leaden.” Or his desire to triumph over the depression in the lines “We have to learn to find a way to transcend far beyond the tomb from which we came to be, where we’re interred forever.”
Musically, the band is as focused as ever. “Living Pyre’s” anticipatory build-up finds the band’s Orange amps set to “extra dark,” as the band lumbers through a quintessentially Khemmis slow banger that positively drips with apprehension. An excellent vocal turn by newly coiffed and mustachioed Phil Pendergast (vocals/guitar) highlights his continued growth as a vocalist. Adept at balancing increased vocal range and skill with expressiveness and unfeigned delivery and tonality, Phil has really come into his own on this record.
“Shroud of Lethe ” balances a plodding open-chord structure brimming with heart-rending vocals with a late song breakdown reminiscent of Khemmis’ Peaceville three forebearers. Featuring an angular doom riff offset by unsettling guitar harmonies and underscored by Hutcherson’s affecting death growl, the breakdown provides an effective counterpoint to the song’s plaintive core.
From a production and engineering standpoint, ‘Deceiver’ is a resounding victory. From the brain worm choruses of “Shroud of Lethe” to the progressive grandeur of “Avernal Gate” the massive, uncluttered mix, free from superfluous overdubs provides a great depth of clarity. It’s unclear whether recently departed bass player and founding member Daniel Beiers contributed to the recording, but it’s important to note that the lock-step rhythm section provides a mammoth, punchy low-end canvas for Hutcherson and Pendergast to splatter their tonally impeccable riffs and flights of fancy. The perfectly engineered vocals are pushed as far upfront as possible without distracting from the record’s massive balls, allowing the listener to easily decipher the poignant and well-thought-out lyrical content.
Elsewhere, the ominous intro of “House of Cadmus” leads into Zach Coleman’s weighty, synchronized drum patterns, elevating the pummeling guitar riffs on a song that’s the focus, and purposefulness make its six minutes plus runtime feel like three. In Greek mythology, Cadmus, the founder of Thebes and a great hero and monster slayer, was impulsively punished by the Gods for various insular offenses, including the killing of a sacred water dragon. The analogy rings true as the song’s narrator sees “the machinations of torment glowing beneath the moon,” while the scourges of human suffering await “with mouths of broken glass,” as “they rend my flesh and herald my doom”
On a record that generally keeps things crushingly heavy, “The Astral Road” is a solid mid-tempo slice of classic metal aggression. All of Khemmis’ strengths are on display; memorable vocal melodies thick with perfectly executed harmonies, a triumphant half-time chorus, harmonized guitar interludes, and smoking leads. Thematically, the “deceiver” of the record title rears its ugly head on this track. While ambiguous and mired in fictional and nonfictional beings and the personification of inanimate objects such as the forces of nature, the human condition, etc., lyrics such as “unpledged to any service/insurrection/throw away the cause” add contemporary weight to the overarching plight of the deceived or deceivable—The fate of whom is undetermined as evidenced by the song’s final unresolved ringing chord. Hutcherson has suggested that the unresolved chord acts as an ellipsis, anticipating and acknowledging the uncertainty of what’s to come…
On ‘Deceiver,’ Khemmis pares down some of the complexity and experimentation of 2018’s excellent ‘Desolation’ in favor of an effectively consolidated and doom-forward approach that wears its leaden heart on its sleeve.