Khanate : To Be Cruel

Khanate To Be Cruel review

Some scene setting: I am cataloguing advance promo streams from my email in the evening, a daily task of sorting through items of interest and others less so, when all of a sudden I see an email featuring the name Khanate. Figuring it must be a comparison to the all-time great drone/doom/improvisational post-metal band, I click on the email. I god damn near drop my coffee in my lap like a bad pulp film bit character; this is a brand new Khanate album under severe embargo. It’s been 14 years since the last record and everything went quiet, the record label they largely worked with having long shuttered its own hallowed doors and its members hard at work elsewhere. The last time I’d seriously sat with the records was itself almost a decade ago as I regaled friends from college about this remarkable, impossibly great band that pressed to my spiritual limit in my cozy and alienating semi-rural hometown when the liminal edge of improvisational/jazz music and extreme music could be, so natural it felt like breathing, breathing lightning, expelling transformative acrid fires in a dead-end town.

So imagine my surprise when To Be Cruel, their first album in over a decade, is also clearly far and away their best. In the meantime between their final record and this one, the wave of post-metal has largely come and gone, with their legacy carried on first by groups like Isis and now by combos like Big|Brave, Soldat Hans, Anatomy of Habit and SUMAC. This is not to say that Khanate come and immediately swipe clean the table of these children of their sonic ideas; no, instead they show this heaving and sacred heart to that sonic ideal, arraying over its hourlong runtime a three-act structure of open-ended exploratory music. In a shock, they sound less interested in heaviness these days, rightly self-assured that they can summon it naturally and without effort, freeing them up to pursue a kind of brightness and jazzy playfulness that they’d dabbled with in the past but never fully indulged in to this degree.

Their chord choices, while still often dissonant, here take on a color less associated with hardcore or extreme metal and more with the lushness and complexity of bebop and the smarter world of pop songwriting. This new sense of color in the midst of the murk blends shockingly well with their finely-honed impulse toward the use of feedback and its overtones, feeling less like a rejection of the grime and despair natural to their work as much as a more mature and complex view. The four members are no longer making art from the youthful impulse of impossible rage and confusion, and the record does not sound as such. An aspect of mature art, be it novels or cinema or music or poetry, is largely one of embracing a natural confusion that emerges over time and experience, as we are able to more and more finely parse the complex and contradictory elements of things, that hate and pain can be stained with love, that cruelty doesn’t necessarily mean that it is devoid of care, that all great things are corroded with fallibility and other harsh, humbling lessons. The additional colors here feel self-examined, self-complicating, a sentiment mirrored by the markedly improved lyrics. Early Khanate records already were a cut above most other experimental extreme bands in terms of a real marked literary quality; here, they feel fit for printing on their lonesome, wielding image like a scalpel, measuring their melodrama against the salt of more fine-grained detail work. It’s masterful stuff.

To Be Cruel joins the fine and esteemed company of records like Gorguts’ Colored Sands, Cynic’s Traced in Air and Carcass’ Surgical Steel, works by metal groups that spent the long years between releases very deliberately not just improving but maturing, deepening the richness with which they view the world as much as the depth with which they practice their art. It often feels across this record as though Khanate witnessed the contemporary mastery that SUMAC has been displaying ever since their collaborations with Keiji Haino and, in a fit of inspiration, sought to affirm this new jazz-inflected, improvisational and heart-bared direction this type of drone/post-metal has gone in the past few years. In doing so, they’ve also produced their masterwork, the finest record of their discography. What an incredible gift.

Label: Sacred Bones

Year: 2023

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Khanate To Be Cruel review

Khanate: To Be Cruel

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