Khemmis – Absolution ALBUM REVIEW

Not many bands attempt to describe their sound in four words. Even fewer put those four words up at the front of their bandcamp page. Khemmis is not one of those bands, and boldly attempts to describe what usually takes at least a paragraph in just about as few words as possible: Slow, Loud, Heavy, Denver. The first three are pretty standard for doom metal, so while they’re most likely correct, I don’t think they’re really breaking any barriers with that. Denver’s kind of a weird one, because although they are from Denver, bands don’t typically describe their sound with where they’re from. Though I guess it could be like when a rapper randomly says the name of where they’re from to get cred or something. I guess any city that’s cold as fuck and a mile above the earth has metal cred to it. There’s also legal weed, so that’s a major plus on any doom metal band’s origin cred. But of course, it isn’t just about how the bands describes themselves, I’m reviewing this to describe how I feel about it. And personally, I’m not quite sure they described themselves accurately. And no, I’m not just going to go through each of their self descriptions and analyze if they are indeed that, that’s dumb. I don’t think I can measure “Denver” in any objective sense anyway. Instead I’ll do it the old fashion way; through hard analysis, and lots of metaphors.

First off, before I take a microscope to every fault on Absolution, I do want to point out how great the production job is. It’s not really super unique, or especially fitting to the theme, but it is the quintessential “this is how doom metal should sound” kind of production. It has enough fuzz to make you feel the hammering, bring you down to earth, bone crushing tonics, while being clean enough to where you can actually hear every note. If there is a single kind of production that can go with pretty much any doom metal album, it’s the job that’s done on this album.

Unfortunately, Khemmis doesn’t fully capitalize on that fact. The very first thing I noticed within the first few minute of the first song, is how little of an atmosphere there is. Now, there’s a common misconception in the metal community that there’s a division between atmospheric metal and riff based metal. This is completely false. ALL metal albums have atmosphere. I could even go further and say that all albums in general have atmosphere, but I don’t want to go too far off topic. Even riff based metal albums have an atmosphere to them, because any time you play a note, or hit a drum, or do anything with any sound ever, you’re going to evoke a feeling in whoever is listening. And that’s all atmosphere is, the feeling the music brings. This is true all the way from Hellhammer’s first demos, to Filosofem, to  [INSERT ANY MODERN ATMOSPHERIC BLACK METAL ALBUM HERE]. The point is, all music has atmosphere, even if the main goal of the music is not to be atmospheric. So relating this back to Absolution, even though this is mostly a melody and riff based album, the lack of atmosphere still hurts it. It feels sterile and lifeless. The musicianship and musicality are rather good, but it lacks a certain sense of personality to it. Part of that the fact that this album has the strange and not often found problem of being too melodic.

Typically a strong sense of melody is a good thing in almost any circumstance. A common criticism of metal is how unmemorable the melodies are, especially in genres like power metal, melo death, and other more melodic based metal. Even outside of that, melody is almost universally seen as a good thing. The problem here is two-fold. For one, even though they do focus on the melody often, the actual melodies are a bit too obvious and unexciting, as well as overextending a bit, as to being more a long melodic line than being an actual repeated melody. Not that the songs don’t have repeated themes, but they get lost in slightly long-winded melodic sections, so nothing really sticks in your head. The second problem is that they traded being melodic with what doom metal is best known for: hard hitting, crushing, short, and catchy riffs. This is not a very riff based album, something which shouldn’t normally be a thing you want to say about a doom metal album. Not that the riffs don’t exist, but they often sound like slightly melodic chugging, rather than an actual hard hitting riff. So in the end, they trade riffs for melody, and end up doing neither well.

I mentioned earlier how the production was really quite good on this album, the kind that could sound awesome in just about any doom metal album. While this is still true, I did also mention that they didn’t capitalize on that. I expanded on that with mention of the atmosphere, however i want to further expand on that on a more general level than just notes and melody. Khemmis simultaneously tries to sound both clean and dirty at the same time, and of course, whenever you try to do two things at once, you’re much more likely to do neither well. In a more general sense, they contrast the very sludge influenced doom sections, with these much more melodic and clean sections, that sounds more like melo-death, or even deathcore (more on that shortly) than doom metal. While as a whole, there probably is a bit more focus on the sludgey doom sections (I admit, I wasn’t exactly counting the seconds that each got focus so I don’t know this for sure, shame on me), neither has enough of a focus overall to be done well. An even production job doesn’t necessarily mean even music. Because if you have an even production job, with an even amount of dirt, and an even amount of cleanliness, and neither is executed in a particularly good manner, you end up creating this middle of the pack, and ultimately bland sound that takes advantage of none of the strengths either influences has to offer. The great thing about this particular production job is that it can accent anything, not that you’re supposed to go middle of the road with the middle of the road production. Focus on doing one thing well, not multiple things mediocre.

Moving on from the production job while stilling talking about the overall bland atmosphere, one of the culprits to this is the vocals. Initially, I heard the clean vocals and was quite happy, and even noted that they sounded perfect with the music. I’m a huge fan of trad doom, even though I don’t listen to nearly enough of it. Clean, somewhat relaxed vocals in doom metal will always have a place in my heart, if anything because it reminds me of when I first understood Born too Late. But just as soon as I was writing the praise of this vocal style in my notes, the most awful noise cam about. As if taken right from a generic metalcore album, these uncouth, barbaric, uncultured death barks came in. It took me extremely off guard, and it put me way off on this album. It didn’t help that on the first track it was basically just injected into the music seemingly out of nowhere. It was like decorating a vanilla cake with Tapatio hot sauce. Tapatio is mentioned in particular, because although I love hot sauce, and I’m sure you could make vanilla and hot sauce work, Tapatio is like if hot sauce was twice digested, vomited up, shat on, then mixed with moldy cum rags and sold for people to put on their burritos. Therefore this negates any indication that what I said could be seen as a good thing. Anyway, the combination didn’t work and I initially wrote the death barks off as awful.

But a funny thing happened on the way to The Bereaved. Or rather, two funny things. For one, I noticed the pattern in how they used these vocals, and how it changed throughout the album. Initially, the harsh vocals were used as a change-up during the climax of the song, switching back and forth in a very core-like way, mostly accompanied by a melo-death like background (hence the melodic death metal influence I put at the top). Later in the album, starting towards the end of Serpentine, there was a switch. A slow one, but a switch nonetheless. The death barks became the main vocals, and the clean vocals took a backseat. As a result, you now had as a main focus the harsh vocals accompanied by the sludge/doom sections, and the clean vocals accompanied by the more brief melodic sections. This seemed a lot more natural, and better overall, which in turn leads to the second funny thing. I realized that the harsh vocals were actually better. The album really reaches it’s peak during the 5th track “Burden of Sin”, in which the transition in roles of the two vocal styles finally completes. The large majority of the track has the harsh vocals in it, and in turn, for the first time, there seems to be a focused atmosphere.

But why does any of this matter? I’m sure many (as in 4 out of the 7 total at least) of you reading this are probably thinking that I’ve spent this entire time nitpicking. And by itself, yeah this is mostly nitpicking. However there is a larger point to this, and it’s a great lesson in why reading the lyrics, even to a metal album, is extremely important.

While it’s hard to say exactly what in particular this album is about, the general theme of the album, at least lyrically, is that humanity has done a bunch of awful things, and that now they must pay with the apocalypse. This is especially apparent in the track Antediluvian. For those of you that don’t know (which included me until I looked this up, I’m not THAT smart), the antediluvian refers to the time before the biblical flood. So the obvious implication here is that we’re in the theoretical antediluvian, about to be swept up by the great flood, and the lyrics reflect that. In short, the theme here is the Apocalypse. That’s a pretty large theme to relate to in 41 minutes, or any amount of time for that matter. Which leads me to the ultimate failing of this album. It feels so small in comparison to how large it’s trying to be.

There isn’t just one reason for this, but we’ll start by going back to talking about the vocals. The cleans Khemmis uses here evoke a sense of homeliness, a sense of being down to earth, nostalgia, and relatively speaking are much more relaxed. Whereas the death vocals are urgent, punishing, and unforgiving. It’s sort of like your mom telling you that if you keep making that face it’ll stay that way, compared to gunnery sergeant hartman yelling “YOU HAD BEST UNFUCK YOURSELF OR I WILL UNSCREW YOUR HEAD AND SHIT DOWN YOUR NECK!”. You can ignore your mom saying that. You can’t really ignore the threat of literally eating shit. Considering the main point of this album is that humanity must pay or else, I’d much rather have this message relayed in a way I can’t just tune out. This is what the harsh vocals do. Again, there’s urgency involved, and in a more abstract sense, punishment. There’s a feeling that by listening to these, I’m already being punished, and I mean that in a good way. Sort of like that you know you’ve been a naughty boy, and now master Ben Hutcherson will punish you. Except then you realize you forgot the safeword and now he’s literally going to kill you. That’s how this album should feel. The harshness should be the punishment, the cleans should be the relief, but ultimately you should feel a sense of doom. This doesn’t happen nearly enough. In fact I’d really only say it happens during one part of Antediluvian, and the majority of Burden of Sin. The rest of the time it feels like they’re trying to relay the message of our demise in the meekest, and least pressuring way possible. It feels small… with one exception.

I referenced this earlier, along with a 1960s musical comedy, but the final track is called “The Bereaved”, a track which the label claimed was the “doom metal track of the year”. Seeing as how labels never lie about the quality of their music, I was shocked to find out that this is in fact NOT the doom metal track of the year. In fact, it isn’t even the best track on the album. One thing I will say is that this is the first time the album actually feels large. Unfortunately, sort of like a Dane Cook comedy routine, it’s obvious how hard they’re trying to be that way. Right away with the acoustic guitar intro, and then with the post-metal-like buildup to the main music, Khemmis is pulling in all the stops to make sure the track blows you away. Unfortunately for them, it climaxes at about 1:10 out of the 9:00 length, and then never goes anywhere. It’s loud, it’s slow, it’s heavy, it sounds epic, it’s from Denver, and it doesn’t do shit for the album. It’s sort of like ordering Bob’s Big Ass Burger at your local diner. Sure it’s big, and sure it’s filling, but in the end, you probably would’ve been much happier with a smaller, but much higher quality meal.

Now I just want to make this clear that although I’ve spent this entire review taking a big fat shit on the record, this is not bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, this is pretty dang good. Even though it has a lot of faults, and even though I said the nitpicking I did was important, it’s still nitpicking, and the point is, aside from taking a magnifying glass to it, this album sounds good. When they do get the right combination of vocals and instrumental influences, and it sounds like it should sound, there’s a lot to like. I’d probably rate this in the mid-high 7 range if the entire album sounded like Burden of Sin. There are also some unbelievably awesome solo work here, especially on The Bereaved, which is easily the best part of that track. These guys know how to play their instruments well, and it shows.

Unfortunately, and I know I’ve been going back and forth on this, even though those are just nitpicks, they’re important nitpicks, and they prevent me from putting Absolution into the official seal of approval. The album sounds good, but ultimately it took on too big of a theme for their sound. If they can get that combination of influences correct for an entire album, watch out. But for now I think I actually prefer the Muse album by the same name.


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