Modern American doom metal is in fantastic hands. Pallbearer lead the way, being the most well-known act, delivering stunning albums full of intricate songwriting and haunting melody. Hanging right up there with them in the higher echelons is Spirit Adrift, and the band that rounds out this incredible triumvirate is Denver’s Khemmis. Desolation is the band’s third album, following 2016’s highly-acclaimed Hunted.
Khemmis describe their sound as “doom if played by Iron Maiden,” and that’s not far off from the truth. Guitar harmonies permeate the songs, and while the doominess of previous albums is further reduced on Desolation, the tuning, lyrics, and underlying feel of the album still fit in that subgenre. On Desolation, Khemmis have moved further down the path of epic, traditional metal. Melodies gallop along in many cases, and almost every lead break features at least a bit of harmonization.
Immediately upon hearing opening cut “Bloodletting,” the band’s move towards traditional fare is obvious – and well executed. Among the bands mentioned earlier, Phil Pendergast just may be the best vocalist. His soaring, emotional, melodic voice is the selling feature of the band (of course along with the excellent guitar work of Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson). Pendergast’s voice draws you into each song, each story sung with maximum conviction.
While fans of the band who are adamantly against anyone ever evolving their sound may chafe at the change, Desolation is an album that shows Khemmis pushing out of their doom past and investigating more variance in their songwriting. Arrangements are intricate and uptempo, even on the relatively short, anthemic galloper “Isolation,” and the band shows they are more than capable of writing engaging, epic songs.
“From Ruins” brings this six-song album to an epic conclusion, and is the closest we come to traditional doom. As on every song, the guitar tones are simply fantastic, a beautiful balancing act between massive crunch and plaintive harmony. And Pendergast’s heartfelt vocals make this nine-minute beast a real stunner. While this isn’t quite the masterpiece Hunted was – a few songs here lack the staying power of that album’s offerings – when it clicks it does so with majesty and a maturity in the songwriting that is more than welcome.
Once again we are gifted with brilliant cover art courtesy of Sam Turner. This time we see a return to the subjects of the band’s first cover, where the wizard, armed with his vacuum-tube staff, is pictured with a blood-spattered female warrior, wolves baring their teeth and feasting on carnage. I love the fact that Khemmis want their album art to be as epic as their music.
If one embraces Khemmis’s movement into more uptempo territories, the only real fault on Desolation is the sporadic use of harsh vocals. I get that both guitarists may want to have their vocal moments in the sun, and the band members all hail from extreme metal backgrounds, but the harsh vocals do nothing to improve the songs: Pendergast has become too good of a singer. As a backing vocal they would be more effective. But that is a nitpick: overall Khemmis have delivered another excellent album, one that should broaden the band’s appeal, and rightfully so.
(released June 22, 2018 on 20 Buck Spin)
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Watch Khemmis – “Isolation” Video