Surprise! It's Khanate!
A new album from one of the most unsettling metal bands ever
Welcome! I feel like I have to say that, because Substack featured this newsletter on their front page a few days ago, causing me to gain literally hundreds of new subscribers since last week. So if this is your first time reading Burning Ambulance, I’m very glad you’re here. The deal is this: I write about music. Mostly jazz, a fair amount of metal, a splash of modern classical, and some…other stuff. There are posts meant for paid subscribers on Mondays, and posts for everyone on Wednesdays. This is a paid-subscribers-only post, so at a certain point you’re going to run into a paywall. If you want to subscribe, it’s $5 a month or $50 a year, and that gains you access to all the posts — many of which are related to the book I’m currently writing, a biography of avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor.
If you want to buy physical CDs from the record label, Burning Ambulance Music, they’re available via mail-order through Bandcamp. Our catalog to date includes:
Senyawa, Alkisah: ritual avant-garde industrial metal from Indonesia
Ivo Perelman/Nate Wooley, Polarity: abstract saxophone/trumpet duos; a sequel is coming
Matthew Shipp/Whit Dickey, Reels: piano/drums duos from two legends of modern avant-garde jazz
Graham Haynes vs Submerged, Echolocation: cornet laid over thick electronic soundscapes
Breath of Air, s/t: improvised avant-jazz-rock for electric guitar, violin, and drums
José Lencastre, Inner Voices: multi-tracked saxophone and electronics
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Khanate surprise-released a new album, To Be Cruel, on Friday. I loved Khanate — the quartet of vocalist Alan Dubin, guitarist Stephen O’Malley, bassist James Plotkin, and drummer Tim Wyskida — during their initial run from 2001-2009. I saw them live once in around 2005, at the long-gone and much-missed club Tonic, possibly co-billed with Orthrelm; it’s all a blur now. What I do remember is that Plotkin’s bass amp caught fire after about a half hour, cutting their set short, but before that they were one of the most unsettling groups I’d ever seen live. Plotkin’s hair hung in his face like a drowned witch fished out of a well, and he was bent over a rack of effects like Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers had done when I saw them at the Marquee in 1989, a show where I genuinely feared for my life (I had a bad cold, for which I had taken some cough syrup, and the room was packed and fiercely hot, and Haynes was onstage filling a cymbal with lighter fluid, igniting it, and bashing it with a drumstick, sending fireballs toward the ceiling). Plotkin and O’Malley glowered at the small audience and at each other, striking monstrously loud chords as if in duel rather than collective performance, and Wyskida pounded the drums like a doom Milford Graves, more about abstraction and mood than time.
To Be Cruel contains just three tracks: “Like a Poisoned Dog,” “It Wants to Fly,” and the title piece, each running more than 20 minutes. It’s immediately a return to form for those familiar with their previous work (a self-titled 2001 album, 2003’s Things Viral, 2005’s two-song Capture & Release EP, and 2009’s Clean Hands Go Foul). But while many things are the same — achingly slow tempos, huge guitar clangs like church bells, Dubin’s anguished shrieks, feedback and drone — there are new elements. “Like a Poisoned Dog” doesn’t just have massive guitar chords; it has an actual riff, one that sounds like an AC/DC song played at 1/4 speed. There are other bits, where the guitar slides out of tune, that sound like Fear’s “Getting the Brush,” and there’s a sustained burst of noise a little over halfway through that seems to be intended as a “guitar solo.” And Wyskida’s drumming feels more active, with lots of rolls and waves of cymbals. One more small but subtle change is the addition of synths from Plotkin, which function more as atmospheres, dark winds blowing through the room, than an additional melodic element; they’re particularly prominent, and potent, on “It Wants to Fly.”
The music on To Be Cruel wasn’t recorded four-dudes-in-a-room style; O’Malley and Wyskida laid the foundations years ago, recording the guitars and drums as improvised suites in 2017, then passed it along to Plotkin (who edited it into “songs” and added his parts) and Dubin. But the finished product feels, if not organic, at least the product of collective effort. Khanate were, after all — and apparently are — a band. Replacing any of the four members would completely change the whole.
When Khanate announced their dissolution about 15 years ago, I interviewed them for the Village Voice. I also reviewed Clean Hands Go Foul for The Wire. I’ve included both those pieces behind the paywall.
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