KHEMMIS – Deceiver (2021)REVIEW

Looking freshly trim as a trio Denver, Colorado-based epic heavy/doom metal band Khemmis have emphasized Phil Pendergast‘s vocal talents as their main workhorse on this first full-length for Nuclear Blast after developing a considerable cult following throughout the 2010’s via three well-received full-lengths with 20 Buck Spin. Well, ‘Isolation‘ (2018) was technically co-released between the two labels but you get the idea that this fourth record is the one intending to expand their audience by a magnitude or two, having spent years finding their own rhythm and voice. That appears to be the major artistic goal here in general, for the band to come into their own in full and eclipse the already stunning feat that was that previous record, which I’d loved.

The result of setting their most vocal-forward, markedly harmonized and occasionally catchy epic heavy metal balladry even more up front on this album is, well, honestly a fairly dreary way to kick things off. The delayed kinetic gratification of ‘Deceiver‘ may be off-putting for newer fandom still keying into the emotional gravitas Khemmis have instilled herein and fair enough, this is akin to suggesting toddlers might not be interested in melodramatic teen literature. The joy of any record from these fellowes is not the face value examination of their craft but the unpeeling of the layers over time, the slow-burn reveal of classic and modern musical interest they’re known for packing into each piece. Resign yourself to feel the way forward in dark times and match the band’s pace.

Bummer, man. — In approach of the maw of ‘Deceiver’ we find ourselves at the gates of Hades, or, a certain hellish precipice via “Avernal Gate”. This solemn opener regales us with an inspired alternate-picked mid-90’s melodeath sized soldiering-in that naturally sinks into alternation with Khemmis‘ signature alienated Candlemass-esque verse treatment. A strike into action in view of an imposing hill to climb. The vocal performances are harmonized in such a way that evokes the more patient phrasing of Heri Joensen from Týr sans quite as many layers for effect; I’ve said as much about Pendergast‘s vocals in the past or made similar comparisons Jake Rogers from Visigoth and not so much to illustrate style or vibe but the level of professional craft going into these performances, reaching for a bit of Dio and Messiah Marcolin without falling into a typified or too traditionally stated power/doom metal dynamic.

The album’s second single, “House of Cadmus“, is similar enough in phrasing to “Avernal Gate” that they nearly bleed together as a set of two movements. Because the guitar action has been remarkably stiff-armed at this point, any atmo-sludged tension built is released via a few hulking chugs and some growling verses from co-guitarist/vocalist Ben Hutcherson (Glacial Tomb). Though the standards for production values and sound design of Khemmis were always held high previous, ‘Deceiver’ is especially glossy, bright, and “mainstream” heavy when the full band eventually strikes in for these extreme metal influenced bouts of roar and rhythm. The running order seems to set the presentation of this death/doom metal moment early on to ensure folks that Khemmis have not gone in a pure heavy metal direction but with consideration for the full listen, it’d have landed better on Side B.

I was not sure they’d quite struck iron in terms of high-stakes mainstream heavy/doom metal ’til “Living Pyre” gives blood and lung via the one big-assed hook machine on ‘Deceiver’ — Crumbling out a Martyrdöd-esque chord or two before diving into what is perhaps the most memorable piece Khemmis have written to date. Longtime fans who’ve come to expect the band to come full range early on in each of their records, usually trotting in with a bang, still have the rest of the album to fall into but “Living Pyre” is tailored to be the tightness you’re most prone to remember in reflection. That is perhaps the -thing- in the case of ‘Deceiver’, there just aren’t any frayed ends or experimental whips into new territory, we are purposefully set neck deep in misery and need to start taking stock alongside the band. This offers some clarification that Khemmis‘d found their major songwriting vehicle on ‘Isolation’ since they’ve refined the strengths of that record down to its most serious elemental form, chucking out the “kitchen sink” proggy, kinda-extreme doom metal weirdo affect of the band. Stick around if you feel like it, though, because ‘Deceiver’ does eventually pay out beyond a few slick choruses on this first half.

The band points to “Shroud of Lethe” as the piece where it all comes together as a most pronounced meeting of the three minds and perhaps this is where a lot of folks will say to themselves, “Ah, right. Khemmis.” rather than seeing ‘Deceiver’ as a slickened version of popular heavy metal meant to assuage both European and North American markets. Here we’ve got the chorus reveal within a few moments, hair-raising harmonized and/or dual-soloing and an eventual burst into death/doom metal beyond the ~6 minute mark. This is more-or-less where the floodgates open for my own taste and Side B is where Khemmis decidedly shine as “Obsidian Crown” arguably would’ve socked a crater in “House of Cadmus” placement and “The Astral Road” gives us their “Emerald” moment to cap off each full listen. Here’s the thing, though, once you’ve got all six of these songs under your belt they only glom together more securely as an experience. The flow of the full listen from moment to moment certainly reaches a median peak of emotive droning-on yet the whole of the experience builds its resonance through patient familiarity.

Doom metal from the classicist point of view isn’t meant to be gratifying escapism, it is a craft fundamentally guided by the realist’s existential dread in view of a bleak post-industrial future. I don’t know how viable the suggestion is that you’ll need to enter ‘Deceiver’ with a willingness to feel what considerable existential dreariness Khemmis are presenting, though it will absolutely yield the best results. At a bare minimum take a moment to zoom out to the world of popular heavy metal (as in, traditional forms or doom-adjacent) and you’ll quickly identify this trio as an entity presenting far more valuable, personal songcraft than the usual trendy retro-isms and over-polished and borrowed personae. With these two points in mind ‘Deceiver’ grew on me quickly, more-or-less matching the value of ‘Isolation’ but having fully broken in this strong sense of self. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation. (89/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Nuclear Blast Records
RELEASE DATE:November 19th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp
GENRE(S):Epic Heavy/Doom Metal

Help Support Grizzly Butts’ goals with a donation:

Please consider donating directly to site costs and project funding using PayPal.