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The boom years were good to Stephen O’Malley. In the mid-’00s, the Paris-based guitarist, who first attracted attention in the mid-’90s as a member of Seattle’s Burning Witch, was the cultural elite’s metal musician of choice. Sunn O))), O’Malley’s duo with Greg Anderson, was profiled in the pages of New York Times Magazine in May 2006 and praised on David Byrne’s blog a few days later. Both articles appeared at a time when the drone act had no new record to promote. The buzz continued throughout 2007 and 2008 while Sunn O))) was working on its seventh album, Monoliths and Dimensions. To hear it, or at least hear it in time to write about it, a music critic had to request a copy on vinyl or attend a listening session in New York, strategies used to keep the album from leaking.
And yet not all of O’Malley’s efforts are quite so high-profile. Best among his many bands and side projects, the avant-metal outfit Khanate, which broke up in late-2006, went all but unnoticed by the mainstream. Certainly the zeitgeist must’ve played a part. Unlike Sunn O)))—a guitar duo that wooed mid-decade audiences with hooded robes and smoke-enshrouded performances—Khanate had no special gimmicks. The New York band’s latest, the posthumous Clean Hands Go Foul, reminds us that, in place of the escapism that was so alluring to those who expanded into metal between the post-9/11 recovery and the recent economic meltdown, Khanate offers realism in general and a jazz ensemble’s approach to group interplay in particular.
Nowhere is this jazzlike sensibility more apparent than on Khanate’s swan song. The album, which was recorded both before and after the band’s breakup, is typical of every Khanate release since the band’s 2001 self-titled debut, in that it is both more abstract and more dependent on serendipity than the one that came before it. In this case, the precedent is 2005’s Capture and Release, a two-song full-length that, on first listen, seems to abandon all pattern and rhythm. According to a recent post by bassist James Plotkin on a doom-metal forum, the music on the new album was fully improvised in the studio. So is it any surprise that Clean Hands Go Foul is as close to jazz as any metal record in recent memory?
O’Malley certainly plays a part in this hybridized approach. On “Clean My Heart,” his skittering, melodic playing is reminiscent of the free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, who added an expressionistic edge to Miles Davis’ 1970 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson. But O’Malley is still rooted in the uncomplicated motifs of doom metal, and much of what connects Clean Hands Go Foul to the jazz genre is the drumming of Tim Wyskida. Like Sunny Murray and Milford Graves—two jazz drummers who abandoned timekeeping in the ’60s—Wyskida pushes the improv forward without resorting to a beat. He accomplishes this by emphasizing drum rolls and cymbal work, a technique that is sometimes jarring but provides enough thickness to make up for the lack of an orthodox drum pattern.
Of course, Wyskida could play the most stereotypically simpleminded metal beat possible and the new record would still elude easy categorization. O’Malley and Plotkin steer clear of any semblance of a riff, opting instead for drones and suggestions of melody. And even Allan Dubin, the most conventionally metallic member of Khanate, is likely to be a deal-breaker for many a metalhead. His vocals have a heft that is undeniable (he hits like a power chord at the beginning of the opener “Wings From Spine”), and yet he doesn’t resort to the Cookie Monster tricks so popular in the extreme metal underground. Instead, Dubin simply sounds exasperated, like a man whose deals—some mundane, some unwholesome—have all gone bad.
His lyrics give the same impression. One of my favorite Khanate couplets comes from “Release,” the second and final track on Capture and Release (the first track is called “Capture”—get it?). “It’s cold when birds fall from the sky,” Dubin sings. “It’s cold when I’m near you.” The lyric is a perfect example of Dubin’s tendency to combine the prosaic and the poetic, something he does throughout Clean Hands Go Foul’s “Wings From Spine.” It’s easy to imagine another metal band writing the line “Angels are easily broken.” But who, other than Dubin, would compose the follow-up “And I broke one”? There’s something much more evocative about the matter-of-fact accounting. The song asks us not to believe that the subject is a badass on the order of, say, Iron Maiden’s devilish mascot Eddie, but that he’s careless, which, in this era of former investment bankers and foreclosed homes, is much more frightening.
Hell, according to Dubin, exists right here on earth, a message he makes explicit on the 33-minute album closer, “Every God Damn Thing.” “Even flowers disgust,” he sings over a glitchy assortment of instrumental noises. “The sky/The dirt/People/Hell/Herds of people/Walking streets.” It’s unclear whether he improvised the vocals, which were recorded after the music was already in the can, but it’s easy to imagine him doing so. The claustrophobic vibe of “Every God Damn Thing” echoes lyrics he wrote for “Commuted” from 2003’s Things Viral, a song on which Dubin conveys a similar disgust for crowds: “My god, the smiles, the sneezes, the talking/We’re in that place again.” Plus, and perhaps more important, his vocals have a free-floating quality that could be the end product of a single, unrehearsed take.
Regardless of how Clean Hands Go Foul was put together, one gets the sense that, like good jazz musicians, the quartet could create something very similar without much forethought. That doesn’t make it a jazz recording any more than Dubin’s vocals make it metal. But how it’s classified is less important than what it represents, which is a tantalizing hint of the myriad directions in which this band could’ve gone—that is, had Khanate survived the boom years. Will there ever be a more receptive audience for this band? If so, Clean Hands Go Foul has, out of all of Khanate’s efforts, the broadest appeal and thus the greatest potential to reach it. And if not, O’Malley and Co. can at least take solace in having written a final chapter that is worthy of such a memorable band.