AN NCS PREMIERE (AND AN INTERVIEW): KHEMMIS — “ASH, CINDER, SMOKE”
I don’t have a crystal ball, just some experience and a willingness to make guesses, but my prediction is that with a little word of mouth and the increasing exposure of their music, Denver-based Khemmis are going to blow up. They’re excellent songwriters, they’re accomplished musicians, they pour their souls into their music — and their music is righteous. They also have a tube-assisted wizard for a mascot.
In the wide-ranging interview that accompanies the song we’re about to premiere from their debut album, “Ash, Cinder, Smoke“, I unfairly asked the band if they could sum up their sound and style in a paragraph or less for people new to their music. They did it in six words — “Like a doom metal Iron Maiden.”
They did go on to elaborate, briefly: “All of the low-tuned, fuzzed-out riffage of classic and contemporary doom/sludge with the triumphant guitar harmonies and dueling leads of Maiden, Priest, and Thin Lizzy.”
There’s a lot of truth in that description, but I’ll elaborate a bit more, about “Ash, Cinder, Smoke” in particular. Khemmis shake the earth with pavement-cracking riffs and cannon-blast drum blows. They stomp like brontosaurs and rumble like boulders, while sending out tendrils of lead guitar melody that coil around your neck like hungry pythons.
And the vocals — the principal vocals soar up high, clean and pure, while the instrumental music is busy down below in the excavation zone, pulverizing foundations of large buildings and reducing them to rubble. And in tandem with those excellent clean vocals, the band mix in abraded, growling tirades that leave scars in their wake — including some massive gutturals at the end, courtesy of a guest appearance by Ethan of Primitive Man.
It’s very heavy music and definitely roams the blasted plains of doom, but Khemmis are also mixing in other musical elements that make them stand out in a crowded genre. And part of what makes Absolution such an engrossing listening experience is that the tracks aren’t just rolling off some kind of musical assembly line — each one has its own character, each one exerts its own grip on the emotions and the imagination. To get a sense of what I mean, check out the previously premiered track “Antediluvian” over at The Obelisk.
I also encourage you to check out our interview with the whole band, which appears just below our premiere. This is a smart, interesting group of guys with personal backgrounds that are out of the ordinary — two of them are doctoral students, one is a drafter and a father, and the fourth is the head brewer of Denver’s TRVE Brewing Co. I think you’ll find the interview entertaining as well as informative.
Absolution was recorded with Dave Otero (Cobalt, Nightbringer) and it will be released by 20 Buck Spin on July 7, 2015. The band will be hitting the road for a West Coast tour in August — watch this space for more details:
I guess a good place to start would be with the story of how Khemmis came into existence. Could you tell us how that happened?
BEN: I moved from Mississippi to Colorado three years ago to go back to work on my doctorate. Phil was already a student in the same program; we hit it off instantly and started talking about Weedeater and St. Vitus. Looking to fill out the lineup, I put an ad on Craigslist (the ad included a picture of Jawas from Star Wars carrying a Sunn Model T). Dan hit me up and we grabbed beers at TRVE… where Zach just happens to be the head brewer, and he, having also recently relocated to Denver, was looking to join a band. A few hundred beers and a few dozen shows later, Absolution was born.
This is probably an unfair question to ask, but for readers who are new to Khemmis, how would you sum up the band’s sound and style in a paragraph or less?
BEN & PHIL: How about 6 words? “Like a doom metal Iron Maiden.” All of the low-tuned, fuzzed-out riffage of classic and contemporary doom/sludge with the triumphant guitar harmonies and dueling leads of Maiden, Priest, and Thin Lizzy.
For a band that’s only been around since about 2013, you guys look like you have a few more years on you than the average “new” group. What kind of musical resumes do each of you have, in terms of previous groups or other musical pursuits?
BEN & ZACH: We come from a more extreme background than you might expect, having spent our teens and early 20s playing death metal. Dan had also been active in other bands, playing heavy music along the way. We knew that we wanted to play something more rock ‘n roll oriented than our previous bands and were looking to make music we wanted to hear rather than trying to ape the sounds and styles of the hottest trend of the day.
In this way, Khemmis is a conscious move away from our previous bands, but only because it allows us to explore other musical elements we were not able to before. Denver is a great place to do that – there are so many crazy talented musicians here who all have very powerful, honest notions about what music ought to be.
The album was recorded at Flatline Audio with Dave Otero, who’s recorded albums for bands like Cobalt and Nightbringer. What was it like working with him? And did the songs change in any way as a result of his input in the studio?
PHIL: It was a humbling but inspiring experience. He had a lot of input, especially when it came to the overall vocal sound and harmonies. I’ve never really been a “singer” before, but Dave quickly whipped me into shape and helped me understand things about my voice that I would have probably not realized. While we had everything arranged prior to going into the studio, we ended up tweaking and reworking quite a few of the vocal parts to try to better fit the vision that he had for the songs. It was a bit like we brought in a black and white drawing, and then Dave added color. He really brought things to life.
Phil, you’re the lyricist and one of the vocalists for the band, so you’re probably the best person to ask about the ideas behind the lyrics and the song titles. But initially, did the music come first, followed by the lyrics, or was the process different from that?
PHIL: We don’t typically decide on track names until the song is finished, but vocals come into play very early in the writing process for us. Typically the very first time that we jam on a new set of riffs together, I start playing with patterns and melodies— just singing nonsense through the microphone. Ben and I work together on figuring out how to layer our two styles, and then decide whose voice will fit best for a given part. Sometimes, though, the vocal part comes first. For instance, I came up with the vocal melody for the bridge part on “Burden of Sin” before we ever put music to that part.
What kinds of ideas and experiences inspired the lyrics for the songs? And could you also tell us the story behind the album’s title, Absolution?
PHIL: Not all, but most of the lyrics are a product of my wrestling with the hopelessness, guilt, and anger associated with me and my family/friends’ experiences with suicide and abuse. All of us in the band have been through hard times the past few years (or decades) and the music has been a really positive outlet for us. When making the record, committing these words and feelings to wax, I had to really come to terms with these themes and accept that they are an important part of my life and have shaped who I am as an individual. Hopefully others can find solace in it, too. That process left all of us feeling absolved and ready to move forward, thus the title Absolution.
Do you have a personal favorite song on Absolution? And if you do, why is it special to you?
BEN: This is a really tough one, but I’m going with “Ash, Cinder, Smoke.” It’s fun to play, and the lyrics are personal and rather honest. We opted to be fairly straightforward with those lyrics, and playing it live is particularly cathartic for me.
PHIL: I think it will always be “The Bereaved” for me. The event that inspired the song was really a turning point in my life, a moment that I realized I couldn’t keep running away from my problems and had to begin the healing process that ultimately resulted in this album. I take pride in the lyrics and melody and feel inspired every time we play it. “Serpentine” is probably the most fun song to play, though, since I get to pretend I am Matt Pike at the beginning and Dave Murray at the end.
ZACH: It’s a toss-up for me between “Ash, Cinder, Smoke” and “The Bereaved.” In “Ash, Cinder, Smoke,” I get to cover a lot of ground on drums, including an almost funeral doom ending (I will admit that I stole my drum approach, at least mentally, on a section at the end from Jay of LOSS… something about that made sense to me). Then again, “The Bereaved” is a total release for me when played live, and that’s something I value quite a bit.
DAN: “The Bereaved”. It’s just a hard-hitting groove that’s so fun to play despite its simplicity. I also like the synchronicity between me and Zach, keeping the train on the track during solos. I love the end riff; I think it is one of the better riffs on the album.
The album is deservedly getting quite a bit of positive press and a lot of exposure through features at sites like The Obelisk and Metal Sucks (not to mention our own putrid site). How are you feeling about all this sudden notoriety?
PHIL: It is a little odd because we just set out to have fun and play music that filled a gap in terms of what we’d want to listen to. It might resonate with others for the same reasons that it does for us, but everyone has different motivations for listening to music and I won’t pretend to know why they like or don’t like it. Every time we get an email or talk to someone in person and they share a story about what the music means to them I am humbled and extraordinarily thankful for folks like you that had faith in us or have given us a chance.
20 Buck Spin feels like a natural fit for Khemmis’ music. Can you tell us what happened to bring about your collaboration with that label, and how the working relationship has been so far?
ZACH: I had worked with Dave of 20 Buck Spin in the past, and everything about that made me want to do it again if I had the chance. We finished recording Absolution, and I sent it to Dave to see if he would have any interest in putting it out. Luckily for us, well… here we are. We couldn’t be happier to work with 20 Buck Spin and Dave.
I’m a big fan of metal album art, and Sam Turner’s cover for Absolution is certainly an eye-catcher. How did the concept for the album cover come about, and what was the interaction like between the band and the artist?
DAN and ZACH: Sam Turner had created the wizard character for us, initially, for a shirt design, and we wanted to build on that for the album art—like our own personal Eddie (Iron Maiden). For the album, we told Sam that we wanted a Frazetta-style piece incorporating the wizard character and a “monument to tone”. He took it from there and the result was mildly over the top and at least a bit self-aware. The wizard’s staff and the obelisk both feature vacuum tubes, which are kind of subtle, but we really love it. Massive amplification is, of course, part of our sound and aesthetic.
I first saw you play at Denver Black Sky last summer, and got a bit of a feel for what the Denver metal scene is like — lots of talent, a mutually supportive scene among musicians, and enthusiastic fans, or at least that was my perception. How do you see the metal scene in Denver?
BEN and ZACH: Your assessment seems right on. Denver is filled with insanely talented people playing a wide variety of rock and metal styles – everything from doom to grind to thrash to classic/traditional rock and metal are all well represented here. We think Denver has been a home to some massive talent for a while, but for some reason people overlooked the city. Now, though, it’s hard to deny that ours is a scene full of excellent bands that we are honored to call friends (e.g., Primitive Man, Call of the Void, Speedwolf, In the Company of Serpents, Abrams, Wayfarer, Of Feather and Bone, Cloud Catcher, Dreadnought, Vermin Womb, and many more).
As bands, we try to push each other, in a positive way, to always get better and write more interesting songs. Something that really stands out is that bands go to each other’s shows, buy each other’s merch, and hang out together outside of shows. The rock/metal scene is full of positivity, despite our collective penchant for writing and listening to angry, unhappy music.
Speaking of the Denver scene, I know that Ethan from Primitive Man makes a vocal appearance on one of the songs. How did that come about, and are there any other guest appearances on the album?
BEN: Ethan is an absolutely fantastic human being and has been really supportive of us from the beginning. When we were writing the end of “Ash, Cinder, Smoke,” it just seemed like a place that needed more visceral, guttural vocals than any of us are capable of. We floated the idea of a guest spot on the track, and Ethan was totally into it. That song means a lot to us, as Phil and I both deal with loss in pretty open ways in the song; having my words sung (well, growled) by a guy who we all consider to be a great friend and an important figure in Denver (Ethan has and continues to go out of his way to support heavy music here) was pretty incredible.
I don’t mean to pry, but I’m always curious about what musicians involved in underground music do outside of their bands. What kind of work do the four of you do when you’re not making heavy sounds in Khemmis? And do any of you have families?
BEN: Phil and I are both doctoral students, and we both teach quite a bit during the semester. Luckily for me, my research is actually connected to heavy music in Denver, so work and art are not terribly disparate parts of my world. My partner, also a doctoral student, and I spend our (rare) free time with our bassets, who are the most doom metal of all dog breeds. Slow, low (to the ground), and heavy!
PHIL: Outside of school/teaching/research I enjoy riding old bikes, building (usually non-functioning) guitar pedals, trying to keep up with new music, and spending time with my wife in the mountains.
ZACH: I’m the head brewer of TRVE Brewing here in Denver. I work too much, and when I’m not at work, I play drums. Outside of that, when time and the Harley gods allow, Dan and I ride motorcyles. That’s essentially all I have time for.
DAN: I’m a father of one amazing daughter and that, honestly, is where the majority of my time is focused. I work as a drafter, but it seems like repairing/maintaining old cars and vintage motorcycles is my real job.
You’ve been working on putting together a West Coast tour for later this summer, which must be a challenge for people who have regular jobs and families. Can you share any details about that with us? And do you have any other Denver-area shows looming ahead?
BEN: We are really looking forward to this tour. Because we’ve all been playing, recording, and touring in other acts for years, we have a fairly extensive network of friends and family across the country who are kind enough to help us book shows in their respective cities. I’m working to lock in the last two dates right now, and then we’ll announce the full run.
We’re playing with some ridiculously awesome bands in August, for sure: Call of the Void (Relapse) and Of Feather and Bone (Crown and Throne) are on our album release show 8/1 in Denver; Bog Oak is laying it down with us in Oakland; we are meeting up with our buddies in The Atlas Moth, as well as their tourmates Vattnet Viskar and Atriarch, in LA. We’re really blown away by the kickass bands we will be jamming with throughout the summer.
We are also fortunate enough to be playing the TRVE Brewing Anniversary show at the Marquis Theater with Noisem, Horrendous, Bell Witch, The Glorious Gone, Wayfarer, and The Munsens on 6/20. That show is going to rip!
I can’t say I’ve ever understood the logic behind asking about future music in the context of an interview about an album that hasn’t even come out yet, but I have to say that I always find the topic interesting — so I’m going to do it, too: Is Khemmis working on new songs for whatever release comes after Absolution? And if so, can you give us any clues about the band’s future trajectory in terms of style and sound?
BEN: We are already working on the follow up to Absolution. We’re going to keep doing what we do, but push ourselves to explore different types of harmony lines, more varied vocal approaches/layers, and a greater variety of riff styles. That said, don’t expect us to put out a black metal or acoustic folk record. There will be singing, screaming, shredding, and, most importantly, riffs. Lots of fucking riffs.
I appreciate your taking the time to answer all these questions. Any parting words for Khemmis fans?
BEN and ZACH: Listen to more ZZ Top. There is no such thing as too much ZZ Top (pre-Eliminator, that is).
They were right, the Anniversary show fucking ripped and they were a big part of said ripping.
Wish I could have seen that….
Great interview! I’m digging this, a really thick and seriously heavy sound 🙂
I remember these guys from your Denver Black Sky write-up – good to see them getting even more success, which they entirely deserve with how talented they are.
These guys are great…hope that West Coast tour materializes. Ending just made me want to listen to some Primitive Man though…
Well, Primitive Man ARE pretty damned good. And I’m pretty sure the west coast tour is a reality (the venue in Seattle has already announced their show here).
Sounds like this will be one of my top releases this year. Fucking fantastic.
Fantastic stuff & one of the best descriptions of a band’s sound I’ve heard in a while…I was sold as soon as the vocals kicked in.
Thank you! And I’m glad the music struck a chord with you.
KInda Pallbearer-ish. The guitars sound a little out of tune they shouldn’t be as loud as they are in the mix. If they were played with more in key they would be fine. The Maiden comparison is not even close.
Best to them.
Sorry for negativity. I listen a couple more times, it is good! I still think guitars need a little work on this song
Guitars are out of tune a little.
It’s not bad, not great by any means. I think this style of “doom” is an example of doom getting to a a super palatable point, which is a prime indicator of the end of the Doom trend. I think the 2nd wave of bands like Sleep and E. Wiz will be around but the genre is completely packed full of imitators and devoid of originality. This is the kind of “doom” your mom and dad would like , not my kind of doom. I like it when the punk is evident in doom not the shades of butt rock poser-ism that pervades it today.
^ You can keep repeating that but I agree with the other 2 guys. The guitars are kinda out of key a bit. My mom would really like this album except she wouldn’t like that the guitars are slightly out of key. Primitive Man makes you guys sound like Silverchair or something, this is not heavy, it’s just rock.
The art is cool. They should change their name to Penis.
You must be new around here. Because shit like this is not welcome, nor are people who don’t have anything better to do with their time than flit around the internet shitting on other bands. In 10 minutes your comments will be gone. Please don’t come back.
Just giving my opinion, bands need to hear opinions right? Isn’t that what a critique is?
Critiques are fine, if there’s some thought and explanation behind them. I sure don’t expect everyone to like all the music we post here. But just being insulting isn’t a critique. There are plenty of our places where people get off on doing that and get away with it, but that’s not what our comment section is for.
I apologize for the “Penis” remark
I would wish you all the success in the world, I don’t think this will leave my Ipod ever. Great article, thank you.