Review: Khanate Remember the Bad Times on To Be Cruel
Few bands have ever achieved what Khanate have, creating music so unsettling and discomforting that it could be a soundtrack to Hell or the apocalypse or whatever the worst possible scenario is. Khanate broke up in 2006, but released their final statement, Clean Hands Go Foul, in 2009, four years after recording it. It felt like a complete statement, the ugly bowtie on a harrowing career. Now, 14 years after their final statement, Khanate have returned—seemingly out of nowhere—with their fifth album, To Be Cruel, on Sacred Bones.
It’s no easy task to pick up where you left off but Khanate have done it. To Be Cruel begins with “Like a Poisoned Dog.” At 19 minutes and change, it’s the shortest song on To Be Cruel, beginning with rumbling drones that build into crashing chords and intense, deliberate percussion. Then, Alan Dubin’s trademark shriek rings out, weaving his tales of hallucinations and mental illness with cold-blooded intensity. Khanate take their sweet time getting into the meat of the song but by the time they hit the nine-minute mark, the band are making an unholy racket and Dubin is screeching lines like “My eyes stab you to no avail / Hands on your throat / But only in my head / You’re the reason, you.”
The unreliable narrator is nothing new to Khanate but it’s a little eerier hearing that Dubin’s lyrics and delivery have hardly changed at all since tracking their last album almost 20 years ago. To Be Cruel is an exercise in patience, something that becomes even more clear on second track “It Wants to Fly.” The song still takes its time, furling and unfurling, but it feels like the middle of the record. In just a few moments, Dubin is telling someone that he is going to take them apart, alternating between a scream and a twisted monologue.
The 20-minute title track concludes To Be Cruel, standing as the best song on the album. Dubin is at his most unhinged, taking center stage here while bandmates Stephen O’Malley, James Plotkin and Tim Wyskida take a back seat. Their sparse instrumentation—particularly in the song’s latter half—serves two purposes: it is a stark backdrop for the lyrics, which use spiders as a metaphor for human cruelty, and it winds the album down, at least until the final, noisy moments.
To Be Cruel is an extremely deliberate album. Work on it began as far back as 2017, though the pandemic halted its progress. The long gestation seems to have served Khanate, rather than allowed them to bloat. It feels like an oxymoron to call an hour-plus drone-doom album lean, but every note, and every bit of silence when the band is not playing, counts. Khanate were masters of the build-and-release style of songwriting and they still are. Their fifth album is less a groundbreaking release and more an affirmation of what made them so great.
As far as returns go, To Be Cruel is outstanding. It stands tall next to Khanate’s original run (finally back on streaming as of today) and reminds us that, sometimes, nothing is as good as feeling bad.