Life has gotten significantly busier for Colorado doomsayers Khemmis since the release of Hunted in 2016—a highly acclaimed album will do that to a band. Their second studio album landed the quartet onto major tours across the country and world, including an appearance at famed festival Roadburn. In addition to their global travels, the band’s members have been busy on the home front as well. Two of them are finishing their PhDs in Sociology, another is a head brewer for one of the country’s best-known metal-themed breweries, TRVE Brewing.
Still, Ben Hutcherson (guitar/vocals), Phil Pendergast (guitar/vocals), Zach Coleman (drums), and Dan Beiers (bass) make it work—and they make it work damn well. The band returns this week courtesy of 20 Buck Spin with their third full-length record, Desolation, a product of their unified vision and realization of their sound. Musically diverse and significantly more complex (see their razor-like leads and a new In Solitude-like swagger), Desolation’s six tracks see the band take another gigantic leap towards modern metal greatness.
“I feel it’s only been more recently that we’ve figured out the collective skill set to pull off what we really want to do together,” Pendergast says. He recently completed his PhD at the University of Colorado, and together, he and Hutcherson share the vocal duties and guitars (in addition to being members of the same doctoral program). “For the first time, I feel fully satisfied with my performances on this record. I think it’s the best songwriting we have had so far.”
Desolation is a bigger, bolder endeavor for Khemmis. On Hunted, the band combined doom metal and classic rock tropes to make big riffs and hooks, and while those still exist on Desolation, they’re a fraction of what Khemmis tapped into for this record. Take the Celtic Frost-y plod from Hutcherson and Coleman’s drums in the final third of “Bloodletting” or the stripped-down ballad section of “From Ruin” with only Pendergast’s voice and a clean guitar tone, for example.
Breaking it down into individual components also shows the members’ immense individual progression. For Hutcherson, who also handles guitars and vocals for the deathgrind band, Glacial Tomb, it meant committing himself to his guitar like he hadn’t done in years. “We do feel comfortable and confident in with what we can do as a band,” he says. “We have been doing this long enough and worked together as musicians and friends long enough that we have a sense of confidence in each other and an ability to trust in each other.”
“I wanted everything about this album to be the best and I knew what I had the most control over were my individual performances.,” he says. “So, for the better part of eight months, I put in time on the guitar that I haven’t put in since I was 18 years old. I was playing three to six hours every night putting in the work.”
In Pendergast’s case, his vocal performances are much more incisive and exacting. “I really tried to identify what it was that I thought made my voice special and highlighted the kinds of emotions and things I wanted to convey,” he explains. “I spent a lot more time thinking about how words should reflect certain melodies and how the vowels in words make these melodies twist and turn to show the underlying feeling.”
Pulling the lens back further still on Khemmis as an entity, Desolation signifies the closing of their first chapter. From the giant, gritty riffs that open “Torn Asunder” on Absolution to Pendergast’s newly conquered falsetto on the end “From Ruin,” this a band that has found its footing, grown together as friends and a band, and developed a powerful sound of their own.
“I think where we’re at in our lives and where we’ve been in this first part of our journey together, it does feel like it’s the end of an era for us; I’m finished with the thing that put me in touch with Ben initially to start this band,” Pendergast reflects. “It runs the gamut... The opening song [“Torn Asunder”] is one of the most hopeless moments we’ve expressed as a band to the final song [“From Ruin”] really being a realization from a dark place in my life that really, I have nothing to complain about. A lot of people would kill to have a band that people give a shit about. This band is something that means a lot to me and a lot of other people. It gave me the purpose to pull myself out of a really dark place.”
The end of this chapter comes at a pivotal moment as well. As Khemmis get situated into their new look as arena-ready heavy metal stars, they join a handful of other bands who lead a growing wave of neo-classical, traditional metal. Beside acts like Spirit Adrift and Pallbearer, Khemmis drape themselves in the trappings of classic NWOBHM, doom, thrash, and hard rock. This nostalgic sensibility results in soaring, dual-guitar melodies and sing-along choruses. It was apparent on Pallbearer’s recent Heartless and Spirit Adrift’s Curse of Conception. Further still, Khemmis’ Desolation makes a case to be the piece that fully realize this movement.
There are a number of possible explanations as to why this classic sound has come roaring back in the last few years. For the bands behind this movement however, it stems from a desire to recreate the excitement and emotion their favorite bands gave them years ago.
“Bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, early Metallica, the first two Ozzy [Osbourne] albums. All of those classic records have structural and theoretical elements in common,” says Nate Garrett, the mastermind behind Arizona’s Spirit Adrift. “They wrote actual songs that stand the test of time. I make an effort to tap into that classic, timeless source material. Not to rip anybody off but to approach the songs and presentation from that same perfectionist, obsessive, larger-than-life mentality. The end goal is to be the best metal band in the world, so I take notes from the best metal bands of all time, rather than second or third-tier knockoffs. I think what excites people about this current movement is that we’re striving for more.”
Pendergast also spoke to this budding wave of neo-classical and traditional metal, saying, “We want to make something that has appeal to other people and that can resonate with people emotionally. If that means you have to draw from the stuff that made you excited about initially to make it, then that’s what we do… For me it was albums like Sad Wings of Destiny... In mainstream music, we haven’t had anyone championing these sounds that were popular 30 years ago. You could have been on MTV and selling out arenas with the kind of music that these bands now are playing.”
On their third full-length record, Khemmis taps into a well of exciting and long-lost territories in metal. Like some of their contemporaries, they use this wealth of source material—such as the albums they grew up on, turbulent life experiences, and previous efforts to build anthemic and triumphant metal—to conjure the kind of metal that originally made people cut the sleeves off their denim jackets and throw their fists in the air. It’s the music that built the scene over three decades ago—and which will hopefully carry the scene for decades to come.