Clean Hands Go Foul (Hydra Head/Dymare), the posthumous release from doom metal supergroup Khanate, has been sitting with me for a while. But its potency only increases over time. With each successive listen, I feel increasingly like one of H.P. Lovecraft's doomed protagonists characters who unwittingly gamble away their sanity as they attempt to piece together the horrifying totality of a universe controlled by beings not of their time or space. I'm not sure what I am losing when I listen to Khanate, but I feel lost nonetheless.
There are few moorings on Khanate's slate sea of negativity none of metal's usual signifiers, no lyrical invitations to trample on sacred institutions, no head-banging riffs. The four tracks on Clean Hands are emotional dead ends where vocalist Alan Dubin's howled protests of rage, disgust, and futility are left to fester in the gutters built by guitarist Steven O'Malley, bassist James Plotkin, and drummer Tim Wyskida.
Composed of material improvised during the recording sessions of 2005's Capture & Release (with Plotkin editing in Dubin's vocals later on), Clean Hands plays more like a belated précis for the group's deconstructed yet unrelentingly crushing interpretation of metal than a coherent album. Like Keiji Haino's renowned power trio Fushitsusha, Khanate understood that metal's heaviness could be chopped and screwed into different shapes without diminishing its brutality.
Some of Clean Hands' tracks are more successful at conveying the band's protean dynamic than others. "In That Corner" a staggering, Haino-worthy dirge starts out at full blast before quieting down into a series of mournful echoes of itself. But it is album closer "Every God Damn Thing" that best displays the group's propensity for grueling duration. Taking up close to half the album's running time, it pairs 30 plodding minutes of input jack/cord buzz, bass rumbles, scraped guitar strings, the occasional feedback howl, and random bits of percussion with Dubin's long-form, bile-filled disquisition on the title phrase. (Some sample lyrics: "Everything poison. Even flowers disgust"; "Out there, someone is dying. Hopefully, it should be all of them.")
Dubin is Khanate's secret weapon. Other than Die Kreuzen's Dan Kubinski or Swans-era Michael Gira, I cannot think of a vocalist whose rasp is severe enough to make you feel skinned alive and whose lyrics convey the vicissitudes of antisocial sentiment with such uncomfortable immediacy and at times surprising poetic force.
"It's all bad, again!" Dubin screams at the close of "Every God Damn Thing." Such a statement of futility is fitting for a track that seethes in anticipation of a climax yet falls short of delivering the goods in its final paroxysms. An uneven postmortem, Clean Hands proves Khanate was never interested in giving listeners the satisfaction of a climax. The forces that compelled it toward such uncompromising, bleak musical extremes were also, unsurprisingly, what led to its breakup. Hell is indeed other people including your bandmates. "Man's greatness resides in knowing himself to be wretched," Pascal once said. With this final nail in the coffin, Khanate has proven itself to be so great.