Reissue Of The Week: Khanate’s Things Viral

At the beginning of the millennium, Khanate created a twisted and challenging new form of sonic torment. Dan Franklin revisits the band’s reissued back catalogue and explores the harrowing context of their existence. CW: contains graphic discussion of torture and war crimes

It wasn’t long ago, in the grand scheme of things, that torture was a public spectacle in Europe. At least, torture as a form of punishment – what the French called the amende honorable. This “public apology”’ involved the guilty making amends for their crime by having their flesh removed with red-hot pincers, being burnt by sulphur, then the wounds having molten lead or boiling oil poured on them. The criminal might then be drawn and quartered by four horses, and their severed limbs burned down to ashes.

These horrors were carried out at the monarch’s pleasure. They drew a crowd. The amende honorable was initially abolished in France in 1791 as Louis XVI’s reign came to an end after the French Revolution. It made a brief comeback (not surprising considering the public appetite for executions at the time), before it ceased for good in 1830. Intellectual opinion turned against such flagrant, public cruelty.

As Michel Foucault writes in Discipline And Punish, “It was as if the punishment was thought to be equal, if not to exceed, in savagery the crime itself, to accustom the spectators to a ferocity from which one wished to divert them, to show them the frequency of crime, to make the executioner resemble a criminal, judges murderers, to reverse the roles at the last moment, to make the tortured criminal an object of pity or admiration.”

Over time, punishment changed with the birth of the prison. “From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights,” writes Foucault.

Torture returned underground, where it has always been most comfortable: back to the interrogation room and the awful intimacy between captive and captor. But the theatre of cruelty is always open to those eager enough to seek admittance.

With ‘Commuted’, the first track on 2003 album Things Viral, we are admitted into Khanate’s queasy, carefully constructed domain. It feels unbearably close. We chose to put this album on (if we’re lucky), but instantly are rendered naked and helpless. The first sign that things aren’t right is the hum, scratch and screech of the sound of a guitar’s tip-sleeve cable tentatively finding the input jack. The slickness of modern recording is immediately erased. We are in over our heads.

Here Khanate are showing us their instruments of torture – aurally. Listening to the song now, it resonates with the experience of looking at Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0 at Tate Modern in London. The piece comprises seventy-two objects laid out on a long table covered with a white tablecloth. The version in the Tate is a copy of the original which was used in a performance art piece in Naples in 1974.

Attendees were invited to use the objects on Abramović’s body. There are innocuous and humorous things like lipstick, flowers and cake, but also objects that exude menace: a kitchen knife, scalpel, razorblades, a metal pipe and a gun. The original performance is long past but these objects speak of their own potential for damage, still pregnant with the possibility to create a new spectacle of torment – as well as functioning as mementoes of harm actually inflicted on Abramović’s body in 1974.

Hearing Khanate plug in their instruments on Things Viral, knowing what follows, has the same effect. When a low drum beats a slow, exacting rhythm, the nightmare really begins.

The power of Things Viral lies in the tension built between its whispers and its shrieks. On ‘Commuted’, Stephen O’Malley’s guitar and James Plotkin’s bass trace a five-note sequence, stretched unevenly over Tim Wyskida’s percussive pulse. This creepy-crawl is clean and quiet, but unsteady and off-kilter. Khanate’s other weapon is juxtaposing the irregular with what appears regular, or at least metrical. At the heart of this is another tension: between Plotkin’s arrangements and the band members’ execution. Eventually it was too much, they were pulling in different directions, and the band tore itself apart (for the time being) in 2006.

The first laceration on ‘Commuted’ is made by vocalist Alan Dubin. Suddenly he’s on our shoulder, circling, inside us: impish, gibbering, inconsolable. “Now we’re here,” he cries. “Pieces of us in my hands, on the floor, in my pockets”. His vocals are accusation: what have I done? Why have you made me do it? “Truth is changed”, he repeats. He counts the blows, creating his own meter: “One – two – three times”. All amounts to the chilling relish of the song’s non-chorus: “RED GLORY”. You can’t help but imagine him, cowering in a room freshly sprayed with arterial blood.

This is where the connection to the amende honorable is severed. There is no self-justificatory zeal in Khanate’s theatre of cruelty. It just is. “I did this for you/For us!” Dubin howls on ‘Fields’, the second song from Things Viral. It’s as close as he gets to giving a reason.

I recently read England’s Hidden Reverse by David Keenan, where I came across the song ‘Tit Pulp’ by Whitehouse. Its chorus, “I’ve got tit pulp in my hands”, is a red thread between this recording from 1984 and ‘Commuted’ almost twenty years later. Khanate’s beating heart is in the doom metal scene, but what soul they might have resides in the industrial underground of the eighties. In the performance art of groups like Fistfuck, where Diana Rogerson and her friend Jill Westwood enlisted a dominatrix to ritually humiliate men with a backing soundtrack of extreme noise and sound collage. Or in the production of explicit, painful short films involving hammers, razorblades and cheese graters.

Metal music has often sanded down its extreme edges. Extremity in its sound and outlook can be bundled up with the ameliorating impact of its catharsis – of “bringing people together”. Khanate have no interest in fostering this kind of community. They rip the “art” out of “catharsis” and toss away the remains.

Since the eighties, when FBI agent John Douglas pioneered behavioural science and effectively invented the modern analysis of mass murders (later consulting on The Silence Of The Lambs), metal has absorbed serial killer lore and made it kitsch. To choose just three examples: the concept album Dahmer by Macabre; the painting by John Wayne Gacy on the cover of Acid Bath’s When The Kite String Pops; or Slayer’s anthemic song inspired by Ed Gein, ‘Dead Skin Mask’. Lurid murder has long brought people together in the mosh pit.

From Khanate’s self-titled debut in 2001, ‘Skin Coat’, reconfigures that relationship. The song is discordant and slovenly; it sounds out of tune – circling the drain. Dissonant electronic interference plays havoc. It worms its way to a chopped-up groove. Of sorts, because Khanate don’t write grooves, more melodic puzzles that have to be solved, and that evade resolution. The super-saturated guitars of ‘Under Rotting Sky’ from Khanate would become Stephen O’Malley’s bread and butter when Sunn O))) became his primary project later in the decade but on this album they are an aberration, a “blanket of nothing” to smother us; as if to get it out of the way.

“I wear a human shield,” rasps Dubin on ‘Skin Coat’. Not so much second skin but exoskeleton for his narrator’s withered id. His choice of imagery emetic again – the skin a “wet pile” to crawl inside. Even this is not as disturbing as the following track, ‘Touching Koroviev’, on which his use of delays, loops and incoherent utterances sounds as if Dubin is consuming himself, skin coat and all.

I went to see Khanate live in Edinburgh after they released Things Viral. There was hardly anyone there. The experience was like being sliced open. The guitarist friend I was with pointed out Stephen O’Malley’s Travis Bean guitar. He explained to me that it had an aluminium neck. Its sound is born harsh and dissonant: marked out by cold, painful sustain. I hadn’t heard Things Viral at that point but I remember that the words “…in my pockets” jumped out at me. Dubin held his microphone away from him like he was teeing up a golf shot to the head. The force with which he delivered the line made me feel ill. The whole thing was so disconcerting that the audience didn’t even look at each other as we left.

The why is looming here. Why would such a band emerge in the early years of the twenty-first century? Perhaps the answer is in the question. The promise of a new dawn with the millennium proved to be a lie. The same problems remained and late-stage capitalism’s death spiral was ongoing. Then 9/11 happened, a spectacular atrocity that cast everything in a punishing new light. The decadent west suffered a near-mortal wound in the heart of one of its financial centres.

Khanate was based in New York. They’ve spoken about struggling with the overcrowding and overload of the urban environment. But the scenarios from the songs feel disconnected from humanity – taking place in a dank shed in some rural backwater. I see scant evidence in their music of the time being motivated by politics. But terrible things were happening on their albums. And Dubin’s voices liked to point the finger.

In America, and the west more broadly, pop culture began to reflect back a violent new appetite for revenge. Leigh Whannell and James Wan wrote and directed Saw, released in 2004. Saw’s antagonist is Jigsaw, a serial killer with cancer. He makes his victims, who disrespect the value of life in his eyes, undergo their own version of the amende honorable, via a host of sick, ingenious traps – as judiciously and meticulously constructed as Khanate’s “riffs”.

In its most infamous scene, a drug addict has to burrow into the stomach of a heavily sedated man to retrieve the key for a reverse bear trap that threatens to rip her face apart. Afterwards, she thanks Jigsaw for the lesson. The scenario was so appallingly ingenious that Whannell took a week off after he wrote it, and the trap became an infamous symbol for the series as a whole.

Like the public torture and executions of the eighteenth century and earlier, audiences flocked to Saw and its sequels in droves, earning the franchise hundreds of millions of dollars. The series producers like to deny that it belongs to the “torture porn” cinematic trend that followed, pointing to its moral centre. But it’s still the moral centre of a psychopath, and this is what brings it into line with the uncomfortable, breath-in-the-face proximity of Khanate’s work.

Saw (like the 2003 short of the same name made to pitch it) looks like Khanate sounds. The film is graded so it’s drained of any warmth and colour. It’s a pallid film with the lividity of a bruise – purples, blues and greens dominate. And unlike the outright sadism of Hostel, which followed in 2005, there’s a fierce intelligence about Saw (as there is with Khanate). This is more in keeping with wry mockumentary The Poughkeepsie Tapes a couple of years later, and is-it-actually-real spiritual predecessor of torture porn as a whole, 1977’s Last House On Dead End Street.

In November 2003, a month after the release of Things Viral, the Associated Press ran a special report on the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The photographs that emerged were horrifying. Prisoners subjected to stress positions, beaten, threatened with dogs and forced to masturbate in front of American military guards. The most searing image was of Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh (who the guards nicknamed “Gilligan”), hooded and dressed in a blanket, arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose with electrical wire emanating from his hands like his nerves had been ripped out. The guards in the images became infamous – the smiles and mocking laughter of Lynndie England, Charles Graner and Sabrina Harman in particular.

Khanate’s music was coincidental to these horrors, but in retrospect it describes them perfectly. The skin of respectability was silently peeled back at Abu Ghraib – as tenuous vengeance for 9/11, but mainly for a kind of desensitised, sadistic fun. Many of the guards took pictures to record what went on – embedding the defence that they were documenting the atrocities for posterity in the very act of committing them. They distanced themselves from their crimes in this way, which also made them easier to carry out.

The prisoners at Abu Ghraib were designated “security detainees” in the parlance of the war on terror – held indefinitely and denied judicial process. This was the era of CIA black sites, extraordinary rendition, and Christopher Hitchens being waterboarded for Vanity Fair. ‘Believe Me, It’s Torture’, read the headline. Torture was at once as concealed as it’s ever been, but also in the full glare of the media spotlight. It was maddening, in every sense.

“The image of Gilligan achieves its power from the fact that it does not show the human form laid bare and reduced to raw matter but creates instead an original image of inhumanity that admits no immediately self-evident reading,” wrote Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris in the New Yorker, who together produced a book and documentary about the exposure of Abu Ghraib under the title Standard Operating Procedure. “Its fascination resides, in large part, in its mystery and inscrutability – in all that is concealed by all that it reveals. It is an image of carnival weirdness: this upright body shrouded from head to foot; those wires; that pose; and the peaked hood that carries so many vague and ghoulish associations. The pose is obviously contrived and theatrical, a deliberate invention that appears to belong to some dark ritual, a primal scene of martyrdom. The picture transfixes us because it looks like the truth, but, looking at it, we can only imagine what that truth is: torture, execution, a scene staged for the camera? So we seize on the figure of Gilligan as a symbol that stands for all that we know was wrong at Abu Ghraib and all that we cannot – or do not want to – understand about how it came to this.”

Khanate’s Capture & Release, released in 2005, spoke directly to these times. Split into two tracks, ‘Capture’ is 18 minutes long and ‘Release’ is dragged remorselessly out to 25 minutes. Until now, Khanate were more interested in the guts of the hostage-taking process rather than its beginning and end, but Capture & Release is an apt way to describe Khanate’s music as a whole. The band’s songwriting is like being held under the waterline and only let up to breathe just as you lose consciousness: suspended between life and death.

“One step closer to nowhere,” Dubin shrieks on ‘Capture’, in (weirdly) an unconscious invocation of one of Linkin Park’s biggest hits from the period. The music is even more freeform, all cymbal washes and animalistic growls until it reaches the bottom: “My house/Basement”.

Of course, the only ‘Release’ in Khanate’s world is death. On ‘Fields’, Dubin made corpse disposal a desolate epiphany: “An open field/Vast expanding/It’s expanding/The center of reason”. On ‘Release’, it’s visceral, reduced, anti-transcendent: “And everything you are is on the ground/Broken open and spilling/Leaves soak they drink/You are blood”.

With its almost Slint-like clean guitars, for large sections of the song – like its subject – ‘Release’ barely seems to be alive. Until the hellmouth yawns open with furious percussion and full-blooded amplification. The song transmutes into apocalyptic wipeout: “It’s cold when birds fall from the sky”.

It’s appropriate that Khanate imploded in 2006 during the Capture & Release sessions. Something this intense – this immured in horror – couldn’t last indefinitely. Differences over the way they put the songs together – the extent to which the sonic torture should be spontaneous or premeditated – contributed to their dissolution. A posthumous release, 2009’s improvisatory Clean Hands Go Foul, lacks the clinical menace of the first two albums, sounding like a lost soul flailing helplessly for a place to rest.”‘How dare you hold on?” Dubin remonstrates on ‘In That Corner’, as if to the lifeforce of the band itself.

Listening back to the closing track on Things Viral, ‘Too Close Enough to Touch’, it struck me that Dubin’s lyrics were prescient of another trauma: the Covid pandemic. “Outside: things viral […] inside: ugly, dismal, safe”. The key word here is “dismal”. The pandemic had many huge repercussions, some we are barely facing up to, but one was the crushing stupor of lockdown. “Stay inside, stay inside, stay inside, burn envy inside,” the song closes. Why can’t we breach the perimeter and indulge the dark side of the world again, Khanate seems to be asking.

In February 2022, the audacity and brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine snapped the world out of its Covid-induced malaise. The horrors of Bucha and elsewhere in that country furnished the imagination starved of war and its pornography. The assault of children, dismemberment, death by sledgehammer – it oozed out with the fetor of past atrocity.

Things are even worse after the 7 October atrocities by Hamas, and Israel’s savage retribution, with its seemingly endless war crimes. From Gaza, I’ve seen a foetus removed from its dead mother, and countless corpses of children, each with a devastating story; from a kibbutz in southern Israel a bloodsoaked family begging for their lives as their daughter lies dead, livestreamed on Facebook by her murderers – all presented on the television news. How we deal with the horror of it is left to us.

The compilation of footage in the 47-minute film of the Hamas attacks, Bearing Witness, functions as an essential historical document. But its recent screening in Hollywood organised by Gal Gadot also highlights the uncomfortable fact that it functions as a quasi-snuff film. The compulsion to watch footage like this partly resides in a desire to have some control over the uncontrollable, a sense of historical responsibility, as well as, frankly, morbid curiosity. Khanate present a grimly fascinating world similarly out of the listener’s control. Thank fuck this isn’t happening to me, we can think, from a position of relative safety. At least for now.

‘Last night I passed the fuck out and banged my head during the scene where the guy is dremeling his brain and got sent to the hospital, I’m fine no concussion but no fun either,” writes a Reddit user having watched Saw X. It’s 2023 and the Saw juggernaut still seems unstoppable. Large numbers of us get off on cruelty, to the point of vasovagal syncope, or throwing up our guts.

Into this post-traumatic wreckage Khanate have drawn up their caravan of torment. It is happening again. After fourteen years of absence, the conditions are ripe for their new album, To Be Cruel. Khanate didn’t create this world, but their finely articulated theatre of cruelty has helped define it. Their return should be a cause of concern. Witnessing them in 2004 was troubling enough, but how the attendees of Roadburn Festival will cope with Khanate’s live comeback next Spring is a fascinating prospect.

My advice: keep breathing and don’t avert your eyes – try to not pass out. It’s the only honourable thing to do.

Khanate and Things Viral are reissued today by Sacred Bones

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