Khanate

Khanate is comprised of James Plotkin, Stephen O’Malley, Alan Dubin and Tim Wyskida. Together, they make terrifying music.

The cramped corner of hell that Khanate takes the listener to, sonically and psychologically, has almost nothing in common with the doom bands that populate stoner-oriented music festivals across the globe. Khanate is doom as a foregone conclusion, as merciless atmospheric pressure, as a blunt object to crack you over the skull with, slowly, repeatedly, and forever.

The band’s self-titled debut was immediately unsettling. Originally released in the fall of 2001, it spread five songs across a suffocating hour, setting a new standard for slow-motion tension in extreme music. In referencing Mikhail Bulgakov’s surrealist samizdat The Master and Margarita (“Torching Koroviev”) and featuring a song about wearing someone else’s skin (“Skin Coat”), the album struck a deft balance between high-minded literature and homicidal atrocity. This is the tightrope that Khanate walks, stretched between the most rarefied corners of the imagination and the psych ward.

Like so many experimental artists before them, Khanate formed in New York City. In 2000, multi-instrumentalist and producer James Plotkin was introduced to guitarist Stephen O’Malley at an Isis show by then-Discordance Axis drummer Dave Witte. At the time, Plotkin and vocalist Alan Dubin were working together in a project called Shadowcast, but their history stretched back to the late ’80s with avant grindcore band O.L.D.

O’Malley had recently formed the now widely acclaimed drone duo Sunn O))) with Southern Lord founder Greg Anderson and had previously haunted the Pacific Northwest with pioneering death/doom/drone entities Burning Witch and Thorr’s Hammer. Khanate would prove to be the asphyxiating zenith of those genre explorations: Uneasy listening with the screws tightened beyond any reasonable pain threshold. Upon enlisting drummer Tim Wyskida of long-running SST instrumentalists Blind Idiot God, Khanate’s implacable journey was set in motion.

“We convened at a grimy practice space in Jersey City,” O’Malley recalls. “The entire first album was tracked while we were finding our footing together with tones and meter, timing and tension. Reveling in that first fire of enthusiasm and new exploration, ambition was there from the first meeting. The self-titled album is a cruel beast—ugly, raw and extreme. But also full of new ideas and optimism as musicians. It climbed quickly.”

In 2003, Things Viral increased the band’s reputation for striking fear into the fragile psyches of anyone who paid close enough attention. “Pieces of us in my hands, on the floor, in my pockets/red glory,” Dubin howls on opener “Commuted,” setting the stage for Khanate’s second installment of existential dread. Dripping in death, murder and desperation, the album is somehow less forgiving than its predecessor. Which was probably the point.

“On Things Viral, Khanate had grown confident in the power of our ideas, which allowed us to dig more deeply into dynamics, detail, spaciousness and manipulation of time,” Wyskida says. “This was a development from the first album, where we relied more heavily on muscle and volume knobs to give our newly birthed sound sufficient power. Things Viral is a favorite amongst the band and established many of the fundamental aspects of our sound which are in place to this day.”

Two years later, Capture & Release unfurled like a rotting blanket, polluting everything it touched with agitation and putrefaction. A grim tale of fixation, abduction and torture recited over two songs and 43 minutes, it was somehow considered an EP instead of a full-length. Which made sense only when compared to Khanate’s signature LP running time. Lyrically, it might be Dubin’s most upsettingly realistic Khanate narrative, an account of darkness and cruelty that few previous bands had explored. Musically, it is wave after wave of horror and despair.

“We wrote Capture & Release after returning from a Scandinavian tour,” Dubin explains. “We had to drive through beautiful yet eerie and foggy forests to reach our next gig. During our van banter, someone commented on how the woods looked like a place where a maniac would attack. We started talking about different horror movies and gruesome scenarios, and we half-joked about writing an EP called Capture & Release. It was just one of many ideas we had, not a serious plan. But when we began to compose these two long songs, they sounded morbid and relentless in their mostly glacial pace. We thought Capture & Release was a perfect title for them, and I personally took it as a challenge to create stories based on the song titles. I had never done that before.”

The squalid room on the cover of Clean Hands Go Foul may or may not be the setting for the unspeakable acts being committed on “In My Corner,” but the opening couplet of 33-minute closer “Every God Damn Thing” plainly spoke of declining stability and a looming demise: “Am I dying? I hope it’s soon.”

Clean Hands Go Foul is an excellent example of the unusual methods Khanate employed throughout our existence,” Plotkin says. “It’s a posthumous document of how we could embrace a complete change of direction and intent, solely for the excitement of experimentation. The fact that the entire album consists of unedited first takes as a fully realized work suggests that the band had developed an internal musical dialogue that even we weren’t fully aware of at the time.”

By the time the album appeared in 2009, Khanate had inspired a legion of red-eyed disciples who took it upon themselves to follow in the band’s inexorable footsteps. Though the tried-and-true triumvirate of slow, low, and heavy stretches back to the Sabbathian forefathers, there seemed to be a new malice afoot, often paired with the shrieking feedback and exceptionally long songs that Khanate reveled in.

And then: Silence.

The members of Khanate returned to the netherworld from whence they came. Plotkin continued producing and making music with notable underground projects Lotus Eaters (alongside O’Malley and Aaron Turner of Isis/Old Man Gloom/Sumac), Jodis and Khylst (both with Wyskida). O’Malley carved a similar path, most prominently with Sunn O))) and Gravetemple (with Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar). Dubin continued with the accomplished noise project Gnaw and recorded with such varied artists as OvO, Nadja and Second Rope. Wyskida forged ahead with Blind Idiot God and the aforementioned projects with Plotkin.

Nearly a decade and a half passed before Khanate were heard from again. In that time, the world became the more vindictive and inhumane place the band had imagined. When they emerged in 2023 with the surprise album To Be Cruel, the elapsed time only served to underscore the consistency—and dominance—of their original reign. With three stultifying songs stretched across an oppressive and hideous hour, To Be Cruel revived what even its creators thought unrevivable. It also proved what many had long suspected: Though they may have inspired many, there is only one true Khanate.

Long may they continue to terrify us.

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