Droning on: Drug Honkey and Khost

‘It’s not metal, but it’s really harsh and abrasive so you should like it right?’

*Pushes glasses up nose* Well actually no, that’s only half the story. Sure, we wouldn’t have the ridiculously noisey extreme metal subgenres without kids engaging in an arms race of speed and volume. But once the thrill wares off, and the intellect hits a wall when it comes to the next milestone of sonic violence, self-reflection becomes necessary. The age of reason forces one to admit that ‘extremity’ in musical terms is all sizzle. Without the steak of ambitious music it fails to satisfy. Herein lies the confusion metalheads sometimes express when they’re told to listen to things like noise or shoegaze. Such a comparison demonstrates only a surface level understanding and appreciation of music. We value the hi-fidelity musicianship, ambitious compositions, drama, and theatre that metal offers over the abrasion that cloaks these things. With that in mind, let’s look at two albums from the borders of heavy-not-metal.

Following in the footsteps of The Body and Ufomammut, Chicago’s Drug Honkey solidified their name with the release of their fifth LP, 2017’s ‘Cloak of Skies’. As the name suggests, they approach the crushingly heavy sludge/doom philosophy with a refreshing sense of fun and whimsy. It’s essentially a wash of noise and feedback set to a very loose rhythm section, with random outbursts and screams in the background. The first time I gave this album my full attention I was walking home from work and the temperature was around 34 degrees, unheard of in Leeds even in high summer. ‘Cloak of Skies’ turned out to be an entirely appropriate soundtrack to the haze of heat the city found itself under. A sludge of overwhelming yet sluggish noise, crushing one into laziness, sloth, discontent.

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And that’s really where the appeal of this album lies. Sure it’s heavy, there are even some melodies spread throughout the album, the vocals do emote sporadically in between the one line outbursts. But it’s the lethargy that this music invokes that I find intriguing given how overbearing the music should be. Especially given the separate components it’s made from. Waves of feedback and rumbling noise are pretty much a constant throughout the album. This varies in intensity with the swells and falls of the rhythm section. Guitars are awash with feedback, sometimes tightening up enough to play what we in the business call a ‘riff’. Vocals offer additional punctuation to this basic formula.

This is where the appeal of this music lies. A series of experiences loosely connected by a common aesthetic. What structure there is is defined by mood and intensity as opposed to musical phrasing. I wouldn’t venture to say it’s inferior as a result (it’s inferior), but as far as this relatively limiting genre goes, Drug Honkey pretty much nails it. Without inserting some solid musical foundations however, it’s difficult to know where this style could go.

Enter Birmingham’s Khost, and their third LP  ‘Governance’, also released in 2017. Like I said, Khost are from Birmingham, they also happen to have a drum machine….a bassist…and a guitarist…and they orbit the industrial spectruO MY GOD THEY’RE LIKE GODFLESH. Well, only in the broadest possible terms, there is definitely a hint of Broadrick’s flare for the joyless in ‘Governance’. But their music is a step away from industrial metal and into the realm of drone or noise; actually more like Broadrick’s more electronic side project JK Flesh. Sorry Khost, but the guy’s shadow is just too long.

The other major influence here is of course early Swans. And this is where Khost depart from the typical industrial metal format. Rhythm is secondary, and so is structure. Both of these elements are present mind, but they serve Khost’s primary objective, which is competing moods, contrasting atmospheres, and weird-ass samples. This is not your standard slap-around-the-face industrial drone noise, ‘Governance’ is a much more subtle beast.

Guitars and gruff, distorted vocals do much of leg work certainly, but they are utilised in such a way that we notice them more when absent. For the majority of the album they guide us through a series of samples of ritualistic chants, static, minimal percussion, random noises. It’s like touring a block of inner city flats late at night, and being greeted with a series of sounds of varying intensity and zero context. No sense can be found, but the brain accepts. Eventually the guitars do fade out and give way to minimal piano. The horror of emptiness abounds. It’s only then one realises what a headache they have been. In a good way? Jury’s out.

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This is a challenging album, but an interesting one. I cannot resist making a couple of caveats however. The appeal of this music is more akin to that of dark ambient than an overbearingly crushing experience that fans of industrial metal may be gagging for. Secondly, the narrative logic is closer to electronica than metal; in that it’s a series of sounds that build and fade to micro-climaxes, the connection between each being not apparently obvious. But there is an internal logic to this, and an intriguing one. But the grand, epic narratives metalheads may crave are largely absent. Expectation may determine quality in the ear of listener.

So it appears I am judging these albums by standards that simply do not apply. The conventions I would usually use to assess the worth of good old-fashioned riff based metal fall away as the riffs do, to be replaced by a homogenous conveyor belt of sounds. Well in one sense this is true. Sure, the appeal of this music rests on something else entirely. And sure, I can see said appeal. But there’s a reason I’m drawn to metal. One that runs far deeper than racket alone.

Aesthetically both these LPs are pleasing. And this makes them all the more frustrating as a result. They are clipped up, out of order, apparently directionless at times. But they are built from tones and atmospheres that I find thoroughly pleasing. The result is squandered potential. I happily turn to music of this ilk from time to time, but it never amounts to much more than a hall of curiosities, a sounding board, a think tank of noises. With all that said however, we must settle on the pick of the week. And although I may enjoy ‘Cloak of Skies’ more, for sheer ambition and achievement I have to give it to Khost’s ‘Governance’. It’s that bit more unique, and more importantly, I feel there is more to discover with this LP on further listens. Maybe that means some opinion revisions are in the offing

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