Khemmis vocalist and guitarist Phil Pendergast remembers the moment he realized his new band might actually amount to something.
The Denver quartet was in the process of recording its debut album — 2015’s Absolution — and Pendergast and bassist Dan Beiers took a quick break for some food.
“We were making a run to Subway,” Pendergast says. “Dan was asking me, like, ‘Are we sure about this, or are we wasting all this money recording an album?’ I told him that I had the utmost confidence that we had poured ourselves into it and that the riffs were all really good and that I felt like we had really done something. I felt like in that moment, I had a lot of confidence about it.”
That confidence powered Pendergast through three days of recording vocals for the album. He drew power and precision from the work of his bandmates.
“The first time hearing the vocals back when we were done,” Pendergast says, “I was really like, ‘Yeah. I think this can be a thing.’”
Guitarist Ben Hutcherson had a similar reaction.
“We were all sort of blown away,” he says, making sure to direct most of the credit to producer Dave Otero. “We didn’t expect it to suck, of course. Nobody expects their band to suck. But we put it on, and we looked at each other and went, ‘Holy shit, we did this, and it’s actually way better than we thought it would be.’”
Both men were right. Absolution is terrific, and Khemmis can definitely be “a thing.” In fact, judging by the reaction to the debut (“filler-free,” wrote metal bible Decibel magazine) and the anticipation for the band’s followup, Hutcherson, Pendergast, Beiers and drummer Zach Coleman might just be heavy metal’s next big thing.
On Friday night, Khemmis will celebrate the release of that next album — simply titled Hunted — with a show at the hi-dive. That makes a lot of sense, because in the beginning, playing shows (and making enough money to cover beer) was the band’s only goal.
“We did not want to do things,” Hutcherson says. “We had no sort of goals or expectations other than to just have fun and play music that we cared about. It was never, ‘Oh, we want to be on the road. We’ve got to get a record deal.’”
Khemmis’s roots date to the end of 2012, when Beiers — a civil engineer by day — spotted Hutcherson’s Craigslist ad about starting a heavy band. Coleman, the head brewer for TRVE Brewing, joined several months later, and the three initially explored their mutual love of classic rock. Not long after that, the burgeoning band traded in Hutcherson’s harsh vocals for the cleaner, more melodic singing style of Pendergast. The lineup has stuck ever since.
Consistency has been key to Khemmis’s rise so far. For Hunted, the band again worked with Otero, who’s known for his work with bands like Cobalt and Cephalic Carnage. They had TRVE Brewing’s head artist, Sam Turner, do the album cover, just as he did for Absolution. And despite interest from bigger record labels, Khemmis is releasing Hunted through 20 Buck Spin, one of the best indie labels in underground metal.
“There’s something about being on a label where you can talk to the head guy at any given moment on any day,” Hutcherson says, “whether it’s about super-serious business stuff, or you’re just like, ‘Hey, do you remember that one part in that one King Diamond song? Doesn’t that part rule?’ We knew that was not going to be the experience on some of the other labels.”
With its team in place, the members of Khemmis went to work making sure Hunted would be a step forward, not a lateral move. They did that in two primary ways: by focusing on writing better songs, and by tightening up their performances. For the former, the band composed more collaboratively, edited more, and more carefully considered things like dynamics and transitions and the power of a good hook.
“We found ourselves writing things like ‘verse’ and ‘chorus’ a lot more on the board in our practice room,” Pendergast says. “We were really focused on identifying [the parts] that we wanted to have stick. We really tried to focus on writing good rock songs this time rather than, ‘Oh, that riff is sweet. We have to repeat that x number of times.’”
As for tightening up performances, Hutcherson says each of the four guys worked hard on getting stronger and more skilled on their respective instruments.
“It’s not like we all sat around woodshedding Steve Vai videos for the last year,” he explains, “but for me personally, this is the first album that I’ve ever played on in my entire life that I can sit down and listen to my own playing and feel truly satisfied with it. I feel like I pushed myself. I think we all did. And Dave’s got such an ear for this. He’s the one who really pushed it over the top.”
If nothing else, Hunted is ambitious. Across five tracks and nearly 37 minutes, Khemmis rumbles right through genre lines, dabbling in doom, traditional heavy metal, heavy psych, classic rock and roll and thrash. Khemmis makes it look easy and seamless.
Opening track “Above the Water” is a monument to the power of two well-played electric guitars, as Hutcherson and Pendergast screech and shred to the horizon. “Candlelight” unfolds more slowly, with Pendergast draping a honeyed melody atop a subterranean groove courtesy of Beiers and Coleman.
Khemmis is often labeled a doom band, and it is, but it’s also more than that. “Candlelight,” though, proves it does doom better than just about any band going right now.
On “Three Gates,” Khemmis hits the gas, with Hutcherson’s grimy growl set against chugging guitars set at the pace of punk (at least until Pendergast swoops in with another sublime vocal). “Beyond the Door” is positively serpentine, with craggy guitar harmonies sitting next to roiling riffs sitting next to quietly beautiful interludes. The closer is the title track, a monolithic showcase of this quartet’s remarkable ability to sound monstrous and melodic, ragged and refined all at the same time.
Along the way, Hutcherson and Pendergast sing of stormy waters and churning tides, bony fingers and flickering lights. They are deliberately vague when asked about an overarching theme on Hunted, saying only that it relates to a series of dreams each has experienced for many years.
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Less fuzzy: the band’s overall sound, which has sharpened sonically as Khemmis put more emphasis on songcraft. The combination of those two factors on the new album is exciting enough to make you wonder just how far these four guys can take this thing.
The men of Khemmis aren’t so sure themselves. At this point, they’re just along for the ride.
“It’s cool, flattering and humbling that people who’ve been listening to us for years are excited and that there are new people who are just finding us that are excited,” Hutcherson says. “People in town are stoked. People on both coasts are stoked. People in other countries are stoked. It’s kind of hard for us to wrap our minds around how four friends playing rock and roll garner this kind of attention. But, you know, we’re not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Khemmis's Hunted album release show is Friday, October 21, 8 p.m., at the hi-dive.