Metal is a vast and sometimes overwhelming sea of variation, and boasts what often seems like a far too extensive roster of different sub-genres and niches. Its safe to say that within this broad scope, hardcore is one of the most prevalent and recognisable styles, but this being said, it can also be one of the most fickle. It seems that this particular bracket of music is persistently walking what has become a common tightrope; on one side, sticking to the traditional (and frankly, painfully common) hardcore spirit and mentality in keeping things simplistic and brutal, and on the other side taking the roots of the sound and applying a certain level of variation to it, in order to change the formula somewhat. For the former, a few names that spring to mind are HATEBREED, MADBALL, and TERROR, and in terms of the latter, bands such as COUNTERPARTS, NAPOLEON, and HUNDREDTH can all be considered proponents of that approach. As black and white as this categorisation seems, there are outfits such as Texan four-piece KUBLAI KHAN, who seem to have adopted a curious middle ground between the two sides of the coin, proposing a mashup of traditional hardcore and a series of metalcore influences, accompanied by a flurry of tempo changes and a general unpredictability.
Despite this potentially intriguing formula, this is an outfit that have generally failed to produce anything above a vanilla standard in the past, with their three fairly uninspiring releases failing to break themselves out of a specific sonic confinement that they’ve assigned themselves to. Despite this, the release of their fourth attempt Nomad is just around the corner, and of course, this means another opportunity to show some evidence of inspiration and progression; let’s see if they’ve achieved this or not.
Let’s begin with some positives. As if to ignore the content and structure of the songs themselves, KUBLAI KHAN have always managed to boast a crispness and clarity in their production that has enabled even the most basic sections to come across as utterly crushing. Nomad certainly doesn’t deviate from this one bit, and if anything improves on it. This is made clear to the listener from the get-go, with what has almost become the customary minute-long introductory track, Antipile; bearing a display of pinch-harmonics, gnarly low-pitched chordal riffs, breakdowns, and aggressive vocals, all topped off with tight mixing and a crunchy, ballsy guitar tone, its safe to say that regardless of your taste, this record commences with a notable degree of character and impact.
And on the subject of the riffing, this seems to be a genuine theme for this release; the creativity of the guitar work seems to have improved somewhat, with a collection of riffs that come across as far more notable and memorable, and that stand out from the rest of the mix considerably more. Songs such as B.C and singles The Hammer and Belligerent certainly stand out in this regard. In fact, speaking of improved complexity and better songwriting overall, there are also glimpses of this in certain other areas throughout the course of Nomad; a great example is the song Salt Water, which boasts a series of drum sections that show significant promise and improvement, particularly in terms of utilising double-bass sections and more ‘busy’-sounding kit fills.
To revisit what was discussed earlier in regard to KUBLAI KHAN being proponents of a hardcore-based mashup of sounds, this is once again something we see sporadic instances of during Nomad. To be clear, what we’re referring to is certainly nothing new, or that could be considered technical or progressive in any way, but rather just a pinch of something that would usually be absent within the confines of traditional hardcore. Throughout the record we see several sections that are clearly reminiscent of metalcore style breakdowns; i.e, more syncopated and with double kicks matching the guitars and bass, rather than the commonplace standalone guitar chugs and 4/4 single-kick drum patterns that would be commonly associated with hardcore. Without having to do too much, this certainly adds a degree of variation from what we’d expect from the genre. In addition, the album is littered with a series of pinch harmonics during the heavier, breakdown-based sections, and this is something that we feel is far more associated with a classic metal sound rather than that of hardcore. With all of this being said, this is still merely an acknowledgement of these variations, and not necessarily an appraisal of them; we still strongly feel that nothing KUBLAI KHAN has written to-date has been able to act as a key to unlock them from the perimeters of a simplistic and uninspiring hardcore classification.
Time to touch on vocals, as almost the only remaining factor left to discuss. Whilst a generally underwhelming band can always have the opportunity and the potential to turn things around with a new release, the success of this is realistically never going to be attributed to the vocalist. This certainly isn’t to suggest that a person’s vocals can’t change, but all things considered, its far more likely that an instrumentalist can learn to write better material, than a vocalist can learn to change his natural voice. Predictably, this principle persists on Nomad, with the vocalist’s familiar shouts sounding more strained, mono-toned, and unaccented than ever, with an accompaniment of lyrical content that sounds as if it was deliberately written as a demonstration of what a cliché is. Hardcore fans may scoff at this judgement, and claim that vocals of this style are a true homage and testimony to the ‘spirit’ and anger that formulates hardcore; but let’s be real, its been done far too many times before, and whilst its perfectly acceptable for others to enjoy this, there’s no legitimate reason to expect anyone else to.
Wrapping things up, its important to reiterate that the positives of this album are still clear; what we consider to be the good aspects of KUBLAI KHAN‘s sound, are certainly accentuated on this album. The heaviness and brutality is well-delivered at times, and makes a clear impact, regardless of one’s musical preferences. In addition, there are some glimpses of deviation from the typical hardcore set-up, and this is certainly welcomed, but as we said before they simply aren’t present enough, even in the case of the two lead singles. Moreover, the remainder of the record unfortunately feels like a rehashing of not only this band’s prior work, but of modern hardcore in general, and as far as we’re concerned this is always a shame to see. Overall, Nomad may well be a record that certain individuals and particularly hardcore fans can relate to and enjoy, however for the general listener, it is severely limited as far as a take-home experience is concerned.
Nomad is out now via Rise Records.
Like KUBLAI KHAN on Facebook.