The impressionistic artwork that adorns the cover says it all: a being, stitched together from the bones, blood and sinew of many things. The semblance of something recognizable, but also out of joint. Dark and disturbing, but backed by a pastoral beauty. Art is subjective, and whether I’m looking at the image painted by Cedric Wentworth or listening to Salt, the debut from Khôrada, I’m left with the same impression, of recognizing frameworks and influences even as the whole defies easy categorization. In other words, the best kind of music to my ears.
With the less than harmonious split of Agalloch John Haughm went off and formed the tonally similar Pillorian, leaving guitarist Don Anderson, bassist Jason Walton, and drummer Aesop Dekker free to explore different avenues of creative expression. After hooking up with Aaron John Gregory of Giant Squid the new group took their time discovering and honing their musical identity. The release of lead single (if you can call the 11+ minute closer to the album a single) “Ossify” hinted at the threads of post rock, guitar heroics, doom and post-punk the band would incorporate into their unique sound. Salt lays bare a bold sense of experimentation and cohesion among its members: it would have been relatively simple to emulate their prior bands, but by charting new territory Khôrada set a stake in the ground for challenging expectations and charging forward on a path determined to not look back.
“Edeste” opens with plaintive horns against a forboding and melancholic riff, clean guitars and toms subtly shifting to a more urgent attack as Gregory’s vocals carry the melody forward. Things get aggressive quickly, and the cohesion is on full display – you expect the telepathic give and take of Anderson, Walton and Dekker, but the way they integrate Gregory’s inventiveness and his richer, more varied vocal work is fantastic. The last two minutes of the track play with a feedback squall conflicting with cinematic post-rock and is one of the most exciting sections of music I’ve heard this year.
Thirty seconds into “Seasons of Salt” it’s evident none of the black metal chops have deserted the group; it’s simply utilized with laser precision where the song calls for it. Far from the neo-folk elements you would expect, it’s instead a freezing rush with pinched harmonics that recall Emperor. The way it seamlessly melts into the companion riff feels organic and you’re barely missing it before gears shift again and tremolo leads blast against chugging riffs amidst a rising chaos before transitioning into a triumphant crescendo. Most songs could end right there and be fine, but Khôrada instead sneak in an exotic, syncopated section that hints at the darkness underlying the track in a way the black metal section could only hint at.
This constant revelation is found within each track of the album. “Water Rights” has a seething menace thanks to how the instruments enter the song, drums and bass carrying the gravel and grit vocals until the guitars enter echoing a twisted Nick Cave meets PJ Harvey nightmare. “Glacial Gold” is devastating with its cello and more folk feel, Gregory’s poetic lyrics ruminating over what can be found in the slow wearing away of life. The music is perfectly matched, the riff slowly moving forward, occasionally broken by moments of cello before inevitably continuing its path.
Of an almost completely different cloth is the fragile and heartbreaking “Augustus” with its beautiful acoustic guitar and breathy, pained lament for a life tragically over before it could begin. Weighed against the rest of the album the emotion here is amplified by how unadorned the arrangement is, and lasts just long enough to utterly break you before moving on to “Wave State” which carries forth the themes of water as a force of destruction, of cleansing, and ultimately of safety. Although there’s not a moment where everyone isn’t playing and responding to each other at their very best, it’s with “Wave State” where I’ve been finding myself most in awe of the band from a purely musical perspective. Dekker’s drums are vibrantly alive, alternating between deft and subtle touches (the cymbal work is just phenomenal) to all out assault, but yet Walton’s bass is never lost or washed out. When things spiral into a wicked circular riff about half way through it’s a marvel that quickly explodes to make way for a choral interlude that grounds the song and prepares the way for a killer solo from Anderson.
“Wave State” is the band firing on so many cylinders you begin to lose count, and it isn’t even the last song on Salt, because we still have “Ossify” to reckon with, with it’s synth-laden introduction and Joy Division worship mixed with hard rock heroic guitar lines that lift up everything that came before in a way that feels like a celebration…except of course unlike “Augustus” the music on “Ossify” acts as a contrast to the matter at hand. The act of ossification means to turn into turn into bone or bony tissue, or to become stagnant or rigid. And those who still love to listen to music while reading the lyrics will uncover the fear and anger over how we comport ourselves as a civilization.
I shouldn’t be surprised that the marriage of two bands built on the foundation of thought-provoking and challenging metal that consistently went against the grain (sorry) would conceive of an album as rich, layered, and openly vulnerable as Salt, but the album and band’s utter fearlessness to wear its collective heart on its sleeve and make a racket that is at once joyful, somber, angry, and despairing is astonishing. Khôrada have crafted a miracle of a record and succeeded in creating something that will be constantly revealing new facets and meanings for years to come.