In music—as in life—expectations can cut two ways. Without expectations, there might be no disappointments. But without expectations, there’s also little chance for surprise. The relational structure of expectations, however, borders on tyrannical. As a listener, I may impose my expectations on a band or artist in such a way that it colors my experience with their music – which is entirely one-sided, having nothing to do with their independent choices. If expectations can evoke tyranny, however, aren’t they also a mark of trust? If I levy certain high expectations against an artist, isn’t that another way of saying that I’ve dropped my guard and let them into my life?
[a small voice yells from the back]
“So, you’re saying that it can be both good and bad for listeners to go into a new album with particular expectations? Thanks for the colossal insight, you bargain bin Einstein.”
[the small voice is booed and shouted down by a chorus of thousands encouraging the writer to go on]
If you want to turn it back around, though, think about it like this: musicians don’t owe you shit.
If your barometer for being satisfied with music is how closely the sound hews to what you wanted it to sound like, then your real goal is the arresting of whatever progression a band would otherwise make. To get to the real point: when you heard that Giant Squid’s Aaron Gregory was teaming up with Don Anderson, Aesop Dekker, and Jason Walton (i.e., three-quarters of the now-defunct Agalloch) for a new band called Khôrada, just what in the hell did you think it would sound like? It might be useful to really interrogate whatever preconceptions you have in order to approach this with as clean a slate as possible.
Over the course of Salt’s patient, unhurried run-time, Khôrada charts a course that is familiar on the surface, but which masks a cunningly deep third way not so much between the two bands as apart from either. Because Gregory handles lead vocals, it’s understandable that the first impression would be much Squiddier than not, but with songwriting largely shared between Gregory and Anderson, their unique personal styles both shine through independently and play off of one another to form an unlooked-for synthesis.
But, for all that preamble, you have to think about it like this, too: musicians, listeners don’t owe you shit.
However much we might like to fantasize about a musical utopia where musicians are paid to simply follow their muse, heedless of the whims of popular acclaim, well… this ain’t that world, so you’ve got to come with your best. The only question that is truly incumbent on this thing masquerading as an album review to answer is: Is the goddamn thing any good?
Friends, it is good.
Salt is the sound of four confident voices gaining in strength as they learn to speak a new language together. The overall tone of the album is weighty, contemplative, and frequently outraged, and although it is never insular, it is somehow both inward and conversational. Unguarded and vulnerable, yet bolstered by that openness, it is somewhat aquatic in tone, if only sometimes in topic. And while not exactly playful, it feels like a group of musicians reveling in the play of their work.
“Something will grow in our place.
Once the salt is washed away /
The rain will reclaim.”
The song cycles through seemingly endless sections, rhythms, moods; just after 8:00, the bottom drops out, the guitars scythe wildly in search of hope, and then Dekker reprises the intro with merciless propulsion: it’s the rain washing over the ruins. It is an absolutely tremendous feat of emotive songwriting and powerhouse performances.
At every turn of this invitingly harrowing album, the music evokes the feelings and matches the narrative of the lyrics. The brief, vanishingly delicate interlude of “Augustus” is so nakedly emotional that it feels voyeuristic and almost inappropriate to be allowed this glimpse of the raw pain and joy of a family coping with a miscarriage. It is, however, a critically sympathetic and contextually necessary lead-in to “Wave State,” in which Gregory imagines our civilization destroyed by rising waters, and plans for how to keep his children safe by taking to the sea:
“When there’s no high ground left,
We will take to the waves…
Leading us to reefs time forgot.”
The trumpet in the intro is muted, but it eventually blares freely as both warning and guidepost. Anderson’s guitar solo is beautiful, searching, and lyrical, soaring delicately against the waves crashing in Walton’s bass and the swells of organ.
Based on its lyrics, “Water Rights” is likely inspired by the protests of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Gregory’s vocals drip with disgust and ironic disdain: “Native lands diminish returns; trample those who dare dispute.” A few of the heaviest passages here churn and tower like Neurosis, but they quickly revert to being more swift on their feet. Elsewhere, “Glacial Gold” plays legato cello lines against twanging, searching clean guitars, and is the slowest, most restrained piece on the album.
Album closer “Ossify,” by contrast, is almost cavalier in its sprightliness. It flirts with major key tonality, backed by synths and jangle-chiming clean guitar while Dekker and Walton scoot the whole thing forward into some kind of oblivion. The song’s breathtaking midsection uses its instrumentation to tell the story, as Anderson’s and Gregory’s guitars root around earnestly but are rebuffed and harshly punctuated by increasingly militant and foreboding drum cadences. It’s a drama of hope against futility, and of cherishing the precious present moment all the more desperately because of the certainty of its passing.
There’s an eerie way in which “Ossify” echoes the piercingly stark insight of Low’s “Plastic Cup,” in which the peerless Minnesota band sang:
“The cup will probably be here long after we’re gone… /
They’ll probably dig it up a thousand years from now… /
They’ll probably wonder what the hell we used it for… /
“This must be the cup the king held every night /
As he cried.”
Khôrada’s telling strikes the same note of future bafflement:
“In a world the color of rust, whatever follows us /
will have to theorize all the different ways we may have died. /
How disappointed they’ll be when unearthing the truth. /
They will dig through our plastic cocoons.”
“Ossify” burns itself out in a mass exhalation of grief, drums pounding away while the guitars screech and drone and try to find some safe place to land. Salt is a dynamic, heavy, beautiful album, and for as much as it’s a heavy metal album with great riffs and solos and clenched-fist mettle and works splendidly on those terms, if you set aside your expectations of what an album is supposed to do, you might find that it wants to sound a deeper resonance. If you think an album can put you in touch with the emotional state of its creators, then it is a codex of empathy. If you think an album can bring you outside of yourself, then it is a meditation. If you think that art can change the world but only by changing hearts, then it is a calling to sit and be sad and be joyous and then get up and do something.
Whatever you may have expected, Khôrada is less, more, and other. But Salt speaks truths you can carry with you: If you write, you’re a writer; if you dance, you’re a dancer; if you sing, you’re a singer. Khôrada manifests these simple gifts into a generous feast.