Born from the ashes of two underground darlings in the sadly departed Agalloch and Giant Squid, Khôrada emerges from the fog, hellbent on stepping outside of the imposing shadows of their most prominent former outfits. The prospect is indeed an intriguing one, regardless of which side of the fence you reside on. I am more of a Giant Squid fan myself, having been captivated by their wonderfully crafty, genre-bending brand of offbeat metal and rock. Nevertheless, Agalloch were a beloved force in their own right, with their own distinct and eclectic backstory. And though I’ve never been a diehard fan, I hold a deep respect for the band and strong connection with The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain in particular. It’s probably fair to say that Agalloch and Giant Squid went out with differing degrees of success on the recording front. Both issued their final albums in 2014, with Agalloch‘s The Serpent and the Sphere garnering mixed opinions, while Giant Squid‘s Minoans opus was a fine conceptual piece that stands among their stronger releases. With the dust settled on two stellar careers, can the ex-Agalloch collective of Don Anderson, Jason Walton and prolific drummer Aesop Dekker combine successfully with former Giant Squid and current Squalus frontman/guitarist Aaron Gregory?
With the context behind Khôrada‘s formation already touched on, it’s time to dive into the band’s highly anticipated debut album, simply titled Salt. There’s always a risk of established musicians with mighty reputations coming together with a new act and sounding like an awkward amalgamation between their former band entities. Separating their previous artistic endeavors and writing something that takes a fresh detour is a vital cog to newfound success and admiration. So does Khôrada navigate this tricky aspect and cast its own shadow of enlightenment? Naturally, elements from both former bands creep into the Khôrada sound, without spoiling the intoxicating brew. But the similarities are only skin deep and Khôrada discover exciting avenues to progress, incorporating an array of musical oddities into their sound. They could perhaps be loosely described as a progressive mix of post-rock and sludge, but Khôrada shoehorn other interesting elements into their concoction, including riff-ready, seasick heavy rock, psychedelia, blackened elements, and offbeat doom. The diverse, shimmering guitar work, shifting tides and subtleties of the dynamic arrangements, and adventurous genre-splicing has an intriguing allure, even if the songwriting occasionally falls short of the band’s ambition.
Those unfamiliar with the strange odyssey of awesomeness that was Giant Squid may find adjusting to Gregory’s unique vocal style a challenge. His vocals are certainly an acquired taste and I can imagine prospective listeners being turned away. I’ve always found Gregory’s vocals unique, versatile and addictive. His efforts throughout Salt are no exception and it’s cool to hear him flex his vocal muscles over a different and dynamic musical backdrop. Gregory also shares guitar duties with Anderson, backed by the experienced rhythm section, who uniformly display impressive chops. Together Khôrada show a desire to branch out beyond their impressive past endeavors. The guitar work, in particular, is an intoxicating well of creativity and surprises. Opener “Edeste” sets the tone in classy fashion, Dekker’s impressive drum patterns and the contorting, hard-to-classify mix of genres and dynamics shining brightly.
While Salt features its share of high points and is a confident, ambitious introduction for Khôrada, it hasn’t managed to flaw me or forcefully demand my constant attention. I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with the album and feel like there’s still much to uncover and can imagine Salt wriggling its way into my rotation for some time yet. Especially when considering momentous cuts like the melodically gorgeous and complex dynamics of “Seasons of Salt,” or the refreshingly concise (but still six minutes long) rock-fueled ebb and flow of “Water Rights,” featuring a stirring vocal performance and aggressive climax. There’re a few self-editing issues and the short but rather forgettable ballad “Augustus” doesn’t offer a great deal. Yet Salt doesn’t exactly disappoint but struggles to reach truly unforgettable heights and perhaps unreasonable expectation, despite being a strong debut overall. Closing number “Ossify” concludes the album on a stirring high note. The strange and compelling fusion of styles somehow fits, from sprightly indie-rock, through to psych-doom, oddball riffery, and propulsive, thrashy rhythms.
Salt is a challenging, ambitious and intriguing debut that will hopefully be the beginning of something truly special, as the wonderfully talented band members grow into their Khôrada skin. Until then, Salt is a richly rewarding listen, well worth investigating for fans of Agalloch and Giant Squid, or aficionados of weird, atmospheric and genre-busting metal that toys with convention and takes a fearless attitude towards adventurous and eclectic songwriting.