When reviewing music, I try to judge bands and artists’ work on their own merits, as well as comment their place within their little enclave in the musical landscape. I don’t believe that art can be perceived on much of an objective level at all – the subjectivity of it a huge part of what make it such an interesting and engaging subject – but even so, I try to keep my opinions on art (and especially music) as level-headed and as defensible as I can. But with that said, I have to start this review by admitting that I was (and really still am) a massive Agalloch fan, and that I came into Khôrada’s ‘Salt’ with unfair expectations that may have prevented me from enjoying this album to the extent that I otherwise might have.
Formed in late 2016 out of the implosion of the Portland black metal legends Agalloch, Khôrada consists of the majority of their final line-up (featuring Don Anderson, Jason William Walton, and Aesop Dekker on guitar, bass and drums respectively) but with Aaron Gregory (previously of Giant Squid) now fronting the band on guitar and vocals. Listening to ‘Salt,’ it was difficult for me to check these expectations and not compare the sound to Pillorian, the other band formed out of Agalloch’s ashes by its founding member and ex-frontman John Haughm. A thought that occurred to me on my first listen is that the earthy, atmospheric neo-folk and black metal influences that I found so captivating about Agalloch’s music evidently came mostly from Haughm himself, as those parts of Agalloch’s sound haven’t carried over into Khôrada . To my dismay, Khôrada isn’t a replacement for Agalloch. And it isn’t intended to be.
I find that the more I listen to it, the more I am able to enjoy it on its own terms and the more respect I have for the band for attempting to go in a different direction from their self-proclaimed “visionary (sic)” of an ex-front-man. This style of gritty folk and sludge-tinged progressive metal suits them, and there are a fair amount of interesting and unique ideas at play here. Khôrada retains the atmospheric folk vibe of Agalloch (minus the black metal), now utilise a great deal more sound and complex arrangements, resulting in a style less hypnotic and more layered and pounding, as well as including intricate guitar leads, and occasional harmony sections. The somewhat lengthy arrangements are much more dense and direct and throw more at the listener than Agalloch ever did – tracks like Wave State, Water Rights and Edeste all have sections that at first come seemingly out of nowhere, only to quickly establish themselves as worthwhile detours that end up increasing tension and progressing fairly quickly towards a climax that is more impactful with these detours than it would have been without them. The use of dynamics and off-kilter instrumentation (a saxophone and trumpet show up on the album periodically) work in the album’s favour as well, giving at least one of the later tracks something of a Latin vibe (Wave State). The overall earthy production gives it a nice, black metal-esque grit, which adds another layer of atmosphere and naturalness to the album. A drawback to this writing style is that some great melodies can go by too quickly to make much of an impact, and the rhythms are often simplistic and not quite as interesting as they could be. Still, there are sprinkled throughout the album moments of real catchiness and an enveloping atmosphere of gloom and dread that permeates throughout.
Having never listened to Giant Squid, I can’t comment of Aaron Gregory’s contributions to the music, but his singing is gloomy and suits it fairly well, and his lyrics are oddly impressive, dejected musings on the uncertainty of today’s political climate, the evils of unchecked capitalism as well as a couple of heart-wrenchingly personal narratives. It seems to be his slightly gothic delivery and presence is a factor that helps set Khôrada part.
Overall, if you’re anything like me and were wondering mostly how similar the bands would end up sounding, then make no mistake – this is not Agalloch 2.0. In fact, if you were hoping for something to scratch the same itch that Agalloch once did – I’d say that Pillorian are as close as you’re going to get, and you should check out their album if you haven’t already. However, if you’re a fan of folk metal, the prog/death style that spawned out of Opeth’s early work, or the otherwise more grounded styles of progressive rock and metal, then you may find that there’s a fair amount to enjoy here.
Pre-order ‘Salt’ HERE.