The gentlemen in Chicago’s Chord seem a straightforward bunch. Their no-frills name references an improvisational technique that, at its core, is equally simple: every track on Flora, the quartet’s debut, is named for a chord, with each member of the quartet chipping in one of the notes. What could be a spartan structural exercise is diversified by the relative freedom each guitarist has within his note-based constraint. So long as a specific note is being played, when and how it is played is up to the discretion of the player. Flora, in general, adheres to an abstract and rather minimal aesthetic, but each of its four tracks has its own character, largely removed from the chord which served as its inspiration. The chords at the core of Chord, then, are more a means to an end, a definition of the most basic underpinning of Flora‘s final form.
Of Chord’s four members, Trevor de Brauw has the highest profile, as guitarist in the instrumental outfit Pelican. The metal influence that informs Pelican has its place on Flora, evident in the distorted growl and churn of "Am," but Kyle Benjamin, Jason Hoffman and Phil Dole each play a part in the album’s seemingly democratic construction. "E9" begins with a titular moment for the band: guitars play single notes in unison (though not necessarily in the chord named by the track’s title), and the majority of the track drifts by with languid hints at melodicism. "Am7" is almost straight drone, with some distortion as gristle that later drops out when the clean tones create Flora‘s most beautiful leg.
Chord don’t reach too far toward the extremes, despite covering a wide swath of stylistic ground. From the nearly inaudible beginning of “Gmaj (flat 13)” to “Am” and its ragged snarl, the quartet never make a lasting mark of their own. When conceptual music communicates its framework in such subtle ways, the original germ of an idea, no matter how spectacular, is rarely enough to keep things afloat, and when you get past Flora‘s gimmick, none of the songs cover especially new territory. Chord have an interesting premise, and their debut isn’t a dud, but it feels as though the band, to truly realize what this concept could be, ought to be doing much less, or far, far more.