Rogue Valley was born as an enigma. When they released their four-part concept series in 2011, it was unclear whether Rogue Valley was a band or whether bandleader Chris Koza was just seeing what kind of magic he could pull from the ephemera.
Those first four albums -- Crater Lake (spring), The Bookseller's House (summer), Geese in the Flyway (fall), and False Floors (winter) -- represent a completed cycle of seasons. A capsule of a year of syncopation and return. Though the band has played scads of shows in five years since the Seasons project wrapped up, it wasn’t clear whether Koza, Peter Sieve, Paul Engles, Luke Anderson, and Linnea Mohn would reunite for another album.
But cycles are bound to repeat.
Rogue Valley released their Seasons follow-up, Radiate/Dissolve, on June 21, and after a month of promotion, they’ll finally celebrate their sophomore concept on Friday at the Fitz. Though Radiate/Dissolve doesn’t match the chronological ambitions of Seasons, it’s a somehow bigger record. Taking place over a period of wandering and discovery in the expanse of the American Southwest, the album seeks to inhabit larger spaces -- dramatic sonic yarns echoing up into the air and lonesome guitar shuffling toward surrender.
It’s every bit as referential and recurrent as Seasons, but inside the echo chamber of Radiate/Dissolve are dense enigmas that call for excavation. Ahead of the release show, we asked Koza and his bandmates to go through the journey track by track.
“The Brightest Stars”
Right away, “The Brightest Stars” gets into the album’s titular ambiguity. With echoey, distant vocals and atmospheric guitar chords dominating the song, the listener is nearly disoriented. This could be the beginning of the album, or it could just as easily be the end. The distinction is unimportant.
“One thing I like about the intro is that there’s an ambiguous end where ‘radiate’ and ‘dissolve’ form this circle,” Sieve says, referencing the very literal stars in the song’s lyrics. “Are the stars radiating, or are they dissolving? You don’t know. There’s this delicious ambiguity of what is the beginning and what is the end.”
That atmosphere will be familiar to fans of spaghetti westerns and outlaw folklore. Though not specifically inspired by desolate Rogue Valley in Oregon (where Koza hails from), Rogue Valley’s music derives its forlornity from long nights on dusty trails. It’s a setting that works well as both an aesthetic and a metaphor.
“The first six or so songs are written as one long movement of music,” Koza adds. “That’s where the theme of ‘radiate’ emerges to tie these songs together. ‘The Brightest Stars’ sets the stage, the atmosphere that the album lives in.”
As the melancholy of “The Brightest Stars” sublimates, a giddy riff appears. It’s a sudden movement meant to mirror the feeling of waking after a night of existential stargazing.
“‘The Brightest Stars’ is like night time, and then the sun rises, and that’s ‘Host,’” Koza says.
“‘Host’ is a spring of hope,” Sieve adds.
The dawn of “Host” is glorious. Koza’s lyrics romanticize every details of the Western expanse -- from the dirt on the road to the “heavy, electric air,” he greets every sense with a hopeful newness that’s cathartically released in the song’s brimming chorus.
“Host” also introduces one of Radiate/Dissolve’s enduring sonic motifs. With bright trumpets and horns filling in the march-like drum beats, we hear an instrument that Koza uses as a designator for hope and energy throughout the album.
“In the previous Rogue Valley records, there were recurring themes and lyrical passages and melodic motifs that would happen throughout the four albums, and I wanted that to also be the case with Radiate/Dissolve,” Koza says. “It’s fun to think about a body of work as one cohesive unit. It also helps during the writing process.”
“Pulse” is Mohn’s first turn on lead vocals on Radiate/Dissolve. With her seraphic voice and an unbreaking, delicate guitar line, “Pulse” nearly sounds like a gospel song. It’s formulated to evoke optimism, however misguided that notion might be in the grander cycle of life.
“The ending will find you unless you find it first / Seeing things you don’t believe / Don’t panic now / It’s natural,” Mohn sings. In anyone else’s voice, this string of lyrics would read like a warning. And perhaps it is.
Talking about the song pulls up memories of driving overnight from Truckee, California, to Fruita, Colorado, in the Rogue Valley van. There was a sense of destiny in that 15-hour drive. There was destiny in getting blown off the road like a tumbleweed in Nevada. But there was also a dark side to giving into to those idyllic thoughts.
“We’ve got these collective experiences together driving through the grand vistas and landscapes and the magical areas of the Western United States, and all that ties into the complicated, weird basis of how this country was founded,” Sieve says. “There’s a lot of darkness of that easy romanticism of going out in the desert and checking out all those stars but also realizing you’re walking where we decimated the people.”
And just as the band uncovered that disturbing undertone in their own journey, Radiate/Dissolve also tumbles into darkness soon after the patina fades.
“Bury Your Heart”
“Bury Your Heart” is a song that haunts you with refrain. You cannot be comfortable with its chorus of “Where did you bury your heart?” until you internalize the question yourself and confront the answer.
“It’s a question that demands excavation,” Mohn says. “You’ve gotta do some work to uncover the answer.”
This is also the point where the actual desert setting and Koza’s allegorical desert of emotion intersect the most. Is the question being asked from one person to another, or is it a rhetorical question posed by a person in search of their lost empathy?
“‘Bury Your Heart’ is about having the desire to fight through something to find an answer, but having difficulty finding the motivation and ability to do that,” Koza explains.
“That question is being asked by somebody to someone else," he says. "But maybe it’s being asked by somebody to a reflection of themselves.”
The most dynamic cut from Radiate/Dissolve, “Bury Your Heart” feels the most like a journey with its several jutting movements. There are swells matched with pits of silence. Endings and restarts jostle, making for a song that’s just as challenging and rewarding as its lyrical premise.
“It’s probably my favorite song to play because it challenges us to be quiet, but there’s also this radiating loud aspect throughout the song,” Engels, who plays bass, says. “We all just break down and get really silent, and then in 16 bars, we bring back all the aggression and rage crashing into the final chorus of the song. For me, that’s really fun.”
In the pattern of night melting into days melting back into nights, Radiate/Dissolve oscillates between despair and joy as freely and capriciously as the weather. Emerging from “Bury Your Heart” in a calm din of synthesizers, “Loom” is Radiate/Dissolve's return to the optimism of “Pulse,” giving godly reverence to the remergent horns, which have been dormant since “Host.”
“This is the first song where it moves from the desert into a more urban environment, the physical surrounds transition,” Koza says. Here, the album’s protagonist finds meaning -- Koza is reluctant to call it love -- in their journey through the dust. “It’s not a full escape, though,” he adds, “it’s like, hanging in Phoenix or something.”
For Sieve, this song was his first indication of how large Radiate/Dissolve would really be. He knew the album, with its added instrumentation and sweeping harmonies, would not be a step back from Seasons in terms of ambition, even if the scope was so much smaller.
“That was the turning point for me in hearing these songs come together,” he says. “I could hear how cinematic and ambitious all these songs were starting to become.”
“Breathe” first came into life under the moniker “Tambo Jambo.” The song is built around Anderson’s steely, driving 6/4 drum beat. It’s could’ve been lifted from a bucket drummer’s repertoire if it weren’t so perfectly balanced by the big-body guitars and foreboding lyrics.
“You’d better run / You’d better ride / Don’t let your heart ask you why / Remember to breathe,” the song cautions.
As the carefree original name “Tambo Jambo” indicates, “Breathe” is indeed a continuation of “Loom”’s celebratory spin through the city. If there’s one song to drink to on Radiate/Dissolve, it’s “Breathe.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some underlying fatalism. Think Kerouac’s blissful sojourns to San Francisco in Big Sur. Like those beatnik benders, there’s no possible way “Breathe” is anything more than a distraction from the things you’re not ready to confront.
As Rogue Valley’s current single, “Transference” is, to some degree, a flagbearer of Radiate/Dissolve’s central theme. As the protagonist emerges from the aftermath of “Breathe,” larger things come into view. First, they’re scary, but then they ameliorate into a tenuous acceptance.
“It’s really a song about being almost dead,” Koza says. “It’s the peaks and valleys flattening out. Some of the lyrical stuff has to do with [the mystery of] what happens after death.”
Birthed from a rhythm, the song soothes the awakened. Anderson’s subdued strokes create the feeling of being rocked and comforted as the five members of the band chant a Taizé melody. There’s the unease of not knowing, but it’s quickly joined by the calm of not having to know.
At just under two-and-half minutes long, it’s by far the album’s shortest offering, and according to Sieve, that’s what made it such an optimal single.
“It has some immediacy,” he says. “It’s short and to the point and doesn’t linger.”
As the driver of the seasons, the moon was a persistent symbol in the Seasons project. Koza wanted there to be some callback to that motif on Radiate/Dissolve, so the image of a menacing red moon became an omen in his Western opus.
Though it’s not actually about Earth’s moon, “Blood Moon” uses lunar imagery as a harbinger of what’s to come. There’s no escape from that literal (and figurative) gravity, so Mohn’s voice urges the protagonist to carry on the lesson of “Transference.”
“This song is about the antagonist telling the protagonist to not be so concerned and live into the moment,” Koza says. “There’s a moment of, ‘Well maybe you’re already that thing you want to be.’”
Like so much if Radiate/Dissolve, “Blood Moon” is a bit of a misdirect. Though Mohn’s voice and insistence are bright, they’re still steeped in dark tones that underlie something more sinister lurking.
Koza started writing parts that would become “Cold Windows” 15 years ago. Despite that decade-and-a-half of shelving between the songs conception and its inclusion on Radiate/Dissolve, “Cold Windows” blends into the tracklist because it focuses on resurfacing anxieties. In the ebbing movement of the album, it makes perfect sense for emotions from half a lifetime ago to resurface.
“It’s a little bit of a freakout song,” Koza says with a laugh.
Sieve is drawn to the song’s clamped-in formulation. All the instruments move in a nearly maddening sequence, building tension as they undercut Koza’s forfeit of “It’s all the same / It’s all the same / It’s all the same.”
“It’s got this element of rigidity,” he says. “It’s really locked in and almost programmed sounding. It makes this tense drama rise throughout the whole song.”
Koza sees the song as a companion to “Bury Your Heart,” with its chromatic guitars and unflinching lyrical mantra, but it feels far less controlled. Without a defined chorus, "Cold Windows" just barrels through that tension, eventually coming to some sort of elation in the crash.
“It’s like an action sequence,” Mohn says. “Everything just leads to the next. It doesn’t really repeat itself throughout, it’s just going, and then there’s a hallelujah chorus.”
Koza cites “Planet” as his favorite song on Radiate/Dissolve. Unlike some of the other songs in the tracklist, “Planet”’s subject matter is pretty transparent. Inspired by Robert Hazen’s The Story of Earth, Koza takes on the viewpoint of Gaia, lamenting the commodification of the planet. The melody came to him in a dream, and he put together the concept during a drive up to Lutsen, Minnesota.
“I started thinking about the planet as a living entity,” he says. “This song is kind of from the perspective of the planet having been reduced from this wonderful place where it was very much appreciated to this tossaway piece of gravel. This big grand planet has been whittled down to something that is so casual.”
But like every other song on the album, “Planet” is about more than just one thing. It’s an exercise in scale. Yes, to Earthlings, Earth is a precious and unassailable resource, but on a cosmic level, it’s just stone with some life crawling on it. This plays into Radiate/Dissolve’s ego-obliterating third act, where the protagonist comes to peace with the impermanence of life.
Koza’s high school euphonium punctuates “Vainglory,” Radiate/Dissolve’s penultimate track, and the final moment of romanticism.
“It’s a song where the protagonist finally decides, ‘OK, let’s do this, I’ve found a way to escape, and I want to escape with this identity,’” Koza says. “I wanted there to be a song that felt like slow-motion Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn running away down the river and making their own rules.”
The bliss of that romanticism is something that appears in every upbeat song on the record. There are moments of improbable fantasy that inspire euphoric tones and galvanizing lyrics -- the “radiate” moments -- that are ultimately countered by the dissolve back into reality.
“If you think about the album in days and nights, it’s kind of like a return to back to night,” Engels says. “Breaking down. The last upbeat, positive song.”
Radiate/Dissolve’s final track is its longest. A somber, sweeping ode where all the struggle of the previous 11 songs finally pays off in a dissolution. If the song seems to meander it’s because there is some reluctance to the letting go at first.
“Become the setting sun,” Mohn’s voice urges. “Radiate.”
If you were to play the album on repeat, the end of “Radiate/Dissolve” would mesh seamlessly back into “The Brightest Stars.” The protagonist returns to the desert only to begin their journey to enlightenment anew. There’s an almost karmic struggle, but it always ends the same -- by the protagonist accepting the inevitability of it all. Succumbing, reintegrating, and finding peace in that.
“It’s the protagonist’s acceptance and just letting go of everything,” Sieve says. “Becoming one with the universe and whatever it is that is energy. Ashes to ashes.”
With: The Laurels String Quartet
Where: Fitzgerald Theater
When: 8 p.m. Fri., July 29
Tickets: $10-$45, more info here