sault air

SAULT’s aim, since its inception, is to twirl through every hue in the kaleidoscope of Black existence. The enigmatic UK collective—which, despite their aversion to the media, is agreed by most to be helmed by producer and songwriter Inflo, whose real name is Dean Josiah Cover—has run through a slew of musical styles and themes in service of that goal. They laid out their thesis with 2019’s 5 and 7, a fuzzed-out collection of minimalist funk songs about pride, the struggle, and everything in between. They sharpened their focus the following year with another pair of albums released while the Black Lives Matter movement was at a height of international attention—Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise)—putting a finer point on the particulars of protest and the importance of keeping the faith while swerving into Afrobeat-inspired territory. Their next album, NINE, dove into the murky depths of trauma and anger, juxtaposing those feelings against uneasy humor with nursery rhymes. It’s tempting to read their releases as a Kübler-Ross-esque model of intergenerational grief, but the Black experience is far too manifold to be so easily simplified. There’s always cause to mourn and reflect, but there’s just as much reason to celebrate and to uplift.

AIR—the group’s sixth album in only three years—tilts the balance back toward the positive. In a drastic turn from their previous output, SAULT have cast aside almost all of their identifiable hallmarks; gone are the funky rhythms, driving disco beats, and soulful crooning. As opener “Reality” begins with a crescendo of strings, horns, and a classical choir, your first thought might be that you’ve put on a record that should be filed closer to the choral works of György Ligeti. Sonically, there’s little anchoring AIR to the group’s previous output, but its themes still zero in on a critical element of the Black experience: the need for self-care and celebration of individual Blackness.

And as the group makes a sharp pivot to lush contemporary classical, they take the opportunity to remind us that even a style of music seen as traditionally European has been deeply influenced by Black innovators. “Luos Higher” makes plucked stringed instruments and chants its centerpiece, drawing influence from the music of the Luo people of Kenya for whom the track is named. The delicate string work of “Heart” conjures the specter of an Alice Coltrane spiritual journey, while the nearly 13-minute symphonic suite “Solar” calls back to the exuberance of Julius Eastman’s kinetic masterpiece Femenine with its twinkling pitched percussion. Every piece on AIR wears its heart on its sleeve, conveying an emotional urgency that makes the album feel like SAULT’s most personal body of work, despite being mostly wordless.