John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost holds a legendary status in the literary world. It not only revisits the Biblical story of the Fall of Man, but provides an added focus to that of Satan – his descent into Hell and rebellion against God. For centuries, Paradise Lost has been a work studied and reimagined, researchers and artists alike enamored by its theme of idolatry – a theme that Kris Esfandiari of King Woman explores in her latest record, Celestial Blues (Relapse Records).
King Woman’s 2017 debut record, Created In the Image of Suffering, is a remarkable work of doom. Unlike bands such as Primitive Man or Candlemass, King Woman’s approach to doom is more ethereal. Forgoing thundering bass and overwhelming distortion, the band utilizes droning – with touches of hefty distortion – to create an atmosphere that feels slightly lighter in technical presence, but heavy in emotional delivery. Along with the instrumentation, Esfandiari’s voice plays a significant factor in establishing atmosphere. Whether it’s how her vocals weave into the gentle droning, or how her shrieks elevate the bombast of pounding instrumentals, her voice is a remarkable tool. On Celestial Blues, King Woman exceeds their previous LP’s brilliance, offering a journey where the protagonist is thrown into darkness – only for them to ascend with majesty.
The record’s self-titled opening track begins with these lines: “Celestial blues/ A mile in my shoes/ The Devil left a bruise/ But God left a light on for Her wayward ones …” Esfandiari softly speaks these words and the verse to come under the bright and sparse twang of guitar notes. This twang plays against a pitch-black space; the level of minimalism taking place – surrounding the trickle of guitar notes and vocals – establishes this setting of emptiness. The tone of this sequence exudes a sense of loneliness even.
This is a small level of technicality that goes so far as to demonstrate the great theatrical presence that King Woman can create. Once the first verse ends though, the guitar performance amplifies; not in tempo – the song maintaining consistent drone-like pacing – but offering booms of distortion in each strike of the guitar. Against the beating of bass and rolling of drums, Esfandiari’s vocals also elevate, her earlier performance morphing into a heightened, haunting calm. No one track is straightforward in its compositional flow however, for a given song has the means to demonstrate sonic duality.
The gentle flow of guitar notation makes its return on “Boghz”; yet, there’s something more sinister here. Over time, the drumming begins to pick up, matching the ever-building uneasy direction of the song. Whereas the guitar performance starts transitioning into something more ferocious, Esfandiari’s voice takes on its own shift. In the beginning comes a mutated form of softness, only to eventually part the course and dip into a brief passage of hushed, spooky-sounding speech. Then comes the upswing roaring of vocals and instrumentation, the performance taking on the form of something demonic. Esfandiari’s screams bash against the clashes of drums, distortion, and bass piling in on this section of the track – the performance pulling from doom’s more abrasive qualities.
Guitarist/bassist Peter Arensdorf and drummer Joseph Raygoza are valuable components to the emotional and sonic impact that Celestial Blues lays out in its runtime. As a genre, doom is reliant on providing a consistent, yet engaging pace; one where performance sometimes must carefully balance between bombastic playing and meditative presence. The elements of drone and distortion, along with a technical prowess that keeps compositions engaging, are key elements Arensdorf and Raygoza use to emphasize the somber tone of Esfandiari’s lyrics and vocals. Arensdorf’s use of melody and rock-driven guitar rhythms further provide a riveting kick to each song.
But the instrumental performances are only one part that serves to make Celestial Blues astounding. At the core of this record is Esfandiari’s narrative journey; of coming from an overwhelming Catholic upbringing, and of having a near-death experience as a child. Lyrically, Esfandiari invites the listener along as she confronts her past and creates her own path forward. In the lyrics found throughout Celestial Blues, she offers the duality of tragedy and prospering – of falling, only to rise. Esfandiari’s words have a stunning means of creeping over the listener. In cuts like “Golgotha”, her words exude a gloomy aura of ensnarement; as if playing into the genre itself, these words reek of doom. “And it never ends/ And it never ends/ The snake eats its tail/ We return again/ To/ This hell/ This hell/ I’ll see you again/ With the skulls my friend.”
The following song, “Coil”, hits with an equal delivery of instrumental, lyrical, and vocal aggression. Out the gate, the instrumentation comes with a faster tempo, the guitar revving with bursts of distortion against a bass-heavy backdrop. Esfandiari shouts over the flow, her lyrics giving off a different shade of feeling this time around. “They want me gone/ Well best of luck/ I’ve already passed/ I been raised up/ They want me gone/ Well best of luck/ I’ve already passed/ I been raised up.”
The record’s closing track, appropriately titled “Paradise Lost”, leaves things on a somber, yet insightful note. The instrumentation here is minimal, light trickles of guitar notation and drumbeats maintaining a presence throughout. The lyrics display Esfandiari in a place of defeat – though, not without hope. “We have been thrown from Eden/ I need to find the maker/ You’re gonna blame it on me/ It’s just the saddest story.” This grieving and need to find one’s maker comes with an unnerving, haunting chill – the conviction in Esfandiari’s voice all the more powerful for it. Esfandiari’s words hit with both serenity and rawness to them, casting an enchanting aura that brings listeners deeper into her world.
As King Woman, Esfandiari and the band deliver a record brimming with extraordinary emotional power. With lyrics that seep into the soul, to instrumentals that present captivating sonic soundscapes, Celestial Blues is crushing. Taking her hardships and pain, Esfandiari has crafted a record that displays her will to climb up through darkness and grow stronger. And in her rebellion, in finding her own path, she comes out a champion.
Celestial Blues releases July 30th. You can pre-order the record at the link below.