Something primal, something that is equal parts joyous and sad.
Kristina Esfandiari impressed music lovers with the 2015 King Woman EP, Doubt, a recording that drew on a surprising range of influences but had a single stunning impact. She continues that trend with this full-length effort. Doomy tempos and riffs walk side-by-side with doses of goth and haunting, airy sounds that imagine Mazzy Star wandering through Joshua Tree in the wee hours of the night. There’s more than a hint of the spiritual here, a sense that Esfandiari holds music in deep reverence, that writing and performing are, themselves, sacred acts. Records such as Created in the Image of Suffering , one with a sense of purpose and a blazing heart, separate the pretenders from the contenders with uncommon precision.
Following the brief, muse-invoking “Citios,” we’re treated to a wall of desert doom, low-tuned guitars, drums that shake the earth and our very foundations, via the truth-seeking missile “Utopia.” It’s heavy but never loses sight of melody or hooks. Rather than becoming a three-minute dirge or celebration of a leaden riff, you find yourself wanting to sing along or probe its mysteries more deeply. The same might be said of the bludgeoning, buzzing weight of “Deny” and the deliciously accusatory “Shame.” There are moments when you wonder if Esfandiari isn’t speaking directly to you and the wicked things you’ve done. That the fourth wall remains dangling by a rusty hinge when the track finally winds to an end is one of the artist’s greatest feats.
The list of records that can create that sense of excitement-cum-fear remains remarkably small: Certainly, the early works of Bathory, the best moments of Emperor and PJ Harvey at her most vulnerable qualify. If King Woman doesn’t call upon each of those for direct inspiration, the spirit of each, the zap and shock of their ingenuity and ferocity seem at least to provide guiding lights.
“Worn” brims with the kind of darkness that’s always made Harvey’s music a go-to for those seeking catharsis. The tune’s visceral, reactive, a spontaneous flow of bitterness and pain that nevertheless doesn’t wear out its welcome or lose its sting upon repeated listens. It sways between resignation and resolve, leaving the listener emotionally ravished by the time the final notes arrive. Still, there’s nothing you want more than to drop the needle on it one more time.
Unsurprisingly, the most piercing and illuminating material may be the three expansive pieces one finds at the record’s back end: The eight-minute “Hierophant,” a walk down the path of something that may be regret but comes off more as a declaration of determination, an unapologetically emotional exploration that shifts tempo and mood with an enviable effortlessness. “Manna” rises slowly, kicks swiftly and leaves us wishing that we could have just one more morsel when it’s all over.
The closing “Hem” may be the most ambitious and far-reaching number here: At times, its chant-like vocals and basic, primal beats suggest a composition on the verge of collapse before the guitars burst through the speakers with a power and glory that remind us of Esfandiari’s strength and might.
Though the sound remains uniform here (you never forget that this is ostensibly heavy music), it never glides into the dreaded territory of monochromatic. That’s a delicate balance and one most find difficult to strike effectively. All of that is, of course, a small percentage of King Woman’s overall appeal. For all the things that can be named, for all the words we can find to describe what we’re hearing, there remains something enigmatic lurking at the edge of it all, some kind of unknown that resists easy identification, throws off names and naming and allows us to access something primal, something that is equal parts joyous and sad.
That’s the spiritual side, one supposes, that pendulum between salvation and sin, the axis on which this record depends and succeeds. That command of the universal is what makes King Woman appealing, that we have no choice but to embrace that that dichotomy may be the very thing making King Woman great.