On King Woman’s debut LP, band mastermind Kristina Esfandiari finds her own path to redemption in doom—and it’s enough to inspire new believers outside of metal circles.
Full article via Pitchfork.
The response to Doubt stunned Kristina Esfandiari. In 2015, the San Francisco songwriter finally issued her proper, full-band debut as King Woman, a name she’d toyed with for years while playing in other people’s bands. Across the EP’s four songs, Esfandiari used blown-out, country-kissed doom to reckon with and rage against a childhood spent in a Christian cult-like community. The unlikely mix—where waves of distortion and wrecking-ball drums crashed against a voice that somehow drifted even as it raged—found a sudden following. Conjuring Slowdive, Sleep, and maybe even Lucinda Williams, King Woman became one of the decade’s most interesting new doom acts, loaded with crossover potential.
But Doubt courted a more unexpected audience, too—the same religious clutches Esfandiari had castigated during those songs and in interviews with The Huffington Post and Rolling Stone. She soon started to clarify her positions publicly, but she didn’t back down. “This is my experience. This is my story, and I don’t give a fuck about what any you think,” she said last year. “I’ve had no voice for long enough, and there’s so much that I need to say.”
Esfandiari doesn’t repent during Created in the Image of Suffering, King Woman’s brazen and brilliant first LP, either. Instead, she redoubles her frustration and invective, not only impugning religious fervor but slyly subverting it as well, using its ecclesiastical language for very human conquests. Her writing is gripping and unapologetic, shrugging off the veils and cloaks of Doubt to address her grievances and express her regrets directly. “I wish somebody would have told me/’Cause the past you can’t get back,” she sings as “Worn” lifts to its grand chorus, “Feels like somebody wore me/There’s a deliverance I lack.” Backed by a three-piece that seems now to share ownership of these songs, she seems to be finding her own path to redemption in doom—and, in doing so, created one of the young year’s most powerful rock records to date.
No one gets off easy here. Esfandiari scorns the self-medicating faithful during “Deny,” her soft but haunting voice riding a riff that feels as sharp as a reaper’s scythe. “Shame,” meanwhile, spotlights the existential dread of Esfandiari’s former fellow adherents. She wonders how they find comfort in doomsday prophecies and punitive proclamations, why they seek shelter in something that feels so vengeful. She worries less about what people worship than how they worship—specifically, how they use their beliefs to ensnare themselves and those around them, herself included. During Doubt, King Woman seemed to be learning how to communicate these concerns as a group; here, they preach together as a mighty team. The band pounds away behind her questions and observations, the bellicose rhythm section and snarling guitars demanding answers from a society of self-delusion.
The real strength of this still-new quartet becomes clear on “Hierophant,” the centerpiece of these eight songs. Esfandiari funnels the language of the sacred into a series of profane come-ons: “If you’re a holy church, I wanna worship,” she sings. “If you’re a sacred script, I am the Hierophant.” She treats actual human lust with the same sort of obsessive, accidentally prurient language evangelicals sometimes use for God. It’s funny, seductive, and coming from someone who has seen both sides, tragic. And with a chorus that hits like an electrified lullaby with a heretic’s sense of mischief, it wouldn't be hard to imagine “Hierophant” as a rock radio anthem. Now that would be a coveted fall from grace.
Religious reckoning, of course, is nothing new to metal. For decades, the genre has subsisted on turning crosses and crowns upside down, self-identifying with the damned, and lampooning sources of self-proclaimed deliverance. But Esfandiari’s rebuke on Created in the Image of Suffering is personal and real in a way that vaguely recalls the torment of the Delta blues or the spiritual keening of early American gospel music. Darkness is not just some metaphorical tool for expressing defiance or disillusionment—Esfandiari has suffered and survived the horrors of which she sings. And yet there is an empowered spirit at the core of Created in the Image of Suffering, an understanding that goodness and light can crawl out of that dark, even if it takes a lifetime. With King Woman, Esfandiari has staked out her own salvation, and Created in the Image of Suffering is strong enough to inspire a lot of new believers.