PICK OF THE WEEK: King Woman’s aim hits religion’s abusive hold, trauma on ashy ‘Celestial Blues’

Photo by Yoshino

There are people all over this world who will claim religion saved them and completely changed their lives. There also are people who had the opposite experience where religion was a dagger to their heart and flesh, equipped them with years of torment and guilt, and the most unfortunate of that group also faced violence, abuse, and death. For many, their suffering is too great to overcome.

Kristina Esfandiari falls in with those who were ravaged by religion, who saw its worst face and has spent years trying to recover. Her band King Woman has been a vessel for the mental anguish she suffered growing up in a Charismatic Christian family, where speaking in tongues and exorcisms in home were regular occurrences. On top of that, Esfandiari also suffered a near-death experience as a child, as well as being constantly threated with eternity in hell, and all of this is wrapped into King Woman’s second full-length, the enrapturing and cathartic “Celestial Blues.” This nine-track record is as raw and vulnerable as anything Esfandiari has put to tape, and that’s a major statement since the thematic material and music to this date have been both infectious and gripping. Along with bandmates Peter Arensdorf (guitars/bass) and Joseph Raygoza and special guest Jackie Perez Gratz (cello), Esfandiari pours out her heart and soul, shows a defiant edge, and vows to put this hurt to rest.

The title track starts the record, quietly flowing as Esfandiari, in a chilled hush, calls, “The devil left a bruise, but God left a light on for Her wayward ones, left under a fountainhead for dead, casting out the spirit of death.” The track then bursts with life as she clings and climbs through the trauma, the music pounding away, her pain on display as the track bows out. “Morning Star” is the lead single and recounts the falls of Satan, and she makes him a more sympathetic character as she takes on his plight. “The next thing I knew I was falling fast,” Esfandiari sings, “Lightning hit my wings, heard thunder crack,” as the intensity of the song picks up, as does the pain and isolation. “Lucifer, falling from the heights,” she sings repeatedly as the emotional intensity builds, gutting you and leaving you bare. “Boghz” is a slow drip at the start as the atmosphere develops, and her trademark whispery delivery gets inside you and chills. But you know the strike is coming, and as she wails, “Hey!” the heaviness untangles, and she howls defiantly, “Here’s what I’m gonna do, get down on my hands and knees for you, you know this is a lie, shot down by the arrows above.” The playing gets heavier and more sinister, the bass thickens and strikes out, and the track burns off fumes and slips under the surface. “Golgotha” eases in with softer singing and a pace that takes time to build its steam. Esfandiari notes, “The snake eats its tail, we return again to this hell,” as the pace picks up, eventually boiling over. Later, Esfandiari’s voice turns to a vicious shriek, strings mix into the body, and the track feels heavy and somber, lamenting a pain that never ends. “Coil” is a shorter one, and it goes for the neck as the playing gets more forceful, and the vocals swelter. The path pounds and cuts as Esfandiari defiantly calls, “5 wounds to take me, 5 wounds had me dead, 5 wounds you raped me, but I resurrect,” ending with the feeling that she has survived the worst and is here for her vengeance.

“Entwined” slowly unfurls as the verses just melt in front of you, lulling you into a sense of security. Then the chorus arrives and jabs the wound as Esfandiari wails with desire, “Oh god I need you, I’ve gotta know right now, you’re mine,” making your emotions skyrocket along with hers. The intensity builds and crushes, pushing this dark, stormy ballad into your world and letting the thunder crash down around you. “Psychic Wound” starts with the guitars heating up in no time with the verses numbing, the playing buzzing in your head. “Help me, I’m so chained to you, someone tell me what to do,” she pleads, seeing paradise slip away for her perceived wrongdoings, a dagger if there ever was one. She amplifies her calls and shrieks, letting the pain penetrate as Middle Eastern-style melodies encircle, and the remainder of the track burns in the light. “Ruse” arrives with the bass boiling and giving off steam, and a slower pace inching its way closer, as the vocals initially are softer before the rage kicks in. “You promised you’d love me all your life, well guess what? Looks like I’m not gonna be your fucking wife,” Esfandiari stabs, feeling both limitless anger and deep pain at the same time, feeling the betrayal wash over. The playing keeps gaining intensity and grows more ominous, with her promising these deeds will not go unpunished. “Paradise Lost” ends the record, focusing on the John Milton text of the same name that is another focus here. It starts with a hush, opening the wounds and letting the blood flow. “I need a place I can grieve,” Esfandiari admits as the tempo keeps you at an arm’s length. The tone is reflective and painful as the story goes on, darkness unfolds, and salvation slips away, ending with the painful final words, “Thrown from our intimacy, that voice was so misleading, I need a place I can grieve, it’s just the saddest story.”

Esfandiari’s lifelong suffering and trauma has been a backbone thematically for King Woman’s first two full-length records, and “Celestial Blues” is the heaviest yet as far as expression and words are concerned. Some of these songs cut right through me just from the lyrics themselves, and the music just compounds what Esfandiari has woven into these creations. Her suffering and her defiance both are palpable and powerful, with this music hitting as hard as anything else you’ll hear this year.

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/KNGWMN/

To buy the album, go here: http://relapse.com/king-woman-celestial-blues/

For more on the label, go here: https://relapserecords.bandcamp.com/