King Woman redefines religious rebellion with their new album, Celestial Blues

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On July 30 of 2021, King Woman released their highly anticipated sophomore album entitled Celestial Blues via Relapse Records. Hailed as the magnum opus of their career, Celestial Blues is a gorgeous study of greatness in the doom rock genre. Composed of nine tracks, the album explores themes of darkness and light, pushing the musical boundaries of traditional grunge and post-rock to explore themes of confronting religious trauma, recovery, and the powerful ecstasy of reconciliation with one’s inner demons. A truly ambitious undertaking, vocalist and songwriter Kris Esfandiari reasserts herself as a true pioneer of the genre with this dark and vivid album.  

Partnering with GRAMMY-nominated audio engineer Jack Shirley, who’s worked with other notable groups such as Deafheaven, Amenra and Oathbreaker, Kris truly pushes her own vocal abilities to the gritty edge with her sorcerous intonation and hypnotic murmuring. Combined with guitarist Peter Arensdorf’s dark and full solos, and drummer Joseph Raygoza’s hellishly intense rhythm, Kris lays herself bare in the space of these nine tracks, pulling the listener between heaven and hell in a fiendish parody of Paradise Lost to tell a deeply personal tale of rediscovery and rebellion.

The release of the album was teased earlier in June by the release of the audio and music video for “Morning Star,” followed closely by “Physic Wound” and “Boghz.” Directed by Muted Windows, they served well to establish the tonal mood of the album but only hinted at the true theatrical explosion of raw sound that was to be released in full later at the end of July.  

The album begins with the titular track, “Celestial Blues,” a somber reflection on Kris’s tension-rife religious fundamentalist upbringing. The song itself is bitter and filled with a deadly sort of resentment that simmers with strength, an admirable feat given the sparseness of the track’s lyrics. This opening number sets the scene for the album’s overall tone, which is a sort of wonderful atmospheric roil of sound that would persist and be interrupted occasionally by other more explosive tracks such as “Morning Star” and “Psychic Wound.”

Quoted by Stereogum as having “skull-crushing levels of intensity,” “Morning Star” puts Kris in the role of Lucifer, the biblical archangel who famously fell from grace only to arise anew as a symbolic figure of deceitful darkness. Kris shows off her lyric-writing chops with raw lines such as the horror-filled, “pride had infected the depths of me” and the defiant, unexpectedly plaintive, “Am I far from God?” This track is faintly reminiscent of underground shoegaze, thrumming with energy and a dim inferno, set to explode in the following tracks, most notably hardcore gospel “Coil” and insanely gleeful “Psychic Wounds,” both of which have been unanimously hailed by critics for their implications, musical composition and execution.  

These tracks are indicative of Kris’s personal pain reformed, transforming trauma into triumph as the vocalist belts out shrieks border-lining on spiritual and orgiastic ecstasy as the acoustics and riff-heavy melodies mount in the background. These tracks would have almost been too much to bear due to their sheer and sharp intensity if it were not for the strategically written “Boghz,” the third track on the album which features a sinister, crooning vocal by Kris that is a macabre pantomime of a lullaby. This track especially is one of the strongest vocal performances by Esfandiari, often overshadowed by the more strident tracks on the album, putting on display the sterling quality of her voice, which will be a happy guarantor for the rest of Celestial Blues.  

The album ends with an aptly titled final track, “Paradise Lost,” after 17th century English poet John Milton’s famous epic, no doubt a familiar read with religious students or, in Kris’s case, children raised with a fundamentalist upbringing. While “Psychic Wounds” ended on a wild dance with the Devil in a moment of self-discovery, this final track puts the final nail in the coffin of crushing doom that the opening instrumentals have been crafting since the beginning. We end on a note of tragic bewilderment and finality, cast out of the superfluous Garden of Eden and left to fumble in the dark and silence as the album winds to a hushed close. Featuring an uncharacteristically delicate vocal performance by Kris, this track is a poignant and perfect ending for such a powerful album.

Celestial Blues is a truly unforgettable experience of light and darkness. Toeing the line between “exorcism and ecstasy” according to The Chicago Reader, this album will punch you in the stomach and leave you kneeling. Experience it yourself by listening to the album here.

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