Created in the Image of Suffering, King Woman’s powerful debut album following their 2015 EP Doubt, was released in February by Relapse Records. King Woman is performing at Raleigh’s upcoming Hopscotch Music Festival, providing the perfect opportunity to return to one of the most exciting and important music projects in the metal community, and one of the best albums of 2017. The album was produced by Jack Shirley, the sound engineer praised for his work with Deafheaven and Oathbreaker. Much like their label—which has represented an array of artists from death metal outfits Death and Obituary to the shoegaze band Nothing—King Woman operates at a cross-section of metal and its associated genres. Sonically the album carries the listener through vicissitudes of a haunting, stormy landscape layered with elements of doom metal and psychedelia. Through this landscape Kristina Esfandiari’s voice looms like an omniscient specter. She uses her vocal range concisely, punctuating her droning vocals with an escalating scream on a few tracks. The sparseness of vocal extension does not hamper the impact—there is power in the droning, spiritually charged moans and chants that carry the album. Esfandiari achieves a cathartic, trance-like effect that submerges the listener in the lyrics, which are even heavier than the powerful reverb and feedback that bring the album to a sustained roar.
Religious frustration is a tried-and-true aesthetic device of metal bands, but with King Woman we know the lamentations of frustration are real and intensely personal. This is an album of reckoning. Specifically for vocalist Kristina Esfandiari, it’s about reckoning with the trauma of “years of religious and mental torment” she has wrestled with since her childhood spent in an oppressive religious community. With King Woman there is no shock-factor, no inverted crosses or subversive satanic imagery—any adherence to metal tropes would too easily allow for a passive listening experience. King Woman expects more of their listeners, and in return offers a transcendent doom-rock experience.
A loop of the phrase “Created in the image of suffering” against a wall of white noise sets the hypnotic tone for the album on “Citios,” a digital download-only intro. The listener is then pummeled into “Utopia,” a disorienting, no-holds-barred descent into King Woman’s spirit realm, followed by the funereal track “Deny,” which packs the most damning vocals. In the music video for “Deny” Esfandiari, cloaked in white, looks on as a preacher proselytizes, then—behind closed doors and sitting beneath an American flag—downs absinthe, cross-dresses and desperately repents in a sobering fit of panic. She contemplates, “Jesus I love you / With all my heart / But I feel like an angel / I’m lacking the star / I’m lacking the spirit / . . . / Am I so dulled down? / Am I a whitewashed / wall? / So dirty on / The inside?” Shame and punishment are further explored on “Shame,” a visceral portrayal of physical abuse, perhaps behind a do-good religious façade, and she challenges, “Father do you forgive the one who beats his son? / . . . / Look at me / Look at me.” These lyrics read as part prayer and part Socratic dialogue. Through these words Esfandiari acts as the listener’s intermediary—she speaks to abusers, she speaks to lovers, and she speaks to God.
One of the longest and most striking tracks, “Hierophant,” would be perhaps the most romantic save for the slow, aching guitar melody and cynical drone that complicate any loveliness or sentimentality to be found in the lyrics: “If you’re a sacred script, I am a hierophant / If you’re a holy church I want to worship.” Given the greater context of religious parallels on the album as a whole, the tone of these metaphors is devastating. Esfandiari’s vocals alternate between ethereal harmonizations and a resolute, low register with her desperate refrain, “I’ve gotta be the one / I’ve gotta be / Won’t let me be the one won’t let me.” There is an intuitive, primeval quality to the vocals and instrumentation throughout the album. Passages of dry, textured guitar reminiscent of the drone metal band Earth are interspersed with repetitive lamentations, then richly layered with violin on “Manna.” All of this crescendos into an unforgettable climax before the album reaches its resolution in the percussion-heavy, contemplative track “Hem.”
While the religious imagery is overt, another undercurrent of this album—and certainly an aim of Esfandiari’s in her performances—is a concern for the victims of our patriarchal culture. In interviews, on Twitter and at shows Esfandiari expresses a “Girls to the Front” ethos concerned with creating a safe space and supporting other women. This album is catharsis for anyone who has suffered at the hands of warped spirituality and toxic masculinity. All while revitalizing doom metal, King Woman has created and filled a much needed niche in metal: a space for introspection and relief for the abused. This album hurts. It hurts to nurse wounds, but it’s necessary. Created in the Image of Suffering leaves the listener still. Absolutely still and submerged in something unknown and ethereal, and slightly disturbing, because that unknown place just might be the innermost subconscious parts of ourselves Created in the Image of Suffering has forced us to confront.