Back in January, King Woman‘s Kristina Esfandiari did something that’s exceedingly rare this day and age: She helped breathe new life into a Nirvana song. Performing with Louisiana sludge metal brutes Thou, Esfandiari lent her uniquely mournful vocal talents to a pretty devastating take on “Something in the Way,” a song that ordinarily would be the sleepiest of the Nevermind bunch. It’s a rare accomplishment in itself, but then again, Esfandiari is a unique voice in heavy music. She has a unique voice, literally, her lower register a powerful complement to the shoegaze and dream-pop-influenced style of doom that King Woman plays. But on a more figurative level she represents a counterpoint to the stereotypical escapist image of a metal singer. It’s emotionally intense; it’s honest.
Suffice it to say Created in the Image of Suffering is not a typical metal record. The band’s Relapse debut is arguably not a metal record at all, instead more of a haunted hybrid between doom metal’s thunderous low end and shoegaze’s contradictory blend of piercing volume and ethereality. It’s an extension of the band’s 2015 debut EP Doubt, further heightening the contradictions between their two extremes while finding an even more powerful fusion of the two. Blending metal and shoegaze at this point isn’t a radical act—it’s essentially canon—but here, King Woman have found a way to further explore these contrasting and complementary sounds to more novel and devastating result.
Esfandiari’s voice is, in fact, a big part of what makes Created in the Image of Suffering stand out. Her vocals are unmistakable but dynamic. She covers a broad spectrum on “Deny,” alluding to her religious upbringing with a chilling monotone as she sings, “Jesus I love you/ With all my heart/ But I feel like an angel/ I’m lacking the star,” only to rise up to a jarring scream later on. Two Esfandiaris harmonize with each other on the gloriously catchy opener “Utopia,” coming to a close with the question, “And is this really happening?” Yet some of the most uncomfortable material is packaged in the most accessible melodies, Esfandiari once again touching upon past traumas in the hard-rocking chorus of “Worn,” singing, “You were a bad man/ You break the bread, you drink the wine/ When we scream inside/ You break the bread, you drink the wine.”
There’s a lot about King Woman’s Created in the Image of Suffering that makes it an atypical metal record, which in turn makes it more complicated to put in context. But that’s also what makes it a more memorable record in the long run, its unusual place in heavy music keeping it free from cliche. Where much of heavy music is built upon the foundation of the riff or a specific sound itself, King Woman is first and foremost invested in songwriting. It’s that very quality that’s led to comparisons between the band and dark, contemporary songwriters such as Chelsea Wolfe and Emma Ruth Rundle, who are each a certain kind of heavy in their own right. On closing track “Hem,” just past the three-minute mark when the volume rises and the song transitions from eerie dirge to doom anthem, King Woman cross that line between contemporary darkwave and metal. It’s a moment of sublime desperation, Esfandiari singing in syncopated repetition, “Reaching for a hem, reaching for a hem…” It’s both powerful and vulnerable, contradictory qualities that exist in harmony because of the strength of the songwriting itself. There’s no singular quality to what makes music heavy, but in King Woman’s case, the emotional impact is indelible.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.