Review: King Woman – ‘Created in the Image of Suffering’
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Kristina Esfandiari has suffered enough. Raised within an oppressive religious Christian cult, Esfandiari has spent nearly all of her adult life shattering the system of thought that shackled her spirit growing up. On King Woman’s full-length debut Created in the Image of Suffering, released by Relapse Records, Esfandiari perverts embedded religious ideology to produce pure catharsis. Enveloped in the sounds of doom metal and shoegaze, Esfandiari’s ethereal voice haunts each song like a preacher, except the themes of the album are the opposite of any religious proselytizer. Her personal experience with religious abuse provides an intensely personal context for an album that focuses on unlearning the brainwashing of religion, the anomie that occurs once an individual enters the “real world”, and asserting one’s autonomy afterwards.
Take the album’s centerpiece “Hierophant” as an example: “If you’re a sacred script / I am the Hierophant /If you’re a holy church I wanna worship”. At its core “Hierophant” is a wistful love song but it transcends the stereotypical yearning of a love song by subverting expectations around how religious iconography is supposed to be used. Esfandiari warps religious rhetoric into a personal war cry against any system of oppression. During the aforementioned refrain (“If you’re a sacred script / I am the Hierophant”) her lyrics are accompanied by cascading guitars and pounding percussion, conjuring mental images of prisoners shattering their chains with nothing but their hands. On “Shame” Esfandiari struggles to reconcile the undeserved dread that has been placed upon her while decrying the double-standard of religious shame, “Father do you forgive the one who beats his son?” while simultaneously denouncing the disregard for her pain: You can’t even look at me / Hide the shame in your eyes”.
Musically, the album is the natural evolution of Esfandiari’s solo project, Miserable, incorporating the slow-core shoegaze of 2016’s Uncontrollable but adding the “bite” of doom metal alongside the haziness. The album’s guitar tones range from crushing to mystical and percussion pounds like war drums alongside Esfandiari’s crusade against oppression. While Uncontrollable could be a somewhat tiresome listen as there wasn’t much musical dynamism some of the songs, Created in the Image of Suffering never lacks in this regard, every track hits hard. That being said, the album’s best tracks are at the beginning of the album, starting with the headbanger “Utopia” and culminating with the crescendos of “Hierophant”. After the very strong first half of the album the second half doesn’t quite capture the magic that preceded it.
In summary, Created in the Image of Suffering is one of the most accessible metal albums in years (probably even more accessible than Deafheaven’s Sunbather), combining shoegaze, experimental drone, folk-tinged vocal delivery, and powerful doom metal to create an album that cannot be easily defined by any genre. Being accessible doesn’t mean it is watered down by any measure, the album is still clearly a “metal” album and is satisfyingly heavy as such, but what really separates the album is Esfandiari’s manipulation of religion to create a space for herself to thrive within.