Chelsea Wolfe arguably rules over folky doom with powerhouse female vocals, but King Woman also deserves recognition in this queendom. Kristina Esfandiari’s pipes put King Woman’s debut LP Created in the Image of Suffering on an entirely different level. The instrumentation had its moments, but it’s like the doomgaze equivalent of David Tibet fronting the neo-folk group Current 93. The music wouldn't have its transportive qualities without Esfandiari's monstrous singing. While that’s technically still the case on Celestial Blues, the band beefs up their arrangements alongside Esfandiari’s voice.
Although King Woman started as a way for Esfandiari to leave her upbringing in charismatic Christianity, its aura remains deeply litigious. The title track sets a deep tone of spiritual wandering and existential remorse, as Esfandiari's dynamic melodies match the gargantuan riffs. Celestial Blues adds a more visceral bite to King Woman’s shamanistic delivery, allowing for a catchier, more direct take on their sound.
“Morning Star” and “Psychic Wound” expand on these cosmic tragedies by centering on fallen angels. The former’s name refers to Lucifer himself, taking root in a John Milton-ish humanization of the Biblical adversary. The latter uses a similar metaphor to illustrate a toxic, sordid relationship: “I’ve been banished from the sky/ Clinging to his mighty chest.” Carnal desire and inner turmoil weaves into King Woman’s glacial riffs and dreary melodies, which gives deeper resonance to the smokey distortion and pulsating rhythms.
Other selections depend more on the singer, but King Woman still displays more intent with the gothic doomfolk of “Golgotha” and the sludge of “Coil." "Golgotha" finds Esfandiari lamenting about a disastrous cycle over an immersive collage of drifting guitar arpeggios and elegiac strings (“We return again/ To this hell”), while she imbues the propulsive percussion and trudging riffs of "Coil" with passionate indigence against her abusers (“5 wounds had me dead… But I resurrect”). In both cases, guitarist/bassist Peter Arensdorf and drummer Joseph Raygoza provide much more than a languid soundscape over which Esfandiari can cast her spells.
In this way, “Boghz” becomes King Woman’s best song to date. The gloomy riffs and hypnotic tom-toms develop a diverse range of textures to match Esfandiari's whispered chants and wrathful wails. She depicts a religious rite as a haunting illustration of manipulation and addiction, taking the explosive chord progressions head on as King Woman ramps up to a climatic wall of sound. The melancholic waltz “Entwined” is almost as awesome, following this path of longing and striving for transcendence to pulverizing blast-beats and shrieks. King Woman playing black metal? Yes—for a brief moment—and it works.
King Woman brings more guttural sonics to this album. Deeper cuts like “Ruse” remain engaging by going for the jugular—whereas those on the debut tended to blend together. In fact, that’s arguably why “Paradise Lost” works so well as a slow-burning closer after the proceeding turbulence. With this moment of clarity comes the realization of trauma following an awful relationship, “He stole the light from my eyes/ Voices so misleading.” The fallen angels motif returns one last time to drive home this heartbreak and loss, amid ethereal guitar strains and minimalist cymbal swells.
King Woman remains a vehicle for emotional expression and ritualism, and Celestial Blues certainly succeeds in that regard. What truly makes it stand out becomes how it embodies the “Blues” as well as the “Celestial.” Grit and earthiness grounds this album in its spacious atmospheres and crushingly sludgy riffs. King Woman’s kaleidoscopic take on doomgaze and ritualistic folk has never resonated this profoundly.