By: Dante Joestar
Founded by vocalist and bassist Allison Faris, whose voice harmonizes with that of guitarist and vocalist Laura Hopkins, Blackwater Holylight began as a sort of Fuck You to the idea that no good band can have more than one woman in it. Similarly, it seeks to do away with the so-called “female-fronted” genre which has been the music industry’s failed attempt at acknowledging diversity by lumping together bands that fit in the rock, punk, metal, prog and other genres by simple merit of having a woman sing.
If it wasn’t enough to understand that “male-fronted” isn’t a thing, Blackwater Holylight takes it a step further by being a band comprised entirely of women, and their talents match or even surpass those of their male peers. They do all this while originating from Portland, Oregon–unofficial strip club capital of America–shattering local beliefs of what a female “entertainer” is meant to be and reminding the shoegaze and noise rock scene of women’s rightful place in the genre.
Blackwater Holylight’s self-titled debut album is a calming psychedelic sludge with tracks that seamlessly blend into one another, interrupted only by the occasional explosion of feedback, demanding to be heard over the peaceful tones of Faris’ and Hopkins’ siren call. The haunting and understated vocals combined with the measured and deliberate beats of the guitar, bass, and drums make the listener wonder how this mastery of the genre could have come out in 2018. Indeed, one could imagine finding this album tucked away in their dad’s attic, amidst well-spun records from Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and Sonic Youth. The band’s hasty return with 2019’s Veils of Winter shows not just how eagerly these women are to make themselves known, but how quickly they have honed their skills even further, effortlessly creating a poetic dreamscape.
The album opens with a boom of melodic distortion as “Seeping Secrets” begins, the harsh noise suddenly cut by airy vocals and the methodical drone of guitars taking inspiration from doom and stoner metal. The impossibly slow buildup leads to an enchanting semi-jam session ending in one final buzzing note. The beat hums itself back to life as the next track, “Motorcycle”, marches in like a war anthem before sharply changing gears to become a plaintive ballad accompanied by the quickened pace of hard and heavy guitar licks. The soft vocals leave this track as quickly as they came, the real winner here the psychedelic bridge before a few parting words and scratching of guitar strings as the music stops. Following this, “Spiders” takes a brief departure from the harsh noise the previous two tracks have displayed. Instead, it focuses more on the soothing harmony between Faris and Hopkins over a persistent beat that travels aimlessly along the scales, instantly bringing to mind the visions of Dracula and Frankenstein that monster rock was inspired by. This song ends far too soon, but the hunger one may feel for more is immediately sated by the desert landscape “The Protector” paints, sluggish strums of guitar in the background of a dark and wavering chant. Almost as if to symbolize the awakening of whatever entity this song is beckoning, there are constant changes to rhythm and pitch, first slow, then fast, then middling, and finally ending in a peaceful ringing like the sound of a singing bowl carefully played by an experienced monk. This ringing continues for but a moment as “Daylight” opens, the halfway point of the album marked by guitars played in peaceful reflection and a loving emphasis on a piano played so sadly that one can almost hear its pain. “Daylight is washed out,” slowly sing Faris and Hopkins before taking a backseat for an emotional noise-fueled interlude and ending on an almost uncomfortable combination of the dying squeal of the guitar and the agonizing final notes of the piano.
With no apologies, “Death Realms” pulls in, disjointed guitars and an insistent kick drum fighting to be heard over each other, the vocals serving almost as a mediator in their constant battle for superiority. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the synth takes charge from the back, playing the role as the wildcard as it changes from beat to beat to harmonize with the guitar, with the vocals, with the drums, and finally ending the fight with a brief yet victorious warble. The penultimate track, “Lullaby”, is precisely what it says on the tin: Softened vocals like a mother singing for their child and an oddly nostalgic melody that evokes memories of late nights in the country, the sounds of nature and the creaking of a rocking chair the only noises to be heard. The monotony of the track, only briefly interrupted by the occasional shift in tone is not unlike trying to fall asleep before one’s birthday, the excitement of what is to come overpowering the need to rest. And rest this track does indeed do, the bass playing out the end as lingering hums of feedback imply that the whole world waits with bated breath for these final notes. The last track, “Moonlit”, begins with soothing verses that practically put the listener to bed after their lullaby, only to be roused out of their sleep by a quick-paced jaunt by the guitar, alternating between the sounds of prog and stoner rock to the effect of making one feel like they have discovered a band that didn’t quite make the cut to Woodstock. Best experienced in total relaxation, it is nearly impossible to not let the vibes from this track take over and shake, dance, headbang, or whatever other motion your body urges you to do before you miss your chance by the album’s brilliant ending.
Blackwater Holylight are like nothing you’ve ever heard before, yet feel like you’ve known them forever. Their music is timeless and ethereal, something that would make itself at home in a sensual hole-in-the-wall bar, music playing as blurry bodies slowly dance under soft blue lights. The skill with instruments these ladies display is extraordinary, perfect chord progressions making a cold and calm sound with an almost aching undertone, Faris’ and Hopkins’ voices breathing out in sighs and whispers pleading to be understood. The interplay between–and often times within–tracks is sometimes playful, other times altogether threatening, reminding the listener that these girls are to be looked at, admired, desired, but never touched. They own themselves, and they own their sound. Veils of Winter is an excellent addition to any collection, and Blackwater Holylight are a band to truly keep your eyes on.
- Allison (Sunny) Faris
- Laura Hopkins
- Sarah McKenna
- Mikayla Mayhew
- Seeping Secrets
- The Protector
- Death Realms