Review & Track Premiere: BlackWater HolyLight, BlackWater HolyLight

blackwater holylight blackwater holylight

[Click play above to stream ‘Wave of Conscience’ from BlackWater HolyLight’s self-titled debut. Album is out April 6 via RidingEasy Records and available to preorder here.]

With headphone-ready psychedelic immersion, dreamscape melodicism and an approach to pop hooks so completely unafraid it’s enough to make you forget you were wondering just what the hell their moniker is all about, Portland, Oregon’s Blackwater Holylight (also stylized as BlackWater HolyLight make their self-titled debut via respected West Coast purveyor RidingEasy Records. I’ll say flat out that it’s one of the best heavy psych debut albums you’ll hear in 2018, and perhaps the finest melding of indie and heavy-fuzz impulses on a first record since Witch‘s Witch in 2006.

At least perhaps for those at some geographical remove from the crowded Portland underground, BlackWater HolyLight might strike as having come out of the blue, but with vocalist/bassist Allison Faris as the apparent driving force behind the project with crucial contributions from her bandmates guitarist/vocalist Laura Hopkins (oh the fuzz, oh the harmonies!), drummer Cat Hoch (oh the echoing crash cymbal) and synth player Sarah Mckenna (oh the fuzz-bolstering progressive flourish), they hardly sound like a “new band” at all, instead having a clarity of intent that’s almost ironic even as it underpins the tonal murk and haze of “Slow Hole,” the longest cut on BlackWater HolyLight at 6:56 and a a stonerly highlight that seems to get high and wander off from some of the more lucid (relatively speaking) fare surrounding, whether it’s the key-heavy-into-riff-heavy brook-no-refusal groove of “Sunshine” before it or the drum-led bounce of “Carry Her” after, which delves into post-Queens of the Stone Age guitar-plunge antics before fuller fuzz takes hold and the four-minute song becomes a drifting horror show — that cuts back to its verse just before staring the last minute as though the whole thing never happened which, really, who the hell knows at that point. You could convince me either way.

It would seem to be Faris‘ band across these eight tracks and 41 minutes, and fair enough for that, but as the guitar and drums roll open the harmoony-topped intro to opener “Willow,” the real story of BlacKWater HolyLight still awaits telling. Faris‘ bass creates a tension in the midsection of the song, but the second half that follows, the payoff is as much driven by the underlying key work of Mckenna as Faris‘ creative fills or the echo-drenched solo from Hopkins. Ending with some swirl, tape loop noise and laughter, immediately, “Willow” sets a multifaceted dynamic for the band to follow, and follow it they do throughout the subsequent seven tracks, bending the balance of their sound to one side or another to suit their whims and those of their already-so-cogent songcraft.

Second track “Wave of Conscience,” bringing its verse/chorus approach to the forefront along with organ an guitar interplay and one of the record’s most memorable hooks, serves as a pointed highlight and an easy source point for the Witch comparison above, though when it comes right to it, BlackWater HolyLight bring more to the proceedings in terms of melody, and when they hit into a nod-nod-nod slowdown after about two and a half minutes in, the affect is all their own, gradually picking up speed again to lead into the subtle low end beginning of “Babies,” which has a kind of playfully spooky New Wave sensibility in its pointed snare hits and chorus keyboard declinations, still complemented by a deep-running fuzz in Hopkins‘. “Babies” is both toying with femininity in heavy rock and critical, but like its predecessor, wildly catchy and even more fun. No surprise then that with the subsequent “Paranoia,” the mood shifts to more brooding shoe-haze, a linear build that plays out over the course of an efficient four minutes and closes out side A with due wash of tonal reverie and residual keyboard notes.

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Though it seems to establish such a wide breadth, “Sunshine” sill doesn’t reach the five-minute mark, an early guitar ringout foreshadowing the highlight riffing to come while the keyboard, bass and drums seem to bounce along through the first two verses as though blissfully unaware of what lurks around the corner. Soon enough that darker guitar returns and at 2:17 into its 4:51, the track turns itself over to this wall of fuzz, which unveils a standout riff for both the track and for BlackWater Holylight as a whole; the kind of riff of which Acid King would be proud. They cycle through again and end, naturally, on that riff, fading away to let slow stick clicks from Hoch begin the low-end roll and rumble of “Slow Hole,” which is singularly hypnotic compared to its surroundings.

Even as far out as closer “Jizz Witch” seems to unfold in its languid meandering, it’s got nothing on “Slow Hole,” the bass fuzz of which consumes outright while the quiet melodies echo through in a fashion that would make Mars Red Sky jealous. The ending is sudden and with an uptempo — again, almost New Wave — beat, “Carry Her” is clearly meant to snap the listener back at least nearer to reality. I’m not sure it does, even as harsher guitar feedback becomes such a key component of its hook alongside the keys/organ. A dose of purposeful weirdness echoes some of the playful aspect of “Babies,” but there’s a creepy undertone here as well, as a slowdown in the second half bridge seems like it’s about to derail the song entirely heading toward the final minute.

To BlackWater HolyLight‘s credit, it doesn’t, and they return to the verse and chorus as suddenly as they got there the first time around, fading amp noise leading into the subdued beginning of “Jizz Witch,” which one assumes is sending up modern cult rock not a minute too soon. Either way, like the bulk of the album before it, the closer is a molten and groove-heavy bit of immersive heavy psychedelia, holding a sense of structure at its core while sounding neither shy about wandering away from that nor too formulaic in the moments it does so. As a debut, the coherence of its vision is all the more impressive, and the four-piece leave no doubt that they entered into the process of songwriting with an idea in mind of what they wanted to do as a band — a mission, in other words. Though one easily could, I’ll stop short of calling that mission accomplished and instead simply hope that this is just the point of its beginning.

BlackWater HolyLight on Instagram

BlackWater HolyLight on Bandcamp

RidingEasy Records website

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