All images courtesy of Sunny Faris/Blackwater Holylight
What is doomgaze?
It isn’t exactly a subgenre that has its own Wikipedia page dissecting the roots of the genre, and the various bands that comprise the sound. The name of the genre can easily be deciphered as a fusion of doom metal and shoegaze. Doom metal germinated from the doomy sound of Black Sabbath and paved the way for bands such as Candlemass, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, and Trouble.
Shoegaze, not to get mixed with dream pop, lends itself to distorted guitars, obscured vocals, and layers of effects that bands, such as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, worked into their sound. While these genres and the associated bands don’t bear much relation, the fusion of heavy riffs, distorted effects, and ethereal vocals works well to create a sound that is a fine balance between the distinguishable factors, hence the genre doomgaze.
When it comes to getting into newer bands, I often seek out ones that are on record labels that I consistently follow. One of the labels I am a huge fan of is RidingEasy Records, which focuses on heavy psych, doom, metal, and rock. I was immediately attracted to them because of Brown Acid, a compilation series that specializes in, as the label describes, “heavy rock from the underground comedown.” Some of the other bands I delved into that are on the label were Electric Citizen, Shooting Guns, and The Well. While I still have ways to go in terms of digging deeper into the roster, there is one band that caught my ears upon first listen; and that is Blackwater Holylight.
Hailing from the city of Portland, Blackwater Holylight consists of vocalist/guitarist/bassist Allison “Sunny” Faris, guitarist/bassist Mikayla Mayhew, guitarist Erika Osterhout, keyboardist Sarah Mckenna, and drummer Eliese Dorsay. Other members, such as drummer Catherine “Cat” Hoch and guitarist Laura Hopkins, have been involved at certain points in the band’s career. The band was the brainchild of Allison “Sunny” Faris, who was previously a member of the band Grandparents. Upon their breakup in 2016, it was her mission to create a band that would enable her to both write music that was heavy sonically, and emotionally, as well as work with women. The end result is (so far) is three outstanding records that show a steady evolution of this band.
The band’s self-titled debut album, released in April 2017, hones in on a lot of psych-tinged guitar riffs featured on tracks such as “Willow” and “Wave of Conscience.” The atmosphere created with tracks such as “Paranoia” and “Carry Her” is one of gothic-infused suspense. A wall of fuzz guitars and bass coats the track “Slow Hole” with its simple yet hypnotic drum rhythm; but it’s the reverb-infused harmonies that give the track its airy quality. Some of the album’s brighter moments, tracks like “Babies” and “Sunrise,” still have that hint of drama that still gives these songs a distinctive edge. The build-up of the climactic album closer, “Jizz Witch,” is very reminiscent of the closing section of the Pink Floyd song “A Saucerful of Secrets.”
Their sophomore effort (and my personal favorite of theirs), Veils of Winter, was released in October 2019. On this record, the psych elements found on their debut are stripped back for a heavier/doomier sound. This shift in sound is prevalent on a track like “Motorcycle,” with its crunching, descending riffs. The opening track, “Seeping Secrets,” has this slow driving wall of distortion which ends with a very Sabbath-esque outro. The minimalist composition aesthetic of a track like “The Protector” creates a chilling atmosphere similar to the one found in Alice Cooper’s “Dead Babies.” The track “Death Realms” is the most shoegaze-sounding song in BWHL’s arsenal, with many obscured layers of instrumentation and effects. The walking bass/guitar lines and spooky keyboard effects in “Spiders” are so well suited for this song to be found on any Halloween party playlist! The album hits a mellow spot with the suggestively titled “Lullaby,” which features beautiful clean lead guitar licks and luscious harmonies. The album’s closing track, “Moonlit,” shifts sonically, and composition-wise to make this track one of the band’s most adventurous tracks to date.
Their latest album, Silence/Motion, was released in October 2021. This was also the first time the band stepped away from the co-producer’s chair and lent all production duties to A.L.N. It goes without saying that this is Blackwater Holylight’s most diverse, mature, and personal album to date. The opener “Delusional” starts with a lead guitar accompanied by swelling violins supplied by Dorota Szuta. The organ featured on this track is immediately propelled by the low and heavy riffs. Further augmenting the band’s heavy sound, there is the addition of guest guttural vocals by Bryan Funck, making this track even heavier and more haunting. The melancholiness of “Who the Hell” comes across with the overall minor tone of the instrumentation and the emotion-driven vocals. The arpeggiated acoustic guitars and piano found in the introduction of the album’s title track make this song the most diverse in Blackwater Holylight’s catalog. The tremolo guitar picking and double-bass drums provide an intense contrast to the tranquility of the song’s introduction. “Falling Faster” is one of the album’s more mellow moments, with subdued walking bass lines and a synthesizer part that provides a solid counterpoint to the airy vocals. “MDIII” is almost a companion piece to the album’s title track since it inhabits a lot of the same compositional traits (acoustic guitar, piano, tremolo picking guitars, and double bass drumming); but the lead vocal performance is the most powerful and emotional one on the record. The song “Around You” oozes with shoegaze/dream pop aesthetics that easily make this track the highlight of the record. The album closes with the epic “Every Corner,” which overall holds a steady heavy tone throughout the track but shifts tempos across its almost eight-minute length. It starts off rather slow-building, picks up entirely four minutes in with guest guttural vocals by Mike Paparo, and ends with a doomy waltz. It is intriguing that this album ends similarly to the previous one with an epic piece that stretches their musical prowess, and keeps the listener locked in.
As one can tell across their three records, there is a steady sense of evolution in Blackwater Holylight. This is a band that won’t confine to just the one style that was established on their first record. While their self-titled debut is a fitting introduction to what these ladies have set out to do, it gives the listeners a chance to get acquainted before the heaviness shifts in Veils of Winter. While these two records stylistically established what this band was all about, their compositional skills were pushed to unlimited limits with Silence/Motion. One can only imagine what their fourth album will bring, which leads to the overall turnaround of this band’s productivity. For a band that is going on six years old, to release three studio albums in that timeframe is almost unheard of. In this day and age, the concept of “album cycles” can be stretched out for years. How this band goes about their work is very reminiscent of how quickly bands in the 1970s were able to churn out fresh product. I think it keeps fans locked in and interested in what is to come next, and I can gladly say that we are indeed listening.
One of the key components of Blackwater Holylight’s sound is the key sense of melody. Having an ear-catching vocal melody, sung beautifully backed with heavy instrumental, provides an intriguing contrast that makes what these ladies are setting out to do entirely different compared to their contemporaries. To reiterate what I said earlier about the doomgaze subgenre, the fusion of heavy riffs (doom metal), distorted effects, and ethereal vocals (shoegaze) works well to create a sound that is a fine balance between the distinguishable factors. Therefore, Blackwater Holylight defines the doomgaze genre.
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Be sure to check out the full archives of The Record Spinner, by Dylan Peggin, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/the-record-spinner-archives/