“Utopia,” the first track on King Woman’s full-length debut, begins with sludgy guitar, hulking drums, and singer Kristina Esfandiari’s unearthly wail. All of these elements are present throughout Created in the Image of Suffering, a mesmerizing mixture of shoegaze, doom metal, and post-punk. From both tactile and textual perspectives, this is not easy listening music; the album’s lyrics describe someone digging their way out of the smothering confines of religious repression.
The album’s second song, “Deny,” opens with ragged guitar until thundering drums materialize. Lyrically, it revisits the Gospel of Luke. “I’d wash your feet / with my dirty hair,” whispers Esfandiari, her throaty croon sounding like it’s coming from a place of great anguish. Unlike the woman whose sins Jesus forgave (from the Gospel of Luke), however, this protagonist struggles with a lack of faith. “But I feel like an angel / I’m lacking the star,” Esfandiari shrieks, as if her soul is being torn away.
“Shame” exposes the hypocrisy of child abuse under the guise of religious education. The melody is as raw as the song’s lyrics. “Hide the shame that’s in your eyes” is repeated over and over until it feels almost as suffocating as the victim’s existence, one where death is the only escape.
Religious devotion is a metaphor for sexual obsession in “Hierophant,” in which “the pain of tenderness is / a wound of love.” Based around a heartrending guitar melody, the song’s dense structure dissipates about halfway through, until only guitar and Esfandiari’s voice remains: “If you’re a sacred script / I am the Hierophant / If you’re a holy church I wanna worship.” Pain and pleasure become inseparable, like St. Teresa being pierced by an angel’s gold spears. It’s a rare moment of uplifting ecstasy in an album that’s often thick with gloom.
The sacrament of the Eucharist and the idea of becoming someone else form the core of the melancholy “Worn.” During the Last Supper, Christ instructed his followers to consume his body and blood by eating bread and drinking wine; some Christians believe they actually become Christ during this act. The song’s lyrical references to being used and abused place this sacrament in a new light. Lines like “feels like somebody wore me / there’s an innocence I lack” and “you break the bread / you drink the wine” are repeated until they become a ritual, one that does not wash away sins, but compounds them.
“Manna” begins with delicate, celestial vocalizations from Esfandiari, until jagged, flanged guitar makes its presence known. The song asks difficult questions, like “am I created in an image?” It also references manna, a substance described in the Bible as falling from the sky to save the Israelites from starvation. Yet the song proposes that suffering is not only inevitable but also the real image of God.
The album’s final track, “Hem,” is possibly the most damning of all. Here religious believers are likened to a lost child “reaching for a hem in the sky.” The last verse categorizes the devout as vessels that can either be filled with love or drained of life: “Am I a fountain of loss? / Just a well of empty thought? / Feel like a cloud bearing no rain.”
Learning that Esfandiari was raised in a Christian cult and has spent most of her life trying to recover from what she later viewed as “indoctrination,” makes the album feel like a journey towards freedom. Much like horror film fans often escape into films to work through real-life trauma, Created in the Image of Suffering seems like Esfandiari’s attempt at exorcising demons. It may not be easy listening, but this profoundly affecting album is essential listening, especially for those of us wrestling with our own religious backgrounds.
Created in the Image of Suffering was released by Relapse Records on 24th February 2017.