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Lightless and Water Black: Ethereal. Surf. Doom.

June 1, 2019


I had not previously heard of Ethereal Surf Doom, a new genre emanating out of the rain-soaked U.S. Pacific Northwest, prior to inventing it out of whole cloth for this post.  The preeminent purveyors of this new sound currently taking the room from which I write by storm are Blackwater Holylight, who hail from Portland, Oregon, the ecofriendly coffeehouse-as-city best known for its setting in the literal and figurative shadows, respectively, of snow-capped Mount Hood and better-branded Seattle, Washington.

T’were the Doom Charts first caught me into the black water.  As is my wont, sometime back I was scrolling through the site’s then latest month’s rankings, reading the descriptive blurbs and selectively adding albums to my Spotify library.  Mentions of “resounding riffs, enchanting vocals” and “dream(s) of witches” were sufficient to win Blackwater Holylight’s self-titled April 2018 debut a place in my digital listings.  Gratification was unwittingly delayed however as – once again down to my wont – I added too many albums on top of the too many albums I had added the month previous and the month before that.

In fact, my actual going into the (holy) light would not occur until March 2019 when, having scored a ticket for the 4/20 Psycho Smokeout to be held in Los Angeles, I dedicated myself to becoming acquainted with any bands on the bill not already familiar.  Blackwater Holylight then, already poised for a quick clicking, broke my research cherry.  And what a clicking it was… after the quick smoke and long nap that followed that first listen, I scarcely lifted the album from its virtual turntable for weeks.

Knowing nothing of the band, and having totally forgotten the Doom Charts blurb, I was pleasantly surprised to hear fragile female vocals as first track ‘Willow’ radiated out of the speakers.  The Ventures-like picked guitar, relaxed-but-forward-mixed bass, and spacey keyboards all surfed atop waves of doomy atmosphere seemingly spawned from the Quaalude-infused hollow emanating the music as much as from the music itself.  This, then, was the Ethereal Surf Doom of which I had so much not yet christened…

A bit of crunch is added to second track ‘Wave of Conscience’ via ponderous drums and more prominent chord-play.  Next up, the note plucking and rhythmic strumming of anti-lullaby ‘Babies” fools us into deluding, “hey, I could play that,” when in fact it is not played at all but rather exuded, while the subsequent heavy psych space noodling of ‘Paranoia’ suggests a bizarro-world “Mulholland Drive” soundtrack.

Side B opener ‘Sunrise’ (spoiler alert: I later scored the vinyl) is almost jaunty in relative terms, somehow finding the gaiety in melancholy; indeed the official video for this one fantasizes a jolly, drug-induced homicidal winter’s romp.  ‘Slow Hole” seems grounded in latter-day Earth, albeit with a few brief trips into orbit as the song evolves.  ‘Carry Her’ is, for me, the least substantial of the musical freight offered here, although it gains some heft via an unusual-for-this-album touch of dissonance and distortion.  Finally comes the cavernous dirge of ‘Jizz Witch’ in which muted-theremin keyboards create a barely-there void-scape where quiet-loud-quiet guitars traverse in elegy for I dare not guess what.

Mine own.

Which brings me to my sole complaint about this excellent debut: A dinnae unnerstaun.  I often cannot suss the lyrics, save for occasional words and phrases.  I love the mix.  I love the haunting vocals.  I would wish none of that changed.  But I do want to know of what they sing.  I mean, you can’t call a song ‘Jizz Witch’ and not tell me the words!  Hopefully for album number two, the band will opt to include a lyric sheet.

Seeing Blackwater Holylight at Psycho Smokeout was fantastic.  While I didn’t know it at time of purchase, experiencing them live turned out to be a main motivator for making the six-hour drive to attend the festival.  I situated myself right at the front of the general admission crowd and awkwardly bopped, swayed, lurched, and grooved to the music not three feet from the band and with nary a trace of self-consciousness.  Had they any reason to notice me, the BH women would have solely seen a dorky elder-dad creating a barrier between them and their coveted demographic, but in my mind I was a cosmically connected fellow traveler on their musical expedition.

Snapped by me from where I lurched, 20 April 2019

I grabbed my LP and long-sleeved tee from the merch table before the show, ignorant to the fact that bassist/vocalist Allison Faris was selling them to me.  She was quite pleasant but my obliviousness was likely a good thing; at my age a fanboy reaction might have come off more Aqualung than endearing.


From → Music

  1. Feel like there’s a contact high just from reading about this trippy crew.
    Good on you for hitting the road in search of space; sounds like it was worthwhile.
    Are the cacti in your yard?

    • Sure enough! Every plant in this area bites, to include those in our yard. I love me some cacti, although I never really did get ‘Ot ‘n’ Sweaty over Cactus.

      • I remember seeing at least one Cactus album back in the shop days. Don’t think I ever listened.
        Fewer cacti in Virginia, I guess.

        • I bought an anthology on CD a couple of years back but, unlike the cacti, it failed to bite. I included it in a batch sold to a secondhand store last year. I do keep Beck Bogert Appice in the collection however.
          And yes, Virginia is all lush greenery (sigh).

          • Spotify links them to Mountain, and I can see that. Yeah, I’ve both BB&A albums but rarely listen. Still, not had the urge to batch them for disposal. One day, perhaps…

  2. My word, man! This is my kinda stuff! Just hitting this up on Spotify now and I dig… that slight reverb and lack of fuzz on the guitar in the first number is really pretty inviting… and it changes up the pace!! I’ll be looking out for them should they make it to any dingy venues over here.

    • Thrilled you are digging it, J. If they do tour your way, I’d bet you’d find the live experience as transporting as I did. I find dingy venues are often portals to the cosmos.

      • Oh yeah! This is some great stuff… really hoping they pass this way. There are a few dingy venues here that would suit these tunes to a T.

  3. Loved this! Does your tee have ‘Jizz Witch’ in prominent lettering on the back? Please say yes!

  4. I am going to give this a good spin

  5. Just read this again while listening. Good stuff. Like if Ozzy had a daughter with Nimuë.
    As for the writing, if I simmered a dozen VC posts down to a rich jus, it still wouldn’t be as intense (as in flavour) as your opening para.

    • Will cop to fact that I had to look up the Lake Lady, you show-off (smile).

      We are always our own worst critics. Your kind compliment warms the cockles, but I doubt the comparison as the mirror clearly gives you a blemished view of your own splendid attributes.

      • (I had to check to find where the accent went. Don’t tell, OK? My pretentious ass medal might be withdrawn)
        (Is tenacity in the face of such modest achievement a splendid attribute? Hope so (smile)).

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