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Weekly preview: Blackwater Holylight at Wonder Ballroom

Portland metal quintet dwells in the void.

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In the press notes for her band Blackwater Holylight’s third album, singer/guitarist Allison Faris likens the group’s development to the preparation and first few miles of a road trip. The group’s 2018 self-titled debut was the settling in and buckling up, while follow up Veils of Winter, released the next year, was the ignition turn and mirror adjustments. For Blackwater Holylight’s 2021 album Silence/Motion, Faris says, “we have kicked into drive toward our destination.”

It’s a fine analogy but listening to how Blackwater Holylight has evolved over the past six years, it feels more fitting to say that their debut finds them in medias res — already on a journey following the familiar paths cut by previous sonic travelers like Black Sabbath and Coven. 

With Silence/Motion, the quintet have taken control of the navigation and are heading down some fascinating off roads and detours. “Delusional” and “Every Corner,” the tunes that bookend the album, blend the blood red ooze of death metal with ’70s rock’s brown leather and denim, and “MDIII” emanates a shoegaze glow. 

This growth as songwriters and performers is a byproduct of Faris and her bandmates — bassist/guitarist Mikayla Mayhew, keyboardist Sarah McKenna, and drummer Eliese Dorsey (newest member, guitarist Erika Osterhaut, joined after the album was finished) — growing tighter as a unit and, as a result of being stuck at home during the pandemic, having the freedom to explore new, and more personal, pathways.

Blackwater Holylight
Blackwater Holylight. Photo courtesy of the band.

“It really put me in a place of wanting to use the time to dig deep into myself and write about things that are really heavy that had happened in my life that I really hadn’t digested in a creative way yet, or at all,” says Faris, speaking on the phone from her new home in L.A. “I let myself do it in a way that was really without judgment.” 

Throughout Silence/Motion, Faris strains against the weight of painful memories that might otherwise sink her completely, including the experience of–and long recovery from–sexual assault. As the storm clouds of synths and massive bass tones grow on “Who The Hell,” Faris wonders how anyone can survive without processing the traumas of the past. “Tell me who the hell would want to live this way,” she sings in her best Gothic croon, “so afraid to feel this void, to dwell in it.” 

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Blackwater Holylight also found their most complementary collaborator to date, recording the album with Liam Neighbors, the artist behind the scorched earth black metal project Mizmor. A friend of the band, he helped the band realize a sound on Silence/Motion that is both claustrophobic and boundless. 

“The thing he really helped with the most was creating a tonal realm,” says Faris, “where he was helping us to layer all of our sounds together. He also had some recording techniques for guitars that we hadn’t messed with before.” 

The songs on Silence/Motion have only gotten bigger since the album was completed. Though Osterhaut won’t be onstage with the band when they hit the Wonder Ballroom this coming Monday due to a COVID infection, the new guitarist is a brilliant additive with her slashing, expressive guitar work and her well-honed death metal scream. And it allows the group to lean further into the more textured moments of the new album, like the folky opening moments of “Silence/Motion” and the hushed sections of “MDIII.” 

“I don’t think the recording of a song is the end all be all of the evolution of a song,” Faris says. “They keep growing in a lot of ways. That’s what’s happening now. It’s not rewriting a song but just going back in and adding that last layer, like the salt on top, that I’ve always wanted.” 

Blackwater Holylight opens for All Them Witches at Wonder Ballroom (128 NE Russell St, Portland) on Monday, January 31 at 8:30 pm. Sold out. Full COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID-19 test (timestamped within 24 hours for rapid test or 72 hours for PCR test) required for entry.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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