Kristina Esfandiari's Songs of Sorrow
In the mid-2000s, when Pedestal Magazine still published fiction, we ran a short story that centered on a band capable of playing any song ever requested. After a number of gigs, disillusioned with their listeners and the world, the group performs a song that, according to legend, had resulted in the suicide of each person who heard it. Mayhem ensues, leading to the self-destruction of everyone in the club, including the band members.
Don't worry, listening to Uncontrollable, the 2016 release by Kristina Esfandiari a.k.a. Miserable, will not prompt an irresistible urge to leap from a tall building or swallow a handful of barbiturates; that said, this is the most unrelentingly and concentratedly despair-laden project I've heard in years, possibly ever, making Pink Floyd, Nick Cave, and a slew of gloom-filled metal albums feel like bubblegum rock in comparison. Ponderous soundscapes, somber rhythmic movements, and Esfandiari's mournful voice coalesce to forge a tragically exquisite and uber-romantic manifesto.
Miserable's 2018 follow-up, Loverboy/Dog Days, a diptych comprised of two EPs and packaged as a single LP (Loverboy: tracks 1 – 4; Dog Days: tracks 5 – 8) and her 2017 album Created in the Image of Suffering, attributed to Esfandiari's alternate moniker, the metal-infused King Woman, are more similar than dissimilar. Both source and build on aspects of Uncontrollable, featuring tundral vocal tones and soundscapes. The Miserable set experiments with quasi-melodic variations and hooks; the King Woman venture navigates familiar doom-metal templates: guitar parts based on droning resonances more than riffs, sonic mixes pummeling a listener into a narcotized despondence. Inextricably linking these undertakings are Esfandiari's evocative lamentations.
The opening track of Loverboy/Dog Days affirms Esfandiari's timely indignation: "Loverboy I am not a toy / Not a piece of gum / gonna chew me up / candy-coated oppression." She finds a dynamic vocal balance—effusing rage and weariness, PTSD and chronic fatigue—reminding me of a vulnerable Courtney Love, a less stoner and more psychedelic Alison Mosshart (especially in her work with The Dead Weather), or a tortured composite of SubRosa's Rebecca Vernon, Sarah Pendleton, and Kim Pack. Throughout the set, Esfandiari forges sophisticated integrations and reconciles energetic opposites: expression and repression, expulsion and restraint, confidence and self-loathing. On "Deny," from Created in the Image of Suffering, she sings: "Jesus I love you with all my heart / but I feel like an angel / I'm lacking the star / I'm lacking the spirit / I'm losing the heart." Her voice unfolds above the distorted and sinewy guitar part and recurrent, militaristic percussion: weary but compelling, chthonic but lucid, aggressive but fragile. In at least two places on this track, she hints at a scream, muting it prior to catharsis, reminding me of a scene from 1964's The Pawnbroker in which Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman bends over the motionless body of Jesus Ortiz, played by Jaime Sánchez. Steiger opens his mouth as if to wail, though no sound emanates. The tension captured in this frame illustrates the depth of his anguish far more sublimely than if he'd expressed himself audibly.
While Loverboy/Dog Days depicts the oppressive male force (the Loverboy) as frivolously human, on Created in the Image of Suffering the oppressive force is, instead, a patriarchal God or anthropomorphized sense of fate. "Father do you forgive the one who beats his son?" Esfandiari asks, presenting an alternate version of the Jesus-and-God crucifixion script—in which God allowed his son to be victimized, moreover mandated his victimization—questioning "the Father's" ability to self-absolve, given the enormity of his betrayal. She then proclaims: "Look at me / Don't hide the shame that's in your eyes"—an inversion of the biblical passage in which Adam and Eve "hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden." In Esfandiari's version, it's God who basks in shame rather than wayward humans—rather than Esfandiari, or her persona, who represents a contemporized and mutinous Eve. On "Hierophant," also from Created in the Image of Suffering, she sings, "The pain of tenderness is a wound of love," linking emotional sensitivity and psychic wounding with her perhaps most koanic lyric. Then: "I'm gonna be the one devastated by lust / I've gotta be your lover." She sexualizes the mystical relationship between human and God, an expression of adrenalized urgency and toxic enmeshment. God is depicted as the male siren, the masculine analog to Petrarch's Laura, a Blakean delineation in which the Christian deity is cast as tempter, abuser, the elusive object of desire.
Uncontrollable, Loverboy/Dog Days, and Created in the Image of Suffering can be regarded as a triptych. The bulk of the songs are successful, collectively furthering Esfandiari's doom-metal and dream-rock renderings of inner and outer wastelands. Uncontrollable is the foundational and more memorable set of the three, though the latter tracks of Loverboy/Dog Days indicate a degree of pop awareness and are, by conventional standards, Esfandiari's most accessible offerings. Despite the presence of versatile musicians, it's the signature voice of the oeuvre that defines these projects. I'll add that although I've quoted various lyrics, Esfandiari's words are frequently indecipherable. It's often her tonal fluctuations and ability to translate instinctive impulses into pure and primitive vocal expression (sound essentially stripped of linguistic associations) that capture the listener's imagination. I'd be curious to hear her take on approaches that minimize instrumentation, pushing her in a dark-folk or pseudo a cappella direction. Whatever methods she embraces going forward, I can't imagine that she'll stray far from a continued study and articulation of our fundamental ambivalences: how our chief relationship is with the unknown, corporeal and existential; so much bliss, so much trauma; so much beyond our control.
John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry; most recently, Illusion of an Overwhelm, finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award, and work from which was chosen as a finalist for the Dana Award. He is a Staff Reviewer for the music magazine and website No Depression. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.