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Album Review: High Priestess

If you saw me at FireBreather 2018, you know that Heavy Temple completely blew my mind with their explosive live performance, so when our Senior Editor described High Priestess as “FFO Heavy Temple,” I pounced. Having now listened to their forthcoming debut full-length repeatedly, (I actually dragged my feet on finalizing this draft because I didn’t want to stop listening to it), I understand where the comparison is drawn: both are lysergic-leaning doom bands that are adept at building tension with their melodies and slamming down to subdued, hypnotic riffs as release.

This songwriting mechanic is extremely stimulating for the listener. Music that behaves this way, using discordant or ascending notes to build drama and then relax by resolving the melody, triggers our reward center and sends a wash of dopamine over our brains. That’s what causes chills on the back of your neck when you hear Hendrix or Miles Davis masterfully construct a story with their solos. In the case of High Priestess, that’s what makes the crowd’s heads bob up and down, riding the waves of the trio’s orchestrated tempest.

High Priestess consists of of Katie Gilchrest on guitar and vocals, Mariana Fiel on bass and vocals, and Megan Mullins on drums. The Los Angeles-based ensemble formed in 2015, and their origin story contains the obligatory CraigsList ad. They released an EP in 2016, and the self-produced demo generated positive buzz and earned critical praise. They were recently signed to Ripple Music to produce their first full-length. As an indication of the hype around this band, the limited edition vinyl of their debut sold out well over a week before it was slated to release.

The preview track available now, “Take the Blame,” is a straightforward sampling, and I highly recommend listening to the full album to discover the more inventive songwriting High Priestess has to offer. One of the elements that makes the songs so captivating is novel scale choices, which bestow a Middle Eastern, otherworldly vibe on the opening track, “Firefly.” In addition to meandering, snake-charm melodies, the band’s vocal styles and harmonies are equally bewitching, as heard in the invocation on “Mother Forgive Me” and the lullaby on “Banshee.”

“Despise” is a stand-out track because it incorporates so many of the approaches that High Priestess employs over the entirety of the album: peculiar scale choices, sudden key changes,  fluctuating tempo, and a dramatic transition. The composition begins as a comfortable, classically-influenced acoustic guitar piece in the introduction and is abruptly contorted into an unnerving yet alluring siren song. Opposing the the subdued vocals on “Despise” are shouted exclamations at the beginning of each line in heavy sections, which sound fierce and untamed like a wild cat’s yowl.

The album doesn’t contain a cohesive narrative, but the mystical theme is carried throughout  more than lyrically. “Banshee” and “Earth Dive,” in particular, introduce primitive, tribal drumming, and behind the seductive vocal harmony the effect is ethereal and transformative. As a conclusion to the album, “Earth Dive” paints a picture of being welcomed at the gates by supernatural women, palms upturned to usher you by the hand to the otherside. It is a heartrending, transcendant closing remark.

High Priestess’ most impressive feature is their ability to contrast heart-aching melodic leads, on both vocals and guitar, against profound and ominous motifs and chord progressions. Even when reiterating simple harmonic vamping or repeating a droning incantation, High Priestess continues to build tension by varying methods of delivery and attack, from unrelenting, heavily accented staccato to mesmerizing, smooth-as-silk legato. High Priestess is by far one of the most progressive new doom albums that I’ve had the pleasure to discover, and you’ll certainly see it somewhere on my year-end list. Pre-order the self-titled album now at www.ripple-music.com. It will be available this Friday May 18th.

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