Album Review: Black Belt Eagle Scout – The Land, The Water, The Sky

[Saddle Creek; 2023]

Right from the opening electric guitar slide, the new Black Belt Eagle Scout record takes off in a new, louder, heavier direction from past releases. Frontperson Katherine Paul coos in her feathery timbre behind distorted chugs, and it only gets louder. Soon, Chelsea Wolfe-style drums enter the fray, and the whole thing just takes off. It’s not that Paul hasn’t cranked up the volume before, as on past highlights like “Soft Stud” or “My Heart Dreams”, but there’s something particularly gnarly about “My Blood Runs Through This Land”, a mix of ice and mud, of mountains and grass.

The Land, The Water, The Sky is Paul’s third LP as Black Belt Eagle Scout, and it is perhaps the finest distillation of her skills to date. After the very Warpaint-like opening track, we get an enigmatic and fickle record. Paul has said the album very much reflects her move back home (borne by the pandemic-times) to her home in the Swinomish lands of Washington, and the album represents the inherent tension of coming back home with your new experiences, watching them meld with the old. There’s a push-and-pull between the louder, knottier moments, and the more mellow folk-oriented cuts. It’s a dichotomy that mostly works in Paul’s favor, her wandering spirit a suitable guide for these 46 minutes.

On the brasher side, we get cuts like “Sedna” (named after an Inuit sea goddess) which again feels a little like a Warpaint song with an ounce or two of King Woman’s metallic shoegaze (perhaps an instigation by co-producer Takiaya Reed of Divide and Dissolve). At times, it seems the environments and spirits are singing straight to her, with lyrics like “One day you’ll know that I waited for you / On the island of birds you float through my meadow.” On “Nobody”, Paul is wrestling with representation, offering the very sweet chorus of “Nobody sang it for me / Like I want to sing it for you.” The guitars are a bit breezier, but a chunky guitar riff sets off each chorus, and Paul’s voice carries the song out. And closer “Don’t Give Up” sends Paul’s voice into the reverb-soaked stratosphere over galloping distorted guitars and groovy drums, ending the album by chanting its title over and over like a prayer.

As for the album’s quieter side (which probably makes up for about half of its runtime), we first meet it on the third track, “Salmon Stinta”. Lowly strummed electric guitars mesh with some deep bowed instrumentation, with Paul’s crystalline voice — sounding ever-so-slightly like Michelle Zauner — singing about salmon swimming upstream. It’s essentially a character study with the land around her as the character. It’s more about the mood and the imagery than telling a whole story, and once Phil Elverum’s tender voice comes in as a gentle assist, the song enters into the echelon of Paul’s greatest songs.

“Salmon Stinta” is a tough act to follow, all plaintive melodies and sustained atmosphere. But other songs attempt to come close. “Blue” is a very simple track, with a mounting sense of momentum as Paul sings the title ad infinitum, until it explodes into a firework. The dreamy “Sčičudᶻ (a narrow place)” finds Paul walking through the wilderness, acknowledging the exchange of love between herself and the place she has found herself in. It almost gets disturbed by its sudden rock switch, but it maintains its blissfulness. “Spaces” proves how much Paul can do with a little, as the lyrics to the song take up barely eight lines, but through a repeated wordless mantra, she offers us a tenderhearted and deeply pretty song. It’s a bit of a breather before “Don’t Give Up” closes things out.

All in all, the album is gorgeously produced, suitably dreamy without sounding groundless, and gives us the most varied glimpse of Paul as a songwriter and performer yet. It may have one too many quick switches into louder territory — the soft-loud dynamic of a shorter song like “Understanding” actually robs it of the tension it begins with — and songs like the deep-in-the-woods fire-lit “Treeline”, while adventurous and exciting, perhaps feel a bit out of place in the grand scheme of things. At times it feels maybe a little too familiar sonically or compositionally, but all in all, The Land, The Water, The Sky is a potent portrait of a musician who only gets more impressive with each release.