Black Belt Eagle Scout
Photo: Nate Lemuel of Darklisted Photography via Pitch Perfect

Black Belt Eagle Scout Hones Her Message and Perfects Her Sound

With her third album, Black Belt Eagle Scout dazzles us with lush atmospheres, seismic rhythms, and a voice that unfurls from another and perhaps a better world.

The Land, the Water, the Sky
Black Belt Eagle Scout
Saddle Creek
10 February 2023

With her third album, The Land, the Water, the Sky, Katherine Paul, aka Black Belt Eagle Scout, elaborates on the songcraft displayed throughout 2017’s Mother of My Children and the explorative sonics employed on 2019’s At the Party with My Brown Friends. On her latest 12-track sequence, she delves more ambitiously into various playbooks, basking in hypnotic instrumentation, stellar hooks, and engaging lyrics.

The lead track, “My Blood Runs through This Land”, features a distortion-bathed mix, a sensuous guitar line emerging between verses. Lyrics address Black Belt Eagle Scout’s “connection to the land”, an equally mystical and “violent” conception, arena-rock rhythms offsetting her breathy vocals. If Mother underscored Paul’s gift for melody, and At the Party accentuated her musicianship, The Land immediately spotlights her as a consummate composer, her pop sense, knack for audial dynamics, and affinity for rich atmospherics seamlessly fused.

This sense of big-picture know-how is further illustrated in “Nobody”. A chorus-dabbed guitar part, rumbling bass, and shuffling drums contrast with Paul’s ethereal vocal. A catchy guitar line is draped over a tightly woven and crunchy welter. Black Belt Eagle Scout’s MO, much like Jay Som‘s, is anchored in pop awareness, though her atmospherics suggest a bolder reconfiguration of noise-rock cum shoegaze a la Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, among other progenitors, as well as such current acts as Knifeplay and Japanese Breakfast circa 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet.

Meanwhile, in “Sedna”, Black Belt Eagle Scout offers a melancholic vocal and grungy guitar part that connects her to such sad-pop acts as Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, and post-Turn Out the Lights Julien Baker. Paul, however, explores a broader audial range, guitars flaring and contracting, gritty and dashed in reverb. Also, while the above acts list lyrically toward self-deprecation and fatalistic sociopolitical critiques, the Swinomish/Iñupiaq Black Belt Eagle Scout inclines toward an activistic and ultimately sanguine posture. She rallies, albeit understatedly, for those who have been exploited or marginalized and the land that has been ravaged by greed. “When the end is near / I will hold you dear,” she sings, imagining a soul in transition being ushered by Cosmic Love, God, or Universal Energy.

“Salmon Stinta”, featuring guest singer Phil Elverum, pays tribute to the beauty of the natural world (“Gray and white salmon swim upstream”) while avoiding sentimentality, propagandism, or pastoral clichés. With “Blue”, Black Belt Eagle Scout revisits her earlier work, opening with a heartfelt vocal undergirded by a simple guitar strum. The piece soon grows more complex, string parts and galvanic guitar lines part of a breathtakingly celestial mix. “Fancy Dance” also revisits the more straightforward rock templates of earlier work; Paul’s guitar parts, however, are alternately heavy and wispy, her rhythmic pivots effortlessly rendered, her loud-soft fluctuations impeccably timed.

On “Treeline”, Paul reframes and contemporizes the Native American chant and tribal drum circle, bringing to mind Joe Rainey’s Niienta, released last year. While Rainey’s project is more experimental, lo-fi-leaning, and beat-centric, combining studio and fieldwork, both Rainey and Paul recast Native myths and indigenous sounds and stress the importance of the human-nature connection. What the singer sees “in the treeline” could be a benign spirit, a demon, a totem animal, or an alternate self that has been dispatched from an alternate world (to offer wisdom and warning). “Spaces” similarly encourages people to align with the natural order. Kevin and Pat Paul (Katherine’s parents) offer resonant chants in the track’s periphery. Slinky guitar parts recall Mazzy Star’s David Roback, particularly his work on 1993’s So Tonight That I Might See.

The album closes with the dream pop-inflected “Don’t Give Up”, Paul’s voice whispery, her guitar strums decisive yet darkly buoyant. A second and more abrasive guitar enters the mix during the chorus. “You walk under the trees / engulfed by beauty,” Paul sings, pointing to the ephemerality and essential mystery of our lives. “I don’t give up,” she repeats, emphasizing the need for resilience while a serrated guitar chugs alongside her voice. She closes by repeating the album’s title multiple times, paying homage to nature and its sublime power.

With The Land, the Water, the Sky, Black Belt Eagle Scout advocates deference to nature without lapsing into preachiness, embodying spiritual confidence without tumbling into New-Age truisms. On the contrary, a listener is struck by the paradoxical nature of Paul’s vision (expressed lyrically and sonically), how she has reconciled unflinching realism and empathetic optimism. Black Belt Eagle Scout teaches us, guides, and inspires us, all the while dazzling us with lush atmospheres, seismic rhythms, and a voice that unfurls from another and perhaps a better world.

RATING 9 / 10