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The Land, The Water, The Sky drastically opens up Black Belt Eagle Scout's sound

"The Land, The Water, The Sky"

Release date: 10 February 2023
Black Belt Eagle Scout - The Land, The Water, The Sky cover
17 February 2023, 00:00 Written by Liam Inscoe-Jones

The first two Black Belt Eagle Scout albums had decidedly social concerns.

Katherine Paul, the woman behind the music and often its sole player, is Swinomish; part of a tribal community which resides in a small-town reservation to the north of Seattle. The first music she was exposed to was a mix of traditional Coast Salish music, drums and – yes – the grunge of the Emerald City’s iconic '90s acts.

The influence of her childhood love for that music is heard in her dense and billowing style; which on her first album dealt with the protests her family were embroiled in at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in defiance of a Texan oil company which intended to plough a pipeline right through their ancestor’s land. Her second, At the Party With My Brown Friends, was warmer and more intimate, conjuring adolescence with dream-pop songs which aimed to capture the comfort of friendships and relationships born of mutual understanding and shared experience.

The Land, The Water, The Sky turns its attention outward again, tying Paul’s sense of self to the landscape she was raised in. Those of us born endless concrete will have a different type of connection to where we’re from, but this music is interested in the relationship forged between its maker and a landscape which changes far more glacially. Written when she retreated back home in the midst of the pandemic, Paul both used the Salish Sea and its fauna as muse and testament to the lineage of her Swinomish community and their ancestors, who have called that small section of the planet home for centuries.

Paul made the album at a studio ten miles North of Sčičudᶻ, a narrow path which runs along the Pacific Northwest. She would take long hikes there with her guitar, writing parts of the album as she went. The eighth song on this record is named after that route, and "Salmon Stinta" refers to the fish which populate the waters. The song "Sedna" deals more with the rich mythology of her home; reimagining the goddess of the sea in Inuit mythology.

Appropriately, this third album drastically opens up her sound. While Paul played almost every instrument on her previous records, here she invites several guest vocalists and even brings in a string section for the colossal, Sigur Ros-eqsue "Blue". As a whole, everything certainly feels in the vein of Sleater-Kinney, Hole and The Girls Rock Camp, with thick beds of guitar propelled by persistent, chugging drums.

It's not necessarily music you’d associate with a beauteous landscape and, on occasion, the album relies on a kind of density which doesn’t lend itself best to its subject matter. Stormy opener "My Blood Runs Through This Land" sounds more like a group of sweaty rockers locked inside a dark room; head down, building upwards. The promise of the water and the sky is not always kept, and songs like "Treeline" are too obtuse to get a hold of, creating monotony rather than beauty. The sound of the album is too monochrome in general, with ballads and epics all drawing from a similar palette.

That being said, there are stunning moments too. The aforementioned "Blue" is dazzling in its scale, while the contemplative "Salmon Stinta" is refreshingly melancholy, assisted in no small by a quiet, haunting vocal line by Phil Elvrum of Mount Eerie. The finest act of the record though is its final one. "Spaces" converges all of Paul’s ideas about land and heritage in one place, with a single refrain gaining meaning with repetition as her parents join her on the chorus line. The depth of her father's voice especially makes material the idea of lineage and growth Black Belt Eagle Scout has always been fascinated with. "Spaces" bleed into the firm but understated "Don’t Give Up", a cliched sentiment which actually feels earned here; the climax of an ongoing devotion to the land, the water and the sky as a connection to your own past, and as a balm for the trials of the present.

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