Black Belt Eagle Scout Triumphs on Homecoming Record The Land, The Water, The Sky
The Pacific Northwest indie rocker finds her way home to an inspiring sound on third LP for Saddle CreekMusic Reviews Black Belt Eagle Scout
The Skagit River meanders 150 miles through the most beautiful course in the Cascades, supporting an extensive salmon community and a two-million acre watershed covered in gorgeous cedars. The Skagit River is the centerpiece of the Skagit Valley in so-called Washington state, perched on the Puget coast between Seattle and Vancouver. This is the sublime landscape that called Katherine Paul, who records music as Black Belt Eagle Scout, back from Portland, Ore., in 2020. As enchanting as the landscape appears, this land is a site of incredible contestation, particularly for the Swinomish indigenous community in which Paul came of age. As the American state continues to occupy the territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific, land and life are central sources of conflict for indigenous groups, who are still cruelly deprived of their self-determination and tools for survival. The complex position of indigeneity has been crucial to the Black Belt Eagle Scout project, and on her third LP, The Land, The Water, The Sky, Paul centers the intricacies of home/coming across 12 pristine tracks, each pushing post-rock to its most beautiful extreme.
While Paul’s journey has never been easy, The Land, The Water, The Sky makes particular effort to center the inherent hopefulness of her homecoming, one where unbridled joy meets a rekindled appreciation for rootedness. The swirly, grungy opener “My Blood Runs Through This Land” lays her ancestral connections bare, displaying her efforts to maintain contact with her lineage through a tactile relationship to her community’s historic and present land. On “Sedna,” Paul switches gears to center her relationship with her ancestry through wisdom, recontextualizing the story of the sea-based deity passed down from her Iñupiat lineage.
Paul’s search for connectedness is, at times, juxtaposed against the forces trying to uproot her. Take “Salmon Stinta,” a meditative moment featuring Phil Elverum where salmon’s upstream migration serves as a representation for the world pushing her and her community down: “Through the window/All I see is driving me away/Screaming in the distant sea.” Adjacent to Paul’s righteous anger is debilitating melancholy on “Blue,” featuring a brilliant string quartet that serves as a foundation for Paul’s slowly swelling guitar motif.
These internal exercises tie in well with Paul’s emphasis on the value of mental health, an all-too-often ignored subject for women of color. “Understanding” displays a turning point: “I know it’s wrong to love everyone but myself but/Sometimes I can’t even hold me/Sometimes I can’t even find time for myself yet/Here I am understanding.” “Don’t Give Up,” the record’s closer, is an anthemic reflection on what keeps Paul’s mental health in equilibrium: connection to the outdoors. Just as connection to her ancestral lands offers her a connection to her heritage, Paul’s connection to the land gives her an internal sense of direction and fulfillment. The land, the water, the sky: these are not just resources for claiming, they are entities with which sustainable relationships beget harmony.
While much of Black Belt Eagle Scout’s sound draws from alternative rock traditions that derive from the grunge sound Paul grew up on, Black Belt Eagle Scout songs often expand beyond the strictures of rock, making room for instrumental passages and layerings so profound and personal that they exist in a post-rock territory all her own. On “Spaces,” the record’s triumph, Paul generates an uniquely indigenous post-rock, inviting her parents to contribute to the track’s alluring vocals. Paul’s father has a sonorous pow wow voice and Paul’s mother’s singing sounds so like her daughter’s it sounds as if the two have fused. Between the strolling strings and tapping percussion, Paul sings to her audience with a healing gratitude, celebrating the people who’ve believed in her music thus far. The emotion tumbles out as the track gently crescendos until tears demand to flow. Much as the Skagit River and the verdant valley around it are home for Paul, this synthesis of Paul’s traditional inspirations and indie impulses is her sonic home, a space where unconventional structures and limited arrangements make every sound count and every emotion deeply palpable. Black Belt Eagle Scout sounds especially at home on The Land, The Water, The Sky, finding a sweet spot where her sound remains compelling and poignant.
Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly