One-Eyed Doll – Witches – music review

with Kimberly and Jason of One-Eyed Doll

One-Eyed Doll is a goth punk outfit from Austin, Texas with only two members. Kimberly Freeman plays guitar and sings while Jason Rufuss Sewell is her drummer. Jason plays the character of Junior and is a very skilled somewhat minimalist drummer. They remind me a bit of Siouxsie and the Banshees for having so much focus on a gothic singer and a skilled drummer with odd, changing, and basic sounds. Jason had a lot to do with bringing blues sounds into the band and is also an accomplished guitarist when he plays. They write songs together, and the general One-Eyed Doll style is punk while the themes are extremely gothic. They’ve been around for a while and explore their most punk sounds on very good early albums, but the last few releases, such as Witches, have added some new depth to their music with larger themes and styles incorporated into the songs.

Kimberly creates a sort of goth-punk cabaret with wild and loose guitar playing with lots of breaks, adding lyrics that veer between comic irony, introspection, and social commentary. While all of her releases are solid, Witches explored new territory with an astonishing consistency of theme, and that’s my main focus here, though I’m also considering her excellent more recent releases of Secret Lullaby and Something Wicked. Benjamin Riggs is also a band member for touring and plays bass for Kimberly. He founded his own band called Draghoria and has also played for Wednesday 13, who was a touring partner for One-Eyed Doll.  Kimberly and Wednesday have a lot in common, because he performs horror punk.

Witches is an interesting and underrated album. Its subtle sounds of punk infused with blues explore a gritty but fantastical theme with the story of the Salem witch trials. What impresses the most is that it’s clearly a concept album but has none of the limitations that normally go along with that. While concept albums can get buried under the weight of their stories and sacrifice music for drama and complexity, One-Eyed Doll has built an album that perfectly tells the story of the Salem witch trials in what sound like punk blues compositions that are very successful as individual songs. They have emotion, are fun to sing, and stay with the punk basics enough to not make things overly complicated. Still, they capture the most important parts of a very tragic story.

Kimberly Freeman of One-Eyed Doll
Kimberly Freeman as One-Eyed Doll at Lost Lake Lounge, Denver, 9/30/17

It’s a story that is genuinely horrifying. Young girls were accused of witchcraft by crazy and violent townspeople, then tortured and murdered by them. It poses serious moral problems and also presents a story with obvious gothic trappings. What is wonderful about the album’s treatment is that it works as a gothic story on so many different levels, including being a call for justice. The true horror is the mistreatment of innocent somewhat different people who were murdered for being accused of witchcraft. At the same time, witches are themselves the subjects of gothic horror all the time. So Kimberly Freeman is able to play with those supernatural horror trappings while really making the album a treatment of injustice. She sings and brings out guitar sounds showing genuine sympathy and strong emotion: it brings the tragedy and its victims back to life. Their resurrection happens in beautiful punk blues phrasing of sounds from One-Eyed Doll that echo beyond the grave to accuse their tormentors of being the real horror while the witches are innocent.

The story of the Salem witch trials has been referenced in the media for a long time, but it is hard to find a reference that is as good at capturing the story through original art as well as One Eyed Doll’s album. Dramatizations tend to become shallow, silly, or exploitative, but the punk purity of Kimberly’s music prevents that from happening here. She advances the story while choosing key moments of emotion to heighten and gives pure expression to it with her music. Like good symphonic songwriting, there are clear movements and structures between each song which tie in heavily with emotion and a larger trajectory. The story and its musical existence are one and the same on the album.

Related Albums

Witches falls within a sweep of important albums. It was shortly followed by Secret Lullaby, which was released as a Kimberly Freeman album rather than One-Eyed Doll. This indicates that the songs are more personal and less theatrical, and they are. Some of the most beautiful, odd, and haunting sounds of her career are found here, and it’s a wonderfully unique followup to a great album. It also highlights Jason aka Junior’s production talents with mixes that add considerable depth and layer to the sounds. Beautiful compositions like Rust sound like they are echoing from another, very haunting, world even while they are very gritty songs tied to the present. They have a subtlety of perception that defies anything conventional and reminds me of David Lynch’s films. He uses horror trappings well to build a surreal environment that is really it’s own noir styled odd world, and Kimberly seems a bit like this. Secret Lullaby is her least punk album and possibly her best and most unusual songwriting.

Kimberly Freeman as One-Eyed Doll

Those albums were then followed by an EP called Something Wicked going back to punk with goth rock. It’s One-Eyed Doll’s more typical style at work, but with more maturity and complexity and a goth feel blending with the punk. The advances made on the focused and incredibly dark storytelling of Witches and the odd subtle sounds of Secret Lullaby come together into very focused goth rock sounds with Kimberly’s punk roots offering purity and clarity. Because it was an EP and not a full album, the songwriting is highly focused, and it seems like a compressed statement of where the band’s music has developed. It has some of the silliness that One-Eyed Doll plays around with as Kimberly makes fun of rock stars on Superstar, but the title track is perhaps the most gothic of all her songs.

The starting point for this whole sweep though came with Dirty. Released just before Witches, One-Eyed Doll recorded it in a church with an organ and introduced quite a bit of blues into their songs. It’s a more frenetic album and seems to me to bridge the rough aggression of earlier One-Eyed Doll releases which are the most appealing for punk sounds and their later work which has been introducing more style and thematic considerations. The early albums are wonderful examples of pure punk with goth trappings, but the later releases seem to be making much larger statements with more of a range, and the excitement is that the expanding range of sound is kept very focused by having such clear origins in the simple pure styles of punk. Kimberly’s personality is punk at heart with its simplicity, irreverence, clarity, and DIY expectations. 

The use of punk with gothic elements on Witches allows the themes of the story to be portrayed with both subtlety and clarity by One-Eyed Doll. Punk has a simplicity and force of raw emotion that is able to convey the suffering of the witch hunts in Salem very well without an excess of confusion or distraction, and the gothic side of the band’s influence allows for the album to be haunting and to open the space that is needed for the mystical side of the story to be taken seriously. While Kimberly is mainly treating this as a gritty story of injustice, she is by no means dismissive of witchcraft. Indeed, a friend of hers from Colorado Springs showed up at shows with beautiful handmade magic wands from natural materials that are lovingly created enough to serve as museum pieces. Witches are as valid a part of religion for having a long history of spiritual ideas as Christianity, but they have typically been abject, controversial, or condemned, and Kimberly Freeman turns them into what many feminist writers have done by basically seeing them as different and oppressed people who are scorned for all the wrong reasons, to the point that accusations are frequently made up in a way that resembles political McCarthyism and other forms of scapegoating, suspicion, and witch hunts.

Songs from Witches

One-Eyed Doll opens the album with Ember and then Prayer, songs which both portray the paranoid anger of the townspeople who accuse the witches. On Ember, the beautiful and disturbing refrain of, “My soul’s an ember in the flames of hell,” describes the religious paranoia of the Christians who think the devil is out to get them. Then Prayer has them asking god to kill the witches, with the frequent Christian desire to massacre large groups of people getting expression as, “Enrage us. Give us strength to murder in your service, with sharpened crucifix. May the rivers flood with the blood of the damned.” The Crusades and the Inquisition are both obvious historical precedents for the religion induced slaughter of innocent people in Salem, and the song is enough to make someone want to be saved by Black Sabbath, heavy metal, and punk instead of god.

Kimberly Freeman and Jason Rufuss Sewell

Black in the Rye then offers a possible explanation for the crazy behavior of the villagers by giving expression to the theory that ergot fungus on rye crops could have caused hallucinations. It’s an interesting theory, and it has also been proposed as an explanation of ancient Greek mysteries at Eleusis; like many anthropological theories, it is also hard to prove. It works extremely well either way as a song, because Kimberly develops considerable metaphor and other levels of description for the Salem events. It’s an effective anthem that captures the savagery of the town as itself far darker and more troubling than witchcraft with its cry of, “She must die! …black in the rye.”

A Rope for Mary then takes on one of the victims’ stories very directly in describing how the townspeople hanged an innocent woman from a tree while they claimed to be godly and Christian as Kimberly sings, “Feed your babies to the witch’s tree. Keep them safe from the likes of me.” She gives the woman a chance to speak from the grave in a ghostly and sad line and tell us, “My life was taken, my love forsaken.” More Weight does the same with another accused person who was crushed to death under rocks by the town with, “Hear them ask for one more pound, the work of the devil,” as Kimberly shows us that some men as well as women were the victims. Remember sets up the next song well with a sad melody for the victims, and Witch Hunt gives potent expression to a term that has become too taken for granted with its piercing cry of, “witch hunt!,” shouted against a beautiful and haunting refrain of, “Play with magic.”

The transition into the next song, Stillness, with its quiet sounds is brilliant as One-Eyed Doll portrays the hanged victims with their feet “far from the ground,” building more sadness and anger into the story. The next song, Afflicted, takes the view of the accusers again with a repeat of a line from the album opener of Ember, “My soul’s an ember in the flames of hell… for she’s the one who’s afflicted me,” while the music delivers sounds of paranoia and insanity. Sorrow finally builds a sad bridge into the closing song by recalling the earlier, A Rope for Mary, with the victims asking to be given justice. The Ghosts of Gallows Hill is a beautiful, epic, and haunting closer for the album. It turns the witches into ghosts who, “sing forgotten stories of the past by moonlight,” and ask to be remembered by us.

Witches album signed by Kimberly Freeman

Kimberly and Jason are both fans of Pink Floyd, and the calmer sections of the album show this well. Everyone in Salem was looking to be saved in some sense; the paranoid townspeople wanted god to save them. The accused, whether they were witches or not, wanted to be saved from the crazy townspeople, and this raises a problem of transcendence. It can have a mystical guise such as witchery, but it can also have the guise of personal seeing and intuition which Pink Floyd no doubt expressed on Dark Side of the Moon, an album that was really about the tragic descent of Syd Barrett into insanity. So Witches captures a personal journey and a quest for its victims, and it’s a beautiful and sad one.

One-Eyed Doll’s take on the story is impressive for not taking any sides on the question of magic. It shows both the perspective of social persecution and hysteria and a respect for witches in the esoteric sense. The listener can decide on her own what to think about the story, but Kimberly’s ability to morally condemn the suffering of people accused of witchcraft being tortured and executed is superb and unwavering. One must accept this whether one takes witches seriously in a mystical sense or not. In the social sense, one must grant a widely practiced social phenomenon in contemporary pagan and Wiccan settings, but witchcraft was also practiced long in the past with far worse attacks on its practitioners, such as the Inquisition.

Horror Story

The album is a wonderful addition to recent horror films about witchcraft that have treated it with more respect than the majority of cinema had done previously, often as a representation of women and a haunting aesthetic that is partly in line with what One-Eyed Doll have done. Especially the important films The Love Witch and The Witch take this seriously. The former film by Anna Biller is one of the most beautifully photographed films in recent years, and it treats witches with sympathy and a respect for feminine themes and emotions. The latter film deals with the same era as Salem and seeks to examine views of the time and what the notion of witches meant in that era. It presents witchcraft as a counter to puritanical, oppressive, anti-sensualist, and anti-naturalist ideas.

Kimberly of One-Eyed Doll

The tie-in with nature is especially done with beauty in The Witch, but it remains a serious horror film for using supernaturalism in its depictions, though we are left with the option of whether to view that as serious or absurd given the entertainment value. The Love Witch is the better film for leaving more ambiguity open and treating witches more as a feminist social practice with horror built around them as tongue in cheek cinematic iconography about both women and horror movies. While both films are certainly influenced by the way the Salem witch trials have shaped what one thinks of witches and are producing lots of commentary about this, no one has done as fine a job as Kimberly of turning the victims of the witch hunt into heroic and sympathetic figures with a story that is literally able to echo on in song thanks to One-Eyed Doll.

The great playwright Arthur Miller deserves a mention here. The Crucible is often cited as one of the best plays of the 20th century, and it uses the story of the Salem witch trials as a way of demonstrating McCarthyism and its paranoid hunt for communists and the larger social phenomenon of scapegoating. Americans searching for communists in the 1950s and Nazis attacking Jewish people are very similar social phenomena of making people into scapegoats for larger problems, and this is what Miller was after in his play, which also treats the witches as victims of what we now call a witch hunt. While it is a great work of dramatic art, the complexity and social forces being shown in his play could never have the clarity that the Witches album has in doing the same thing, and Miller’s play is a bit too dismissive of witches themselves in shaping such a strong social parable. One-Eyed Doll is quite sophisticated for taking both sides of the story on and staying so clear and compressed in doing so. It’s a remarkable exercise in clarity, subtlety, and restraint.

The band shows a deep understanding of dramatic possibilities and mysterious perceptions of music in that the album uses sonic tropes of resonance and reverberation to allow victims who have been gone for hundreds of years to have a voice and to speak out in condemnation of their accusers through song. Whether they were witches or not, they are victims, and One-Eyed Doll’s album is able to convey this very well. Similarly, if any actual witches were burned, their beliefs in spirit over matter would have it that they continue existence in a nonphysical sense as spirit, which is very similar to Christianity’s view of martyrs in their own religion. On the other hand, if no actual witches were burned they are still the victims of a great injustice and thus speak to us in a real sense over time by condemning their accusers through song. It’s an excellent dual metaphor in songwriting.

Kimberly’s voice is powerful in this regard. She has a beautiful range with a very stable high pitch that is able to pierce through the rest of her song structures. Her shouts have to be heard to be appreciated for how effective they are at this. The only other singers who can command as much attention with a piercing cry are Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil and Simone Simons of Epica, who are internationally famous and have done a great deal to shape the sounds of symphonic metal. Freeman is less famous for her voice, because she remains an extremely independent and underground artist with One-Eyed Doll as a personal and DIY punk vision, but she is able to convey great amounts of emotion and sensitivity. Indeed, I talked to a remarkable number of fans at her shows who are also huge fans of Cristina’s vocals for Lacuna Coil. I also find the very haunting quality of her vocals to remind me a bit of what Emily Lazar does with her excellent gothic metal project in September Mourning. Jason places her in the mix so that her voice seems to hover above the songs. Her frequent use of punk sometimes masks how well she can convey subtle emotions, and Witches is an important album for freeing her singing in this regard. The songs often require slower treatments of careful emotional emphasis on song lyrics, and the result shows a more capable singer than can be gleaned from earlier albums.

There is an impressive amount of blues influence in how the story is told, and that ties it to the long history of rock in an important way. The other band that has me thinking seriously about blending gothic sounds with the blues is PIG, and it is an exciting project to witness. Blues first became prominent for One-Eyed Doll on the previous album, Dirty, though it was used a bit on the album before that as well, Break, especially in its concluding song of Resurrection. The songs that followed Witches also have shown a growing use of blues and slower songs. Secret Lullaby has extremely experimental tracks with mellow guitars and blues type themes of mourning. With Witches, however, those abilities are applied to a clear, common, and difficult theme. The result is a masterpiece from One-Eyed Doll. The album never loses focus from its central story. Every track and every sound manage to advance the theme, and unlike the overwhelming majority of concept albums, Witches never becomes trapped within its own labyrinth. The songs are singable and clear. The story has depth but remains easy to understand, and every song is worthy of serious interpretation and careful examination. It’s one of my favorite albums and a beautiful testament to its victims.

One-Eyed Doll

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