How Doll Spirit Vessel meld dream-pop, grunge and shoegaze into a genre-bending explorative guitar approach

Doll Spirit Vessel

Philly indie rockers Doll Spirit Vessel pair two opposing schools of thought in guitar playing – the untrained and instinctual with the well-learned and intentional – to great effect on What Stays, the band’s debut album.

“My approach to guitar has always been very explorative,” says vocalist and guitarist Kati Malison, who sits in the former camp. “It’s not like I study chord shapes as much as just what I feel like sounds good, which I think for all the songs on this record was how I ended up writing them.”

Led by bouncy earworm singles Train Brain Rot and Sun Death, What Stays draws from a reservoir of ’90s indie-rock charms. Malison and her classically trained bandmates Max Holbrook and Lewis Brown, who shared guitar and bass duties on the album, cast their quiet-loud-quiet dynamics in shoegazing clean tones and crunching distortion. 

In keeping with Malison’s adventurous spirit, she and her bandmates didn’t play a note of music together in person, until they plugged in to record What Stays, which she engineered at a rented house in Oregon during a two-week session. Holbrook and Lewis helped shape Malison’s arrangements, and their experimentation led to several musical breakthroughs.

“Guitar and tone-wise, on All the Right Things in All the Right Order, we had to really think about tone going from each section, ’cause it’s such an epic,” Malison says. “We were trying to get the dream-pop feeling, and then a very grungy feeling in the section after that, and having it feel cohesive and like the tone was the same song throughout.”

On the closing track, A Light, Malison, Lewis and Brown create a lulling, enveloping soundscape, while pushing the pulsing Small Mass to a crescendo of tuneful and dissonant notes. “I love the interplay on [Small Mass], and I think structurally and harmonically that’s a great example of taming something that is, at times, very discordant.”

Ultimately, the band members’ differences in musical training is a strength for Doll Spirit Vessel. “I love playing with people who don’t come from a formal [musical] background, ’cause they’re always coming up with ideas that aren’t limited by those types of things,” Holbrook says. “It helps me explore. Kati’s approach to guitar parts and melodies, and songs in general, is a really good example of that.”

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Jim Beaugez

Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs, a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.