Most days, Kristina Stykos’ studio concept feels like the way I want to live my life. Solar, wind, and generator powered — and completely off-the-grid — Pepperbox Studio reads like a safe haven from a terribly complex world. But nothing is as simple as it sounds, and while Stykos’ River of Light rarely sounds simple, her appreciation for the land and natural world pull her into territory that is both reverential and rock’n’roll. Old school goodness in a self-aware world.
In 2017, Stykos was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, which makes singing and speaking difficult and sometimes impossible. But Stykos is not an artist ready to back down from a challenge. River of Light channels personality through vocals and polishes each track in guitar melodies. There is country-rock attitude on “State Line Diner”, which pushes ideas of doing things your own way (a sentiment also prominent on “Breaking Trail”, albeit with a more nature-based approach) and Woodstock-esque themes on the spacious “Waging Peace”.
The album also lingers in romance: “Climb This Ground” feels candid in its delicate acoustic melody and love-lorn lyrics — a contrast to the edgier and straightforward “I Like a Hard Hearted Man”, whose melody rings familiar while the personality takes the reins. Throughout, there is a focus on the poetry, and nowhere else is this more clear than on “Caught By the Heart” which has poetic delivery over a composition rich with strings. The emergence of strings in almost every case on this record creates a chills-inducing focus point. This is particularly true on the moody, fiddle-tight album highlight of “Walking These Ridges”.
River of Light is an homage to the natural world and to the duality of hard edges and soft longing. Kristina Stykos pushes through, despite adversity, to give the sense that she has imprinted traces of herself onto these rich tracks.