Chelsea Wolfe Abyss

[Sargent House; 2015]

Styles: doom folk, metal, goth
Others: Russian Circles, Gowns

If you spend enough time obsessing over music, you might develop a sense for discerning the shape of a band’s creative arc. There are steps that sometimes act as milestones in a stereotypical career progression: the migration from lo-fi bedroom recordings into a professional studio, the incorporation of synthesizers into a previously guitar-driven band, the sandblasting of harsher textures and arcane structures to a pop-gloss. These gestures often constitute a Rubicon that, once crossed, signal a change in direction that is permanent, for better or for worse (Years later, an artist may attempt to connect backwards with his or her younger selves and put out a release touted as a “return to form,” but the products of such an unnatural act of necromancy are often ghoulish, like a stranger wearing a skin-suit crafted from a long-lost loved one.). Far more intriguing, however, are those artists whose paths move not in a straight line, but in circles, describing crazy loops that connect past to present in unexpected ways, all the while continuing to push forward into new territory altogether.

When Chelsea Wolfe released Pain Is Beauty, a lush, moody opus awash in electronic finery, I suspected that her days of writing doomy metal dirges were done. Weighed against the majesty of songs like “We Hit a Wall” and “The Waves Have Come,” it was a trade I was willing to make. Still it was a joyous surprise to find that Abyss, Wolfe’s sixth full-length album, not only revisits the icy sonic wastes of songs like “Pale on Pale,” but manages to do so without completely ceding the territory she traversed with Pain.

Abyss is as black and as grim as its name would suggest. The bass line that introduces album-opener “Carrion Flowers” recalls Sunn O))) in its density and minimalism. It rumbles like the warning growl of some infernal beast about to slip its chain, untamed and untamable, even as the rest of the instrumentation — the scraped guitars, the plodding drums, the moaning synth — struggle to hem it in on all sides. At odds with the ugliness surrounding her stands Wolfe herself. Her voice reverberates like that of a nightingale swallowed whole, crying for rescue from within the song’s monstrous belly.

Abyss may be Wolfe’s heaviest set to date, abetted perhaps by the presence of Russian Circles’ guitarist Mike Sullivan, who lends an axe to the album’s most crushing tracks. Wolfe has stated that many of the songs were inspired by her lifelong affliction with sleep paralysis, an experience of immobility while in a semiconscious state that is often accompanied by nightmarish hallucinations. I can’t comprehend the terror of such an affliction, to be so viciously betrayed by both mind and body, but the immensity of songs like “Dragged Out” and “Iron Moon” evoke a similar sense of helplessness in the listener, like we too are rendered prostrate before forces beyond our comprehension and control.

Past the third track, however, Wolfe’s gyre begins to widen further. “Maw” presents itself as an eerie stripped-down acoustic ballad in the vein of Julee Cruise, but fluctuates between clean and distorted guitar, building slowly toward a grand and affecting conclusion. “Color of Blood” sets one of Wolfe’s most peculiar vocal deliveries — a cotton-mouthed, but somehow still melodious lisp — against a fuzzed-out bass line, only to disrupt this languid pairing with the sort of mechanical drumbeat that Dylan Fujioka laid down on Pain’s opening track, “Feral Love.” Throughout the album, Wolfe revisits acoustic folk, blackened synth pop, and discordant country, but often with some unexpected twist, such as Ezra Buchla’s mournful viola on “Crazy Love,” the R&B crescendo on “After the Fall,” or the stark clank and clatter of the title track.

Six albums in, Chelsea Wolfe remains one of the most unique and unpredictable voices in contemporary rock. Abyss neatly encompasses the totality of her career, synthesizing the artist’s prolific catalog into her strongest and most ambitious album yet, a cavernous chasm filled with beauty, brutality, and endless possibility.

Links: Chelsea Wolfe - Sargent House

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