Singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe’s music doesn’t strictly reside under the heavy metal umbrella. However her unique form of dark artistry has captured quite a significant following within and outside of the metal community. It helped that she publicly confessed her love of black metal and recorded an emotive, ambient cover of Burzum’s “Black Spell of Destruction” to amplify her metal credentials. As such I’ve highlighted the latest chapter in the career of the LA-based artist as worthy of landing on the pages of AMG as an entry into the ‘not-quite-metal-but-shit-you-should-be-listening-to’ category. Depending on who you ask or what particular song or album of Wolfe’s you might be listening to at the time, her music can be loosely described as a shape-shifting amalgam of folk, goth, noise rock, electronica, drone and doom elements.
I caught wind of Wolfe’s immense talents on her 2013 masterwork Pain is Beauty, featuring surprise hit “Feral Love,” which received significant airplay when it accompanied the season four trailer of Game of Thrones. Backtracking through her prior albums offered further evidence of Wolfe’s impressive song-writing skills and deft blend of styles and textures, not to mention the raw emotion that bleeds from her ghostly and captivating voice. Fifth album Abyss is yet another ambitious and versatile addition to a growing body of work that marks another interesting and adventurous creative turn. Containing elements of her previous work and expanding into even darker and more unsettling terrain, Wolfe knocks it out of the park with a raw, emotionally draining and eclectic batch of tunes. Distorted guitars and droning synths, jarring percussion, downbeat electronica and industrial overtones are assorted into challenging and diverse compositions, which are difficult to penetrate initially, but reward the patient listener and reveal the myriad of instrumental subtleties and elusive hooks that lurk beneath the foggy layers.
“Carrion Flowers” is an ominous, jarring opener featuring Wolfe’s intoxicating vocal melodies mingling with mangled industrial soundscapes and an underlying menace and foreboding vibe. Wolfe’s vocals frequently steal the limelight with her aching voice fragile and seductive one moment, mournful and menacing the next. Her expertly woven vocal melodies and harmonies leave lasting traces, while musically Abyss shifts restlessly between styles, from minimalist electronica and gloomy folk to a much harsher array of sounds and textures, siphoned into engaging and unpredictable arrangements. Wolfe’s expert grasp of soft-loud dynamics features prominently on the sublime “Iron Moon,” a song that glides between mournful restraint and sludgy bursts of doom, complete with soaring vocal melodies. The atmospheric and hallucinatory nature of Abyss is an apt fit with Wolfe’s lyrical documentation of her struggles with sleep paralysis and anxiety. “Simple Death” is perhaps the most spine-chilling and emotive examination of her personal demons with this rare disorder. Lyrically bleak yet poetic and heart-wrenching in its sadness, the moody ballad rides a simple tearjerking melody that’s incredibly moving, particularly when lines like, “Lost and alone in confusion, I’m screaming but I can’t wake up” are sung with such tenderness, desperation and emotion.
There’s an ominous and melancholic tone flooding the album, making for an intense and unsettling journey. But thankfully the dynamic song-writing and experimental dabbling ensures Abyss doesn’t quite plunge into razor grabbing gloom or monotony. The delicate, minimalist balladry of the beautiful “Maw,” bleak viola drenched thrum of “Grey Days,” and the bleeping electro dirge of “After the Fall” showcase the song-writing variety without slashing the threads of foreboding atmosphere, abstract melody and overall cohesion that binds the album.
Production is spot-on despite measuring a disappointing DR 5, with the levels of compression actually proving less detrimental to the finished product than one might expect. The in-your-face sound and menacing buzz only adds to the claustrophobic and nightmarish qualities of the album, with Wolfe’s tremendous voice comfortably penetrating the frequently dense waves of sound. My only gripes come down to superficial preferences like track sequencing and the fact that at nearly an hour in length Abyss is an emotionally exhausting ride. Really though, these are just petty nitpicks of a truly exceptional and compelling album.
Abyss may not qualify as metal, but it will likely go down as one of the darkest, most challenging and emotionally heavy releases of the year. Wolfe continues growing and evolving as an artist and her unique and highly innovative song-writing approach has hit yet another peak and yielded arguably her finest album to date.