Chelsea Wolfe’s profile has continued to rise, navigating her edgy and adventurous songwriting to a dizzying apex of startling creativity and emotional resonance. 2015’s harrowing Abyss album increased Wolfe’s recognition on a wider scale in a stunning turn of events, bolstering an already impressive body of work. Crippling in its emotional power, challenging but strangely addicting, Abyss also found Wolfe embracing her metallic inclinations in exciting, multi-faceted ways. With expectations sky high after the mesmerizing Abyss, Wolfe returns with her highly anticipated sixth opus, Hiss Spun. One of Chelsea Wolfe’s key strengths as an artist lies in her ability to continually evolve and reinvent herself. Familiar strands tie her works together, but she is not in the game of repeating herself, as Hiss Spun firmly attests. Hiss Spun finds Wolfe embracing doom wholeheartedly, pushing back the much stronger industrial and electronic overtones from Abyss, without abandoning these attributes, and shifting the thick wall of guitars and distortion up front.
Wolfe’s song-writing refuses to be pushed into a corner or become hindered by genre constraints. She cohesively blends her Gothic songbird style with elements of grungy, downbeat alternative rock, darkly ominous folk hymns, electronica, drone, industrial, and a prominent doom influence, spinning her eclectic musical tastes into a rich tapestry that bleeds emotion and makes an art of soft-loud dynamics. Wolfe remains a sorceress of conjuring up a myriad of emotions in the listener. A simple melody or vocal can shift from fragile to fierce, vulnerability giving way to confidence and powerful self-assurance, anger to sadness, hostility to tenderness. While other singers may boast a stronger range, Wolfe’s vocals are wonderfully expressive and unique, her subtle variations and raw emotion compensating for any range limitations. After the reedy, slow-burning thrum of “Spun,” featuring captivating leads and an ominous tone, “16 Psyche” grinds away before anthemic guitars as an energy rise lifts the chorus into earworm levels of addictive heavy rock bliss. The song features Wolfe taking a more accessible song-writing turn and comes across as reasonably uplifting by her melancholic standards, despite the dreary overall tone. Consistency has marked Wolfe’s career, over the past few albums in particular, and though Hiss Spun has its dizzying peaks, it never disengages or loses focus.
“Vex” skates along on an infectious drum beat and gripping vocal from Wolfe, before Aaron Turner’s (Isis, Old Man Gloom) deep roar raises the intensity and hits with surprising effectiveness. Wolfe’s music may be blanketed in darkness and melancholy, but Hiss Spun has a few lighter touches and is both cathartic and addictive, rather than a depressing listening experience. A strong front-half notwithstanding, Hiss Spun really excels during a cluster of songs around its potent midsection. Part industrial drone, part doomy rock beast, with tension raising quiet segments floating in-between, “The Culling” is an exquisite jam that’s difficult to shake. Similarly, “Twin Fawn” features sparse, spine-tingling verses before unleashing the surging Mother of all choruses, as crushing guitars thunder in and shake the foundations. Always one to keep the listener guessing, Wolfe changes gears expertly with the catchy darkwave of “Offering,” showing her hand at crafting pop-infected gems in a similar fashion to her work on 2013’s Pain is Beauty album.
Not content to go out quietly, Wolfe saves the excellent “Scrape” for last, a song featuring burning intensity and a truly wonderful vocal performance, Wolfe sounds volatile and desperate in almost equal measure, swirling around pounding percussion and grinding guitars. Hiss Spun has a more organic sound compared to the harsher, in-your-face production on Abyss, creating a breathable and slightly more dynamic space. Wolfe’s ghostly voice drifts effortlessly through the wall of distortion, constantly demanding attention beyond the dense, always interesting layers of the musical backdrop. The tone of the instruments is excellent, especially the fuzz-drenched, authoritative bluster of Wolfe and Troy Van Leeuwen’s (A Perfect Circle, Queens of the Stone Age, Failure) menacing guitars, retaining strong clarity and a tough, unvarnished grit.
Abyss was such a remarkable album that the only slight I can really aim against Hiss Spun is it doesn’t quite outmatch its predecessor, despite coming very close. Regardless, Hiss Spun is yet another outstanding album from Wolfe; a challenging, deeply emotive piece of art that also features some of her most accessible work, cranking up the doom and rock-based factors without losing an ounce of her forward-thinking progression, songwriting experimentation, and intelligent artistry that has defined her stellar career. There’s no doubt in my mind, Hiss Spun is one of 2017’s unmissable albums.