Chelsea Wolfe

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Mistake In Parting (2006), 5/10
Soundtrack (2009), 4.5/10
The Grime and the Glow (2010), 5/10
Apokalypsis (2011), 6/10
Unknown Rooms (2012), 5/10 (mini)
Pain Is Beauty (2013), 7/10
Abyss (2015), 6.5/10
Hiss Spun (2017), 6/10
Birth of Violence (2019), 5/10

Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe debuted with the ten songs of the self-released album Mistake In Parting (2006), a typical break-up concept album about how she was seduced and betrayed. Most of the songs are acoustic like the chamber lied Inside A Girl (with cello, viola and xylophone) and the fragile elegy Dreamer with a waltzing refrain. In Mistake In Parting she even sounds like a young Joni Mitchell and in Lay Me Down a female version of Neil Young. The highlights are instead propelled by robust guitar riffs: the tormented Indian-esque chant Nothing Noone; and the atmospheric Winter, that sounds like a half-baked version of Jefferson Airplane's acid-rock.

Soundtrack (Jeune Ete, 2009) contains the first versions of Cousins of the Antichrist, The Way We Used To, Underwater, Gold and Armour Fell Asleep.

The lo-fi production of The Grime and the Glow (Pendu Sound, 2010) made it sound like a demo. Nonetheless, this album inaugurated a new course for her, a sort of goth-folk influenced by Grouper. The new version of Cousins of the Antichrist sounds like an under-arranged cover of Cocteau Twins' dream-pop. The first version of Moses blends funeral drumbeat, loud distorted bass lines, organ drone and ghostly echoed vocals. Deep Talks increases the dose of suspense immersing her warped wordless vocals in a mayhem of harsh atonal guitar. The brief a-cappella hymn Sirenum Scopuli has the best (and most morbid) melody. Widow has the most funereal one, a duet with a whistling ghost. The power-trio of guitarist Kevin Dockter, bassist Addison Quarles and drummer Drew Walker feature in two of the highlights: Advice & Vices, whispered in a childish tone, and the sinister Noorus. Better than both is the tribal swamp-blues Bounce House Demons. Not only is the album a confused hodge-podge of ideas, several songs even feel like incomplete demos. The six-minute Halfsleeper returns to the bare folk format of the previous album, and Ben Chisholm's piano pens the neoclassical interludes of Benjamin and Gene Wilder.

If The Grime and the Glow was childish horror for Halloween parties, Apokalypsis (2011) is a more philosophical, existentialist essay on melancholy and "weltanschauung" (and more professionally produced). The manifestos of her doom-folk are the lugubrious elegy of graceful sorrow Movie Screen, wrapped in cryptic electronic noises, and the spectral slow-motion litany Tracks, that could have been on the Swans' White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, but also the dark ambient guitar instrumental To the Forest Towards the Sea. The slowly pounding seven-minute Pale on Pale weds her Middle-eastern lament to Black Sabbath-esque doom-metal and gothic organ. The lone raveup, Demons, boasts tribal beat and howling vocals a` la Siouxsie Sioux. On the downside, Moses here becomes a tedious organ-tinged litany, a poor man's Joy Division, and Mer is a confused jazz-rock number with frenzied drumming and cheap synth noise.

The 24-minute mini-album Unknown Rooms (2012) is a collection of acoustic songs. Most of the songs feel like leftovers or unfinished The a-cappella I Died With You is the peak of pathos, Spinning Centers and Boyfriend (that has the intensity of a religious hymn) are atmospheric peaks.

The five-song EP Prayer For The Unborn (Southern Records, 2013) contains the appropriately titled funereal lied Echo for voice and guitar, the unusually hysterical, quasi-punk Black on Gold, and another Black Sabbath-esque number, Prayer For The Unborn

Element of electronic dance music and hard rock made Pain Is Beauty (2013) more user-friendly. She even breaks into the dancefloor thanks to the sleepy synth-pop of House of Metal with plaintive violin, the techno and flamenco fusion of The Warden, with a sensual soaring refrain that sounds like Diana Ross in a Giorgio Moroder jam, and Feral Love, that couples a fast electronic beat with regular drumming while she intones her lament in a tone halfway between Kate Bush and Siouxsie. Her original doom-folk has been hopelessly corrupted (albeit in a positive way): Reins begins like an ethereal waltzing country dirge of the Cowboy Junkies and ends in a symphonic crescendo; They'll Clap When You're Gone begins like an Appalachian lament but ends with an even denser orchestral coda; and the majestic suspenseful soul hymn Sick roams a landscape of tense droning strings. Even the closing Lone, which boasts the purest melody, ends with a loud distorted guitar. These songs can easily slide into cheesy and tedious kitsch, like the solemn but inconclusive We Hit a Wall and Ancestors the Ancients, or like the bombastic eight-minute The Waves Have Come. However, a significant step forward. The band consists of Dylan Fuijoka on drums, Andrea Calderon on violin, Ezra Buchla on viola, Patrick Shiroishi on horns, besides regular cohorts Kevin Dockter on guitars and Ben Chisholm on synth. By now she had become the most famous goth diva of her era.

The EP Folkadelphia Session (Folkadelphia, 2014) contains acoustic versions of House of Metal, Birthday and especially The Warden, a harrowing version that is perhaps better than the electronic original.

Be Free (2014), a duet with King Dude, sounds like a Leonard Cohen record played at double speed.

Abyss (Sargent House, 2015), produced by John Congleton, all but eliminated the dance element and emphasized the metal element with a better choreographic vision of how to fit keyboards and guitar into her musical theater. She wails over the distorted industrial electronics (Chisholm again) and the thundering drums (Fujioka again) of Carrion Flowers. The requiem of Iron Moon alternates down-tuned doom-metal guitar noise (Mike Sullivan of the Russian Circles) with a gentle lullaby (and best melody) that towards the end morphs into an anthemic soul hymn (somehow reminiscent of Joe Cocker's soul-rock). The bluesy nightmare of Dragged Out radiates over slow-paced, panzer guitars and church bells, while ghostly screams brew in the mix. Nothing else matches the complexity and power of the first three songs. The desperate cry of Crazy Love is tortured by Buchla's neurotic viola and maniacally strummed acoustic guitar. After the Fall is more about the abstract electronic soundscape than Wolfe's singing. She mourns in The Abyss indifferent to an atonal duet of piano and guitar before an austere neoclassical violin solo takes over in a way that sounds totally surrealistic. That Wolfe and Chisholm are shaping the songs in a more cinematic way is evident especially in Survive: the insistent fingerpicking and a shrill electronic drone build unbearable suspense until manic drums unleash a noisy mess of electronics and heavy bass lines. Her vocals are largely a limitation because they seem to sing (or cry) always the same melody, but there is certainly art in the haunting way she uses her vocal chords even in failed songs like the sweet ballad Maw (which then turns into a kitschy dream-pop song, a poor man's imitation of the Cocteau Twins) and the dying prayer Color of Blood (soon derailed by a vicious loop of beats and fuzz). The most impalpable song is the anemic waltzing ballad Simple Death wrapped in mortuary electronic echoes. That is the quintessential Wolfe manifesto.

The single Hypnos (2016) is one of her most ethereal ballads.

Converge's Kurt Ballou produced Hiss Spun (2017), and the sound completely took over the vocals. The bombastic hyper-depressed and hyper-confused opener, Spun, is emblematic of the shift in emphasis (and how much was lost with it). The operatic 16 Psyche is even more emblematic in the way it exploits textbook metal riffs by the Queens Of The Stone Age's guitarist Troy van Leeuwen and monster drumming by Jess Gowrie. Her wailing is lost in all the noise of Vex, and eventually dethroned by Aaron Turner's black-metal growl (of Isis fame). The thundering cacophony of Scrape bury her squealing Kate Bush-ian shouts. Particle Flux has perhaps the best melody but crucified by an electronic stomp, and the other purest melody, Two Spirit, the lone tribute to her folk roots, is disfigured by a guitar tornado. For better and for worse, most of the album relies on this battle between the vocals and the instruments. The exception is Offering, as close to synth-pop as the album gets, where the only contender to the vocals is a synth that simply repeats the melody. Otherwise the singing is mostly undermined by the arrangements. The cinematic ambition fails in The Culling (a gentle lullaby before and after a loud noisy mid-section) but succeeds moderately in Twin Fawn, which juxtaposes the most fragile vocal performance with the most destructive and tidal riffs (with even a punk-ish finale). Strain and Welt are interesting instrumental experiments and perhaps reveal Ben Chisholm's real ambitions, but they last just a minute or two.

Birth of Violence (Sargeant House, 2019) returned to a humbler sound, but the inspiration was lacking, and too much of the album is a monotonous experience. Where it works, it displays more mature singing and songwriting: the desolate pop-jazz shuffle American Darkness, which could have been by Chris Isaak and Jeff Buckley; Be All Things, with its Donovan-esque innocence; Little Grave, a cross between Leonard Cohen and a gust of wind; the delicate lamentation of When Anger Turns to Honey; and the gothic apex, Preface to a Dream Play. One of the best vocal shows of her career happens in Birth of Violence: her contralto morphs smoothly from solemn to gloomy and then angelic and finally desperate. The stuttering rock jam Deranged for Rock & Roll is odd in this context.

(Copyright © 2019 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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