Thursday, August 13, 2015

album review: 'abyss' by chelsea wolfe

It's weird, I think I'm simultaneously growing into and growing out of gothic music.

Because like most teenagers who listened to a lot of metal and who later went on to listen to Sisters Of Mercy, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode and The Cure, I've got more than a passing familiarity with the bleak, hollow-eyed chill of most gothic-flavoured art. And while I never really went through an angry white boy phase, I found the appropriation of religious and horror iconography, icy darkness, obsession with death, and provocative sexuality fascinating. 

But as I got older, a lot of the 'glamorous' side of goth culture lost its appeal to me - not entirely, but the more adolescent whinging that focused on brooding darkness for its own sake just got tired, and you should all know by now how I feel about nihilist art that can't innovate on the premise - just kind of gets boring after a while, to be honest. But at the same time, the gothic material that aimed higher, for something more primordial and existential, that added more texture to the tragic stories and added the ugliness of humanity to the mix... ah, now that's a lot more fascinating to me. It's one of the reasons why I've always liked Nick Cave, for instance.

But what about an act like Chelsea Wolfe, an LA singer-songwriter who began her career in lo-fi folk that added sludgy and brittle riffs and drone-saturated soundscapes to create a particularly bleak brand of music that showed up on the haunting The Grime and the Glow and the slightly cleaner but no less creepy and outright excellent album  Apokalypsis. Her 2013 album Pain Is Beauty cleaned things even further, added more strings and operatic instrumentation, and while the improvements in writing, melody, and Swans-esque crescendos definitely stood out and I really do like that album, it also left me wishing more of the grime and edge could return.

As such, you can bet I was looking forward to her next album Abyss, which reportedly was diving deeper into the howling doom metal-inspired nightmare that always lurked around the corner in her music - what did we get?

Well, it's tricky to say, mostly because Abyss is a different sort of listening experience than previous Chelsea Wolfe albums that recalls Swans more and more as the elegance appears all the more fragmented and primordial. The haunted, gothic glamour is breaking - this is being dragged into the eternal depths of Hades and abandoned to find your way out. Or perhaps just a nightmare that cannot be penetrated not matter how much you want lucidity or sanctuary from your own subconscious. More likely it's something in between, but either way, it's a long, harrowing listen that dives deep into that darkness. And while I'm not quite sure it's better than Apokalypsis, it's definitely a potent experiment and shows that Chelsea Wolfe can capture her unique tone with different production, instrumentation, and themes and still make something of quality.

And the best place to start would be that production and instrumentation, for sure. Where albums like Apokalypsis emphasized the spacious mix by manipulating negative space to create a hollowed shell, Abyss is a denser experience, the sort of emptiness that has filled itself with unearthly textures and sounds that lead to songs that feel bigger and more immediately intimidating. While you might not know what was in the darkness on previous Chelsea Wolfe records, the bleak danger on Abyss is palpable, even if its nature is less defined. Most of this is courtesy of the doom metal elements that finally make a full appearance in the crushing, achingly slow grooves and walls of distortion that erupt across this album. And with this rougher sound the Swans comparisons grow all the more striking, along with the lengthy songs that initially felt long but really do have enough instrumental ideas to justify their length... mostly. I do feel a few of the outros run long, especially the ragged strings on the title track, and it's hard to deny that the droning intensity of these songs can make for an exhausting listen... but then again, that's entirely the thematic and instrumental point, and I wholeheartedly expect that those who are more into doom metal and drone will find this record easy enough to swallow. And there are definitely instrumental moments that stand out for me: the bell tolls against the clipped, agonized squeals on 'Dragged Out' that later return on 'After The Fall' against oily keys, the strings that are chilling as hell on 'Grey Days', especially against that grimy beat and sinister bass, the funereal tone of 'Simple Death' against the creaking crescendos, and especially that acoustic groove on 'Survive' that conveys some palpable menace. Hell, even though I didn't love the outro, the plinking, eerie pianos on the title track are so palpable in creating the atmosphere of teetering on the edge of falling that it's legitimately terrifying. Honestly, for as much as the distortion and crunch does lend this record heaviness and density, I find myself more going back to the more sparse moments, which is why the lack of more acoustic edge or crackle bugs me a bit. I'm not going to deny it fits the mood - an album caught on the precipice of nightmares, it makes sense that there isn't the same visceral, immediate edge and that there is a film of reverb that
covers most of this record, but it didn't quite hit that climax point for me.

Granted, some of that might be Chelsea Wolfe's vocals, or more specifically, the vocal production. She's always used distortion and reverb to great effect on earlier releases to intensify her presence, but this album often submerges her voice in a haze within her instrumentation and while again it fits the tone and themes, it can make her lyrics hard to hear. A shame, because for the most part her haunting delivery is incredibly solid - her ability to convey a hollow-eyed vulnerability and creepiness still works in spades here, with her vocal cadence even reminding me a bit of early Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation, one of my favourite metal singers. That said, the one moment that threw me off was the odd lisp she seemed to have on 'Color Of Blood' - I'm not sure if it was how she sung it or the pitch-shifted multitracking, but it didn't quite work.

And this takes us to the lyrics and themes, where things get complicated on this album. Because I like Chelsea Wolfe's writing, even as it can prove maddeningly vague at points to decipher, and this record is all the more proof of that. It's frustrating, as much of the imagery she uses is stark and paints vivid pictures, like the carrion flowers on the opening track, but what those pictures actually mean can feel murky in articulating something solid or impactful, more focused on a mood than a direct message. And Abyss is no less inscrutable, carrying the sort of dream logic that seems to make more sense the less you think about the details. Take the song 'Iron Moon', reportedly inspired by the suicide of a Chinese factory worker who discovered the dehumanization of being a cog in the vast machine. Chelsea Wolfe dreams about this person and tries to internalize the same crushing sense of smallness against an incomprehensible machine... and yet it's hard not to see the song as an extended metaphor of Wolfe's powerlessness against her own mind, lacking the enlightenment to transcend it. She described this album as inspired by her experiences with sleep paralysis, where she can't wake from up from dreams and when she does she can't move. And that despairing confusion is definitely encapsulated on this record as she wishes she could just succumb to the blissful ignorance of a simple death - easy dreamless sleep metaphor - or to the painkillers she describes on 'Grey Days'. And yet throughout the course of this album you get the impression that there's a subconscious reason why she's in this nightmarish state...

And that's where I feel the back half of this album frustrates me, because songs like 'Crazy Love' and 'Survive' and especially 'Colour Of Blood' seem to imply it's a complicated relationship, one that Wolfe needs to end to take the step into the abyss of yawning uncertainty. And unless she's referring to the relationship she has with her own unstable subconscious - possible, but I'm not sure the interpretation holds up - I can't help but feel underwhelmed by this. For as crushing and huge as this album can sound, to find the root of it all in a relationship gone wrong... it undercuts the drama where it seems like Wolfe is fighting for her very soul, something more cosmic, even despite the fact that yes, all of these songs are good tracks for what they're trying to do. And hell, I like the thesis statement of the title track, how to truly come to turns with that horrifying abyss one needs to face it and all of the fear and pain that comes with it - as you've known that you must all along - and eventually, you'll will find peace. Hell, that even works as a theme when breaking off a bad relationship - but on some level I almost wish this album had stayed more abstract and kept it to Wolfe's story alone, even though you could definitely argue that the underlying message isn't all that dissimilar to the one that was on Apokalypsis in finding those moments of epiphany.

So in the end, I definitely like and respect Abyss by Chelsea Wolfe... but man, I wish I could like it more. Because really, it does exactly what it wants to do and it does it well across the board... and yet I'm still left a little cold on it. Maybe I just prefer the more implied skeletal horror of her earlier work in comparison with the suffocating density here, or maybe it's the thematic execution that doesn't quite click deeper, but for me this album is a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, but a qualified one. Again, this is a tough listen if you're not as familiar with drone or doom metal, and even if you are the mood can be hard to take, but then again, we all have to stare into the abyss eventually.


  1. I love this article ! I share the same feeling of unquenchable thirst when it comes to liking this album ,it is beautifully made for what it is supposed to reveal but doesn't stay on the same footing as her previous works , I can't stop listening to Simple Death though ... it's becoming pathological : ) Again nice review !

  2. Oh and for the lisp , I think it's intended, She probably wanted to make it sound as if a vampire was singing it , I think it's a nice detail in the whole album as a whole ...