Monday, September 25, 2017

album review: 'hiss spun' by chelsea wolfe

So here's something I don't often talk about when it comes to artists releasing albums in a sequence that shows the sound getting progressively 'bigger'. You might start off small or frail, relying more on haunted atmosphere and fragile tunes, but as you get more of a budget or presence you might be inclined to add more instrumentation, thicken the mix depth, wrench the progressions into weirder or darker or even heavier territory.... and yet unless you're a band like Swans, eventually the excess is going to hit a breaking point and you run the risk of losing the subtleties and power that were your original strengths.

That was honestly one of my biggest concerns going into this new record from Chelsea Wolfe. The haunted gothic folk of her early records was often sparse and bleak but there was something primal and chilling about its ramshackle side that pulled me in, especially her 2011 record Apokalypsis. And while I did have some appreciation for Pain Is Beauty in its fuller, slightly more theatrical sound, I worried that something might end up getting lost... and then Abyss happened two years later. Diving straight into doom metal and noise and thunderously gritty walls of sound, if anything it felt more representative of her themes and style than Pain Is Beauty, but I wondered how she could follow it, especially as her record this year Hiss Spun looked to be doubling down. Granted, getting Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, Happy Fangs drummer Jess Gowrie, a guest appearance from post-metal band Isis' frontman Aaron Turner, and all being producer by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou showed an impressive commitment to going there, so okay, what did Chelsea Wolfe unleash with Hiss Spun?

...this album surprised me, and in ways i wasn't expecting. Hell, on my first four listens I was inclined to say it unfortunately lived down to my expectations - a record that couldn't possibly live up to the raw, crushing nightmare of Abyss and thus suffers in comparison. And while for parts of this record that might seem somewhat true, Hiss Spun takes a different approach than Abyss that only really got under my skin when I truly decoded the lyrics and themes underpinning this album. Because while I might have said that Abyss lost some of its immense power when it brought things down to the 'human' level, Hiss Spun somehow develops even more power the closer to 'humanity' it comes. The last album utilized the crushing force of that dark unknown - Hiss Spun is probing what's within it, and seeing what's going to bite.

But before we get to that, it's important to discuss how the sound cultivated that shift from Abyss, because the tone of the production here is worth discussing. Doom metal is still the meaty core of both records, but the brand of noise on Hiss Spun is more complex, notably helped by Troy Van Leeuwen adding more melody to the crushing waves of distortion, augmented by kickdrums that seem a touch faster and nervier to augment thick, roiling basslines. Hell, by the time you get to songs like 'Vex' you can hear hints of tremolo riffing touching the background against the grinding riffs, showcasing a commitment to deeper atmosphere that might not feel as thick, but exposes more ragged edges. And that's important because while Abyss occasionally leaned on bells or other traditionally gothic elements to intensify the atmosphere, this record pulls from more primal tones, reminiscent of the haunted folk music that touched her early work, like the sparse electric strums and textured percussion that anchors 'Twin Fawn' before the pummeling riffs crash in, or the brittle acoustics of 'Two Spirit' with phenomenal ambient texture, or the keening ghostly vocals against the raw drum pickups and spikes of guitar on 'Static Hum' - hell, one of my favourite moments on this record came on the interlude 'Strain' just through that binaural drum pattern! In other words, for as abrasive as this record can get - and by the Nine Hells it does with the grimy creep of the guitar on '16 Psyche' or the flattened growl of 'The Culling' or that utterly filthy explosion on the hook of 'Static Hum', which somehow even gets more biting on the closing track 'Scrape' complete with metal dragging against metal against the roiling riffs - it's a record that knows how to play with tension and take its time without feeling long-winded, which actually caught me a bit off-guard considering how long Abyss could feel at points. 

Granted, not all of the sonic experiments work, and it's really a scattering of things. I'm a little on the fence about Kurt Ballou's production, if only because John Congleton seemed to have a slightly better grasp on raw texture, especially coming off of some of the crescendos and transitions like 'Particle Flux'. But you can only do so much if for a fair few songs you don't include a bass guitar at all and try to plug in fizzy electronic percussion instead. Again, 'Particle Flux' becomes the closest to pulling that frenetic deeper tone off, but when you have 'Offering' nearly going for darkwave but not with significant foundation or development, it feels like a fragment that needed more development. Similar case for the second interlude 'Welt' - I get the piano interjection and it is just an interlude, but it's repeating a motif I didn't find all that compelling on 'The Culling' and it just didn't grab me. What did work, much to my surprise, was Aaron Turner showing up for 'Vex', as his growled vocals worked well enough on the outro to pay off the song's narrative development, even if Chelsea Wolfe really does own this record from top to bottom. That's one credit I will give Ballou, in that between the carefully measured multi-tracking and smart mix balance, I can always hear her, even if it's going to take a few listens to figure out what she's actually singing about, pushing her range through her subdued lower range to high soprano notes where she's never sounded better! Unlike Abyss that seemed designed to smother her, the feel of Hiss Spun is more focused, almost more personal...

And that takes us to the content and the biggest coupe of this record. Wolfe herself has described the title of this album capturing two concepts, the 'hiss' being the 'white noise of our universe' and 'spun' being an addiction to it, a craving to plumb its depths. This is a record that might seem initially to treat that hiss as something to be avoided or deflected, but in reality something raw and primal within herself is going to drag her back. And yet right from the first few songs, you realize there's something much more intimate going on, where 'primal' is meant in every sense of the word. And maybe it's just me, but go to a song like '16 Psyche' and there's a certain sexiness about these songs, where clarity and a way through that unstable hiss might come through an apex of pleasure. But of course said vulnerability opens up a lane for real pain, and since Chelsea Wolfe has learned the lesson of Abyss, she's going to take upon both in whatever twisted flux of a connection she forges, most of which opens up lanes into her past. These are love songs used as therapy used as exorcism, where songs like 'The Culling' highlight the sun rising in the same terms that an act like Swans would use - a clarity that purifies whatever lurks ahead. And it's not pretty what she finds: frigid but feral defense mechanisms driven by a stillborn twin on 'Twin Fawn', her own consciousness unraveling in the pain as she stares it in the face, even seeing the relationship she dragged forth exposed for rotten, dead-eyed lies, giving her the clarity to find an innocence that was stolen too young. And if you heard the references to family on earlier songs and you think you know exactly where this is going, especially as it was very clear this was covered up for years if not decades in anonymous fog... yeah, Chelsea Wolfe has confirmed a bit of that, and that's one of the reasons why the confrontation on 'Scrape' has such power. This isn't just a woman confronting a figure that abused her and others in her family, this is Chelsea Wolfe who damn near tore her own psyche apart in order to find and shred the craven plague carrier that tainted her innocence while her mind still feels the trauma, the rotten hypocrisy that she scrapes out with the same bloody glass that cut forth her vulnerability before. And while it might be graphic as hell and it's not framed as a triumphant moment, it has the feel of a personal excision that while it might not give her peace, at least a well-earned moment of relief.

In other words, if you can't tell by now Hiss Spun is not an easy listen... but it's not designed to be, and how Chelsea Wolfe frames such a daring, deeply personal dive into the hissing unknown, anchored only on braided tethers of ecstasy and agony makes this one hell of an experience all the same. It's not perfect - from a production standpoint I wish the low-end felt a little more developed and there are a few missteps when it comes to some of the experimentation, but the intense delivery and primal power of this writing is far more potent. For me, it's an 8/10, definitely a recommendation if you appreciate Chelsea Wolfe's continued exploration of this sound and style, and even if you don't, it's the sort of harrowing, well-crafted, and daring record that is always worth your time. Not always a pleasant journey, but a gripping one all the same.

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