Chelsea Wolfe

Abyss review

Metal isn’t a hobby sport – or so the story goes. It is more than the sum of its distortion pedals, down-tuned guitars and molten cymbals. Metal is a cradle-to-grave church of the outsider; birth occurring when you first heard Black Sabbath, Slayer or Metallica. On Abyss, however, Los Angeles’ Chelsea Wolfe dabbles in it, owns it, then walks away.

The opening track, ‘Carrion Flowers’, gains the attention it seeks from stabs of power electronics contrast with choral ambience. ‘Iron Moon’ lunges from the gates, teeth bared, its lava-flow force and scorched desert vibe evoking Washington metal band, Earth. "My heart is a tomb/My heart is an empty room," Wolfe wails over growling bass guitar in a chorus as epic as the words suggest. Men’s hearts are typically crushed, chained, bleeding or destroyed. The harm that precedes Wolfe’s emotional wasteland is implied, not explicated, and is more intense as a result. 

The thunderous static of the guitar tone on ‘Dragged Out’ could be that of stoner doom doyens, Electric Wizard, with a bell dong sample that’s surely a nod to ‘Black Sabbath’. Played live, both of Wolfe’s tracks would invoke ritual beer sloshing and head-nodding. It’s only song three and the deal is sealed.

But there are eight more to go. ‘Simple Death’ is a standout too: just the uncertain skip of a drum machine and a synth that mimics a slide guitar (or is it a coyote howl?) that crests into a heart-stirring ascent as Wolfe sings: "Sometimes I don’t know / If I’ll find the answer or if / I’ve even asked the question." It’s a song you’d use as the outro on a melancholic mix-tape to bottle the mood good and proper. 

Others are by turns sinister, broken, moody and haunting. All are adept at sketching out moods and enriched by Wolfe’s voice and vocal melodies but none reach the heights of ‘Iron Moon’ and ‘Dragged Out’, the former especially, which makes Abyss  a top-heavy trail-out. "I can never stick to one genre of music … for me, things come together thematically," Wolfe told The Fly a few years back, which doesn’t stop me hoping she’ll make a start-to-finish metal record. It could be the way metal guitar melts and melds song structures together but on those tracks you sense real band chemistry, a step forward for Wolfe whose songs’ instrumentation can sometimes sound like studio wizardry crafted for a solo artist.

Whatever she does next, in any case, I’m there. It’s not just about her music anyway – Wolfe is a package deal. From her gothic aesthetic to her ghoulish childhood fixations ("I was always into watching the world news and tormenting myself over how horrible the world was") to videos that could double as the cursed tape in horror film, The Ring, right down to her Norwegian ancestry. Wolfe makes being a goth cool again – you want to cheer instead of giggle when she wears shrouds, capes, or a dress with a neckline made from fangs.

Live, she’s tall, pale, dramatic and just getting better. At her 2012 Sydney show, her first song was drowned out by a rock band playing next door and she was unable to recover us from the buzzkill. About a year later, she vanquished the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. After, I talked to some guys who were mad for her. "She’s so beautiful," they gushed. "Her eyes." Even her genesis as a performer ticks the box of troubled introspection – she became known for wearing veils at gigs to ward off stage fright. In an interview with Vice Mag in 2013, when asked "What’s the last nightmare you had?" Wolfe replied "Actually last night I dreamed about being on tour." I love that unintentional humour too: so goth, so LA, so earnest. 

I can’t help but barrack for a woman who occupies a role so holistically and so theatrically. Everything matches. I don’t care if she is entirely as represented, completely conjured, or features just a few papered-over cracks. Alice Cooper has spent the best part of two decades buggying around a golf course. In the words of Jello Biafra: "The myth is real, let’s eat."

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