Abyss


Band: Chelsea Wolfe
Album: Abyss
Best song: “Iron Moon.” “Grey Days.” “Carrion Flowers.” “Crazy Love.”
Worst song: “Maw” isn’t as strong as the other songs.

What can I say about Chelsea Wolfe that I haven’t already said? The California-based singer/songwriter is my favorite current artist and someone about whom I’ve sung overwhelming praise. Her fifth (or sixth, depending on how legitimate you consider Mistake in Parting) record Abyss comes out this week after early release of a few singles and her rise in the culture continues with the inclusion of one of the singles, “Carrion Flowers,” on a Fear the Walking Dead trailer.

Abyss marks a run in which Wolfe has released an album a year — save for 2014, when she was largely touring — since 2010. 

Early reviews have complimented Abyss on its genre-bending, echoing the praise heaped upon Pain is Beauty. While not unfounded, Abyss — like all of Wolfe’s records — is less about hopping musical styles than about the continuing exploration of themes. Indeed, Abyss takes on extremely dark tones, both musically and lyrically as evidenced by the lead single “Iron Moon.”

This is a place for opinions and here is one: “Iron Moon” is either the best Chelsea Wolfe track or one of the five best. The songs’ soaring opening moves to a Pixies/”Smells Like Teen Spirit” dynamic, all buoyed by the abject darkness of its lyrics (the song is inspired by the suicide of a man working in a Chinese factory that probably made your iPhone). The matter-of-factness of the lyrics moves to the feedback-drenched desperation in Wolfe’s voice in the chorus. “My heart is a tomb,” she wails. “My heart is an empty room.”

The darkness carries through the whole record. “Carrion Flowers” fits a zombie show trailer well — just as “Feral Love” fit perfectly in the Game of Thrones season four trailer — as the song rides a Neurosis-meets-heavy industrial vibe to eventually feature Wolfe’s almost church-like calls of “Hold on” within the middle of the song. The rhythm section-centric song rolls along like a boxing match, with drummer Dylan Fujioka pummeling the listener as Wolfe’s multi-tracked vocals pitch in and out. It’s a strikingly effective piece of atmospheric music and, like “Iron Moon” is among my favorite songs Wolfe has recorded.

“Dragged Out” follows the same thematic key. Darker than hell, the song is a four-plus minute dirge of a song surrounded in feedback and a low-tuned slowcore riff. Presumably inspired by her sleep paralysis, the song features lyrics that explore the exhaustion, acceptance and frustration of a tired life. Eventually, Wolfe simply sings “I’m so tired, I’m so tired, I’m so tired” as the guitars whirl around her.

The tragic affair of “Crazy Love” is nothing like the (very different) Van Morrison song of the same name, despite its airy drone/guitar/strings arrangement. In it, Wolfe carefully croons to an unnamed person about the time “we forget ourselves” and that she states, almost carefully, “I don’t want to live without you.” This is more like the tragic love and death of “Halfsleeper” than it is the hopeful beauty that is “Tracks (Tall Bodies).”

Wolfe’s prolific nature has made it such that her albums can sometimes seem pocked together. Unknown Rooms‘ bonus tracks were songs recorded years before, while “Feral Love” was a live staple for years before it appeared on Pain is Beauty. Abyss similarly shows its seems, with the middle couple of songs running together for me; listening to “Maw” again made me start to sing “After the Fall,” for example. The songs are lovely on their own, but the downside of an album that follows a style is that some aren’t as memorable as they can be. That could very well be a problem with me; I found Marriages’ Salome to suffer from the same issues.

But, when the record hits, it is magical. “Grey Days” has overwhelmingly beautiful rhythm changes, vocal range and atmosphere, but where it shines the most is in its lyrics; Wolfe’s comparison of morphine highs, the release of sleep and ennui invokes Wolfe’s usual brilliant lyricism . “Iron Moon” and “Carrion Flowers” are near-perfect, while the album’s title track follows “Lone” and “Sunstorm” as beautiful album-enders.

Abyss is the latest in the line of a wonderful run of records by one of  most compelling artists I’ve ever heard. Few artist have a grasp of aesthetics, arrangements and vocals that Wolfe has. Abyss is a disappointment only because my expectations were so incredibly high.

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