Hiss Spun

Band/Artist: Chelsea Wolfe
Album: Hiss Spun
Best song: “16 Psyche”
Worst song: “Twin Fawn” is a great song, but the least fitting on the record.

One of the things about getting older is that you lost touch with a lot of your friends. If you don’t have an activity with them – this is partially why I still play softball. It makes me see people I like without having to make an effort. – it’s easy to lose track of one another’s lives. Marriage, kids and the general ennui of getting older makes it so our social circles contract.

I hadn’t seen my longest-running friend here in D.C. – we met my freshman year of college in our dorm. He was a sophomore and showed me the college ropes. – for a long time when I went to see his band play a show at a local venue here in town. It was great to see him and he looks great. His life is pretty good and chatting with him was a delight. His band was the first of three on the schedule and he tried to speak the value of the third band with something akin to “you’ll really like them,” prompting me to stop him mid-sentence and say “I don’t know, man. I only listen to really dark music now.”

“How so?”

“The world is on fire, man. The oceans are boiling,” I told him while wearing a Deafheaven t-shirt” I pretty much only listen to music where white people scream into the void.”

Chelsea Wolfe isn’t a white person screaming into the void, necessarily, but her music is pretty dark. There’s an argument to be made that her music has tinges of optimism at its borders – Pain is Beauty sees value in the dark and songs like “Tracks (Tall Bodies)” and “Halfsleeper” tell stories of love in the face of pain – my favorite artist stares down the barrel of the crepuscule environment with ease.

Hiss Spun is no different. It’s arguably her weakest album since Unknown Rooms, featuring too many transition tracks and relying on guest spots, but those guest spots came alive during her live performances and the production on the record is the best it has been in ages.

Back into the fold is Horseneck’s Jess Gowrie, who was in pre-Grime and the Glow bands with Wolfe. Gowrie’s huge Bonham-esque drum sound accents the songs well on tracks like “16 Psyche” and “Static Hum, while “Vex” showcases Gowrie’s fill work and quick rhythms, all while buttressing the caliginous vibe.

Even with Gowrie, though, the record is classically Wolfe. Produced by her longtime collaborator Ben Chisholm and Wolfe herself, the album is brimming with tales of cosmic darkness, psychological torment and dissonance. “Static Hum” is lyrically wrapped in all of it, from Wolfe intoning “Shedding of blood glowing like the flaming sun” or recounting someone who “wears her horrors like a welt.” “Scrape” ends the record in a fury – she ended shows on her 2017 tour with it, falling onto the stage – of the injured, while the lyrics record recount the way Wolfe so channels the notion of a hurt person that’s not yet made the decision to be hurt, angry or both:

You carrier, you repulse me
Heard the sound of her knees scrape against the street
You, the dirty one, what you took from me
There was nothing left but hypocrisy

Indeed, Wolfe indicated in an interview that the themes and lyrics that make up the record were among the themes that pulled the album together, thus bringing distress to the fore:

I was struggling with the name for a long time actually. I knew I wanted it to be something cyclical or circular and had decided on Spun, but it felt like something was missing. There were all these keywords throughout the album; small words with big meanings that pulled everything together: vex, hiss, swarm, spun, scrape. There are a lot of nods on the album to my affinity for white noise as well, and for me, the word “hiss” represented that, this comforting white noise that exists in all of nature. So I put the two words together to create a new abstract meaning. Hiss is the life force, and Spun is the hangover and the withdrawals.
The lyrics to the transitional song “Welt” and the outro to “The Culling “– “flux, hiss, welt, groan” – even made it onto Wolfe merch. The four-word incantation almost seems like a mission statement for the record. They’re four words that often signal distress in a very distressing universe.

In many ways, the 2017 album strikes me as a very modern, of-the-moment record in its oscillations between the cosmic and the medical. “Vex” not only has, as mentioned above, Gowrie’s best work, but also features a perfect death growl guest vocal from Aaron Turner of ISIS that was recreated by Youth Code’s Sara Taylor on Wolfe’s 2017. The album’s first single and highlight, “16 Psyche,” is the picture of this. The song’s David Gilmour-esque soaring guitar solo – provided by Troy Van Leeuwen of A Perfect Circle, Queens of the Stone Age and Failure – and the song title (the name of an asteroid in the asteroid belt) reek of the cosmic, but the lyrics largely deal within the context of destroyed love and mindless attraction. It has, to my eyes, Wolfe’s strongest combination of lyrics and guitar work in the song’s final chorus. Working within the chorus’ early structure, Wolfe changes the slightest bit within the song’s rhythm and devastates the state of the world. Having come out in 2017, nothing spoke to me more.

“I can’t”
She said, “I’d save you, but I can’t”
She said, “I’d save you, but the world’s bent”
She said, “I’d save you, but I can’t”

It took seven years, but Wolfe closed the loop on her best work. On “Tracks (Tall Bodies),” she spoke of love as “two straight lines in a crooked world” and now sings of a bent world. Never has that been truer than now. Celestial, medical and emotional, Wolfe seems to have the perfect pulse of the state of the world. It’s not white people screaming into the void, but it’s not far from it.

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