The first time I heard Chelsea Wolfe’s music was from a Game of Thrones trailer, and, knowing myself now, it is surprising that I actually found “Feral Love” to be atrociously boring. So much so that I laughed at the edgy, high school goth kid aesthetic that was Wolfe’s third album Pain is Beauty. Have you seen that edgy font? Wolfe seemed like the poster girl for those wanting to divert themselves from those wearing flower tiaras, instead wanting to don black dresses for the sake of being dark.
But that is not what Chelsea Wolfe’s music, or presence, is about. Her past three releases have had listeners dive deep into a sea of blackness in search for meaning that is not even there. With Abyss, Wolfe manages to keep herself equal to her very distorted and tuned-down instrumentation in songwriting and how she carries herself, whether that be in the form of a perpetual queen, a fallen warrior, a lover scorned, and a “normal” person. With The Grime and The Glow and Apokalypsis, the focus was on testing the waters of noise and doom. Pain is Beauty added synths to create an even more foreboding hopelessness to help this Sacremento-based Neofolk singer-songwriter. Abyss is not meant to take us deeper into the titular space, contrary to what the title might imply. Instead the album is Wolfe’s attempt at making listeners mentally defecate themselves out of fear.
The album is filled to the brim with sludgy guitars, an almost ubiquitous distortion, industrial noise, and imagery. Whenever these elements temporarily fade, it is noticeable. At the same time, it is not actually a respite from the abrasive drums and strums. Tracks like “Carrion Flowers” and “Maw” take in their quiet moments to greet us with the expanse of darkness whenever our ears are not bombarded with buzzsaw synths and the haunted house pianos of the latter track’s doom metal vibe. Even without the four above elements, Wolfe lets loose her own personal demons in ways that would make Scooby Doo leap out of his skeleton. “Dragged Out” implements these demonic cries while Wolfe is losing her mind, while “Survive” makes listeners relive that goosebump-activating moment at the beginning of Apokalypsis with the track’s feral roars. What can be argued as childish and contrived is seen by me as Wolfe expanding ways of helping her shy self express how she feels pestered by the past, present, and future more than others are.
Melodically, the synths on the album are not to show off flashy sounds, something Pain is Beauty seemed to do. What instrumentation indicates on this album is Wolfe’s control over these dark tones. Seldom do I feel like the distortion overwhelms her feelings. “Simple Death,” in all its sadness that positions you in a dreary abandoned house, becomes the song that indicates the singer’s pain, adopting an intimacy that allows us to see how inevitable the change from beautiful to ugly is. “Survive,” too, with its System of a Down-inspired guitar melody, references that survival is tiring, yet it is all we do. Pure fear is what Wolfe experiences days on end, and through the melodies, whether they be the pounding of a large drum on “Grey Days” or the leading battle charge in “After the Fall,” there is the understanding that Wolfe is adopting the darkness and becoming a figure above it.
The main problem with this album is reluctance. I find The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander form herself within the minimally electronic breakdown in “After the Fall.” In all her hacker glory, she is constructed and I cannot help but feel cheated when she up and gets deleted after that section, never to be rebuilt in similar electronic parts later in the record. While exploring the expansive and cloudy fog of sound, she ignores this element of smallness and does herself and her audience a disservice. She is also reluctant in being melodious (“Survive”). When she strings some high notes, they are appropriately delicate, waiting to be flattened in their wispiness. Not finding this in other tracks does not make me dwell in different shades of sadness. I do not expect a change like Corey Taylor in Slipknot garb versus him in Stone Sour jeans. I want to feel everything she does in all its honesty.
Where Pain is Beauty felt like finding somewhere to call home, Abyss is the entering of this home to find its extremely decrepit nature scary. There are no jump scares since it is a more silent form of danger. I do not always want novel creaky sounds. I want to feel the same thing I did before, just more of it. Then you can transfer me to another floor in this modern Tartarus.
Dustin Ragucos is a writer of things fictional, poetic, and musical. His main loves include Death Grips and Indie music. Dustin’s blog is host to a weekly blurb about albums old and new.