Chelsea Wolfe, an LA based singer who balances between hellish hardcore and a delicate folk sound, released her album Abyss in August. I stumbled upon her music by chance – she was playing a show in my hometown of Chicago, and I decided to go. As I entered the venue, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Everyone seemed to be donned in black leather, studs, or heavy metal band t-shirts. But as soon as Wolfe embraced the stage, wrapped in a sleeveless flowing dress evocative of an ancient Greek muse, I was transfixed.
The album’s opening song, Carrion Flowers, was one of the first songs performed at the show. It begins with abrasive guitar distortion, later counterbalanced by Wolfe’s smooth, sultry voice. Many of her songs seem to follow this eerily gorgeous pattern of dancing between the demonic and angelic. Other songs such as Maw are silkily soft and hazy throughout, with Wolfe languidly singing, I’ve been waiting / in this silence / while you’re sleeping.
It is Wolfe’s ability to create a natural dichotomy between the rough and the gentle that makes Abyss so appealing – listening to Maw, I could fall asleep just as the anonymous lover she despairingly addresses has. However, harsher songs such as Dragged Out, loaded with grungy wails reminiscent of Alice in Chains, could easily keep me up at night.
Other standout tracks are Iron Moon, a clanging yet catchy symphony of heavy guitar juxtaposed beautifully with Wolfe poetically whispering, We bear no fruit, no flowers, no life / and we get sick, but never die. My friend attending the concert with me called Wolfe “a goth Lana Del Rey”, a surprisingly apt descriptor for the seductively troubled songstress.
In Crazy Love, Wolfe becomes almost completely folk, her wistful vocals surrounded by scratchy guitar. However, the mysterious, shadowy noises in the background are a reminder that while Wolfe sounds dreamy, her world is full of nightmares.
It wouldn’t be characteristic of her to finish a song without adding a dose of unnerving paranoia. Simple Death, haunted by a hazy hip-hop beat, seems slightly out of place on the album paired with her quiet, breathy voice singing, Lost and alone in confusion / I’m screaming / but I can’t wake up. Wolfe has revealed that she suffers from sleep paralysis and that the condition is an inspiration for her music. Though she is admirably committed to her aesthetic of nightmarish hellscapes, the song suffers from an auditory perspective.
The album culminates with The Abyss, a disturbing American Horror Storyesque elegy to agony and imprisonment: When I move it pulls me closer / when I swim it drags me under. The song is a masterpiece in its own right, littered with discordant piano key clinks and melancholic violin that both tempt listeners and warn them of traveling further into Wolfe’s mental abyss. When the song is over, reality doesn’t quite seem the same – the mark of a brilliantly unsettling piece.
Abyss is a triumph for Wolfe. There are almost no missteps, and the line she’s tiptoeing across between hardcore and folk music is more of a tightrope. With Abyss, she she proves she can walk it with confidence and grace. Her UK tour kicks off with a show on 22nd November in London – promisingly, it is already sold out.