Chelsea Wolfe’s “Abyss”: Music review

The first notes of Chelsea Wolfe’s new album drop you down into an abyss of seething black distortion. Someone commented to me that hearing the opening strains of the opening track “Carrion Flowers” made them feel like they were “going into battle,” and that’s not a bad way to describe the intensity of the opener.
Gone are the reverbed acoustic chords and the liquid vocals of “Unknown Rooms,” or the crazy jagged spiderweb guitar lines of “Apokalypsis,” replaced with this droning crush of something that is hard to identify as a guitar or a synth or who knows what, as Wolfe’s voice comes floating in through the haze.
The second track’s opening crash of noise levels out after 30 seconds into more familiar Chelsea Wolfe territory, leaving her softly singing over a subdued clean-tone guitar riff that slowly invites the distortion and the intensity back in.
Wolfe’s voice circles in creepy harmonies, like bats circling in the dark, in “Dragged out,” while a slow dragging bass line moves through the chord changes like an anesthetized version of something from the Cure’s “Pornography” album struggling for life in a tarpit.
“Maw” builds from a sparse and reflective downward guitar riff, layering a second guitar strummed in distorted chords, then a third guitar adding linear harmonies, before stripping back to the solo riff. All the while the black flames of Wolfe’s voice flicker their shadows across a resonant backdrop.
“Grey Days” brings me back to that “Pornography” motif, almost as if Wolfe is channeling that same level of gothic emotional intensity, operating with the same skill and depth that Robert Smith worked with at his height. This is “One Hundred Years” mixed with the modern-era angst captured so well on some of the mid 2000s Radiohead albums, and the first time I heard this song and how the chord progression and the vocals seem to expand and develop over that throbbing bassline, I realized what an accomplishment this album is.
“After the Fall” merges themes and tones of “Maw” and “Grey Days,” like a dark sunset over a floodplain, the electronic drum beat reminiscent of the bleak void of Aphex Twin’s “At The Heart Of It All” remix on the Nine Inch Nails album “Further Down The Spiral.” There’s a chilling loneliness to the ringing piano notes, and a deep sadness in Wolfe’s voice as the guitars crash in and out over the machine heartbeat. Acid-trip synth lines twist agonized corners like a warped echo from a Pink Floyd album, and the circular guitar (or synth?) line that appears around the four minute mark is like one of those clockwork interludes in a Floyd epic, with a distant guitar note whining in the furthest reaches, the waves of guitar ready to lap back up on the shorelines.
Washed up on the shore, “Crazy Love” strips back to an echoey two-chord acoustic progression and a solo Wolfe voice, a jagged tense violin line appearing halfway through the song.
“Simple Death” moves the album slowly forward from the intense depths of this heart, like a slow-moving sibling for Radiohead’s “Climbing Up The Walls” on 1997’s “Ok Computer.”
“Survive,” like “Maw,” is built around a sparse descending guitar riff, allowing these closing chapters of the album to breathe and recover from the earlier onslaughts. There are large stretches in “Color of Blood” featuring only what sounds like a distorted bass and Wolfe’s haunting cathedral-echo vocals, with strings and drums introduced later.
The final and title track, “Abyss,” cycles around a slightly off-tune piano melody that would not sound out of place in a John Cage “Prepared Piano” piece, and comes to a conclusion amid the strains of a tortured violin that could easily be the mute viol-player’s frantic attempts to hold back the otherworldly void in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann.”
“Abyss” is an album that covers a lot of ground – from heavy darkwave to more acoustic-centered numbers to openly spaced out mildly distorted guitar-riff based songs, with touches of electronic drums, insistent tribal tom beats, long droning guitar tones alternating with the kind of odd-shaped licks such as we heard on older tracks like “Mer.” Chelsea goes backwards, forwards, sideways.
I can’t wait to see Chelsea Wolfe again when she plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg next month.

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