Chelsea Wolfe finds magnificence in dread and anxiety.
(Photo: Klaus Nauber)
Hours before Chelsea Wolfe’s Portland, Oregon show, the singer tweeted that all of her clothes and jewelry had been stolen from her touring van. Wolfe joked that she may do the show naked since she no longer had anything to wear. She probably could have pulled off such a feat considering the spectral, misty darkness that filled the Hawthorne Theatre during her 90-minute set that mainly highlighted Wolfe’s new album, Abyss.
Wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans, Wolfe relied heavily on her mystique, never addressing the theft during the performance, not even when fans yelled out apologies and support in between songs. She may have thanked us a few times. We never saw her face, as she remained obscured in shadows throughout the performance, the tattoos on her arms truly the only visible part of her.
Abyss is easily Wolfe’s heaviest album, and a funereal gloom hung over the show. Beginning with “Carrion Flowers,” the unrelenting album opener, Wolfe pushed the intensity of her songs to newer levels, giving way to the two-pronged attack of Ben Chisholm on bass and Aurielle Zeitler on guitar, allowing them to guide the punishing passion of her music.
Everything about Wolfe’s newest album is bigger than her previous music. Working with Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan (Wolfe guested on the band’s 2013 album, Memorial), Wolfe and producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans), pushed her sound further into heavy metal territory, creating a collection of full-blooded and immediate songs that translate well to the stage. These aren’t the slowburners from Pain is Beauty. Wolfe is obviously looking to grab us by the hearts from the very beginning.
The sold out audience, many of them wearing black themselves, remained reverently silent during most of the performance, applauding heavily for the opening tones of Pain is Beauty favorite “House of Metal.” Not enough material from that album showed up on the 14 song setlist, but the new tracks were uniformly excellent. “After the Fall” was just as powerful as its album counterpart, while the brutal “Survive” served as a fitting conclusion to Wolfe’s first set.
However, quieter moments punctuated the evening. During “Simple Death,” Wolfe’s voice rose above the chaos, her tender lyrics about “rotten bodies so deeply in love” echoing the emptiness of her worldview. Meanwhile, “We Hit a Wall” showcased Wolfe at her best: finding magnificence in dread and anxiety.
The Hawthorne Theatre, one of the worst venues in Portland, proved to be a good fit for Wolfe. Somewhere in the grime and fuzzy sound lies the singer’s muse. It was a beautiful, sensual evening and hopefully Wolfe will come back to Portland again and again, undeterred by some scumbag asshole who preyed on her good will and trust in this dark, dark world.