Abyss plumbs depths only hinted at in previous work. And to explore this darkness, Wolfe doesn’t give listeners so much as a candle.
With 2013’s Pain Is Beauty, doom folk maven Chelsea Wolfe fortified the niche she’d been carving for herself in past efforts. Follow-up Abyss, her fifth album, finds Wolfe taking an industrial steam shovel to that niche and wrenching open a portal to the underworld. While contemporaries such as Zola Jesus (a frequent comparison with which Wolfe actually takes umbrage) have retreated from unforgivingly bleak terrains in favor of the mainstream’s warming glow, Wolfe doubles down on her doomsday bona fides. Her second album since the move over to the Sargent House label (also home of frequent collaborators Russian Circles), Abyss plumbs depths only hinted at in previous work. And to explore this darkness, she doesn’t give listeners so much as a candle.
You’ve got to hand it to Wolfe–she knows how to jump-start a record. With 2011’s Apokalypsis, she opened (almost literally) as a woman possessed, ferociously shrieking her way through 24 seconds of “Primal/Carnal.” She took a subtler route on Pain Is Beauty, wafting simple yet ominously metallic quavers into the ether, the likes of which would send a shiver down John Carpenter’s spine. For Abyss, the canary in the coal mine is dead on arrival as Wolfe unleashes the pulverizing machinations of “Carrion Flowers.” Blasting out an absolute salvo of piledriving instrumentation supplied by Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan and the groan of Ezra Buchla’s viola, this opening track could be an anthem to a robopocalypse if not for the haunting salve of Wolfe’s gauzy voice.
From industrial, Wolfe switches over to full-on metal desolation. Epic swells of heavy, fuzzed-out guitar erupt out of “Iron Moon,” only to then drop out completely for contrasting stretches of eerily cooed vocals over gentle finger-plucking. Wolfe has stated that her mission with Abyss was to explore abrupt shifts in tone. When the guitars mortar-blast through again and Wolfe’s distorted voice peals out “My heart in a tomb/ My heart is an empty room,” you feel the hopelessness in your bones. Abyss is frontloaded with Wolfe’s heavier offerings, a pummeling fury that’s rarely found on previous albums that angle more towards grim folk. But even so, the slowdown from the initial frenzy happens early, with “Dragged Out” still churning with heavy distortion but the tempo slinking back into itself. That’s a good thing, too, because even just three songs in, the heavy metal has already shocked and awed and would otherwise risk bleeding together.
The tail end of the album lets the listener come up for air, with haunting, vocal-driven tracks serving as the uncanny calm after the distortion-laden storm. “Simple Death” puts Wolfe’s voice front and center, with only some flitting flute-like tones and simple, plodding percussion to distract the imagery of a “desert storm,” “white light” and “blue haze” or existential lines like “Lost and alone in confusion/ I’m screaming/ But I can’t wake up/ The end of the beauty of it all.” Meanwhile, “Crazy Love” reverts back to strummed acoustic guitar and brooding viola and, like its mainstream-y title suggests, serves as the calmest, most accessible track on the album–even as Wolfe sings of letting in the devil. And closer, “The Abyss,” opts for sinister toy piano and the slap of an un-tuned guitar string to provide the most unhinged sound on the album. But Wolfe doesn’t ditch the heavier distortion entirely in the later tracks, as “Color of Blood” is as fuzzed out as anything you’ll find, while also allowing for Wolfe’s voice to pierce through the haze more clearly.
Chelsea Wolfe has never been known for high fidelity vocals, and the switch to Sargent House didn’t change that. She still sings from under a blanket of cobwebs at the bottom of a well. But this shift toward heaviness suits her, even if this focus is only as fleeting as a stroll through a graveyard. Pain Is Beauty will be a more suitable entry point into the artist’s music for the uninitiated, but with Abyss, Wolfe has proven just how suited she is to burrow into the punishing, subterranean dark.