Sweet darkness: Chelsea Wolfe’s Abyss
Abyss is the album we’ve been waiting for from Chelsea Wolfe, in that it continues a progression that remains true to a promise made by each album that precedes it. It’s certainly more accessible commercially, with each song manifesting an enormous sound, stadium communal rather than small room intimate, and her experimental style has been replaced by a confidence that supposes a firm grounding in her aesthetics. It’s powerful because it displays leadership over the one-on-one conversational appeal of her earlier albums, even with the sacrifice of intimacy. Abyss sounds like Wolfe finding her place, when what made her so special in the past was that she fitted nowhere. It’s the natural transition from bedroom artist to stadium artist and – given her connection to Game of Thrones after Pain is Beauty – it’s no surprise that the sound needs to fill a stadium now, rather than whisper in a bedroom.
However, Wolfe is her own enormity and despite the album’s collaborations with the likes of Mike Sullivan (Russian Circles) and John Congleton, which bring their own unique contributions, she is able to retain her sense of self in the face of influence, such that the music, including its anthemic drones and odes to metal (stronger and clearer than she’s done before) remains true to her personal goth styling and her Scorpio-infused darkness. In some ways Abyss is a more commercial album, connecting her with all those newfound Game of Thrones fans, but she’s been able to retain aspects of her work outside of the drone, Celt and goth front, such as the repeated techno melodies in “After the Fall” (which also includes a brilliant production flourish before the final chorus) and the acoustic aesthetic of songs like “Crazy Love”. In the album’s enormous moments, she comes across like a black metal touched Kate Bush with the enormity of Swans swelling behind her. Congleton’s production style is what makes the bridge between Chelsea Wolfe the former and Chelsea Wolfe the current, giving her the depth he is familiar with bringing to artists like St. Vincent and Explosions in the Sky.
It is this that makes the album accessible, but it is a testament to Wolfe and the power of her creative personality that an immersion into this association hasn’t obliterated the more surreal aspects of her songwriting. Her otherworldly mystery can be a muse for the masters of metal, particularly with her cover of Burzum’s “Primal /Carnal” as the opener on her previous album Pain is Beauty, and this aspect suits the whole Game of Thrones thing. But the capability of Abyss remains with her particular brand of surrealism. While her metal influence seeks a deeper and darker musicality, Wolfe searches within, embracing melancholy rather than aggression. In this she evokes an emulation of what she admires transfused through her own other-worldliness. Like the surrealists, she claims to be connecting with her own sleep relationships, in this case sleep paralysis. She uses the creepy undercurrents of this phenomenon to create not malevolence, empathy or ideology, but a celebratory wonder that embraces fear as a talisman for optimistic creativity. This sense of strange dark hope reaches a climax in Abyss in lyrics like “watch your thoughts in the dark / they’ll drag you down to the deep blue sea / stare it down, the abyss / run away, run away from it / snuff it out at the wick / run away, run away from it”. In this she refuses ordinary descriptions of the world and personalizes and therefore recreates the realities of heights, depths and the elixirs of human thirst. There is a strange, hallucinatory incongruity between the convulsive motions of the universe and her own immobility as she lies in her bed and views the spectacle.
If the throbbing guitar work of Mike Sullivan – particularly obvious in the lead single “Iron Moon” – makes itself known, ultimately Wolfe’s function is such that they transmute before her own brand of hypnagogic power. It is her musical poetry that insists on the victory of the imagination and its power to give elasticity to the view from an inert bed: it’s the triumph of inscape over landscape, and with it creative drive over influence. His success can be judged by the degree of fusion the work permits between the ability to perceive and the inner hallucination that is set in motion by Wolfe and given a concrete representation. In this, Wolfe makes an art of collaboration and a unique personalized view.