Black, black, black night. Cold. Sick. Snow. Thorns. Blood. Burn. Devils. Destruction. Teeth. Torn limbs. Severed. Rotted. Kill. Dead. Blackened Seed. Heart. Buried. Soil. Howl. Wind. Light, Light, white light.
Dearly beloved, this be the whiplashing lexicon of Pain Is Beauty. With a title like that, Chelsea Wolfe’s third was never going to be a bouquet of roses and cotton candy kisses, but this ‘ere be the land of the damned. This arrives tailor made for those who fancy their clothes like their coffee, abyss black. But hey, it does what it says on the tin, and peering through a glass darkly emerges a true beauty. A fearsome beauty. Hold thy hand, brothers and sisters, the only way out is through. Keep moving and don’t stare…
As a visceral experience, Pain Is Beauty is akin to being kidnapped, bundled into a trunk, driven into the woods — in Wintry midnight, naturally — then rolled out and left to find your way home. That’s if you survive the wolves, wardens, and witches. Spoiler alert: there’s no happy ending. Entrée “Feral Love” emerges calm and steely-eyed from shadows and fog before claws crunch the snow; “Lead them to die!” howls the Wolfe. Ripe with threat, its shackles burst to a coronary-inducing sprint. There’s a bad moon on the rise…
The Grime & The Glow and Apokalypsis proved Wolfe could spin an Edgar Allan Poe-style yarn of diabolical demonica and malevolent melancholia all night long, but Pain Is Beauty proves underneath the blood and guts there lurks the bones of a gifted songwriter. Early highlight “The Warden” weaves wonders, both gripping and poetic. It’s a hypnotic cut of fragile, crystalline electronica with flamenco sway and Wolfe’s angelic lilt pinned in ethereal rapture. Slowly it unravels its morosely macabre tale of slavery and mutilation: “The hall and the rack and the wheel it’s true,” its spectral melody sweet, its torturous tale tragic. “House of Metal” is similarly a song of the sirens — tip-toe beats, music box melody, bleak house bass, and the melting weep of violins. A Victorian nursery rhyme for the ungrateful dead it spins cryptic riddles: “You put the pill inside the petal / You put the petal in your mouth.” There’s no ice cream for dessert today.
But it’s not all decaying limbs and Beelzebub / God smackdowns for your soul. OK, it mostly is, but 2013’s Wolfe no longer sounds like she was dragged out of a lake in Salem, 1692. There’s a lush, fizzy brew of electronic wizardry throughout. The blinding, glacial synth sweep of “Sick” is the sound of beaten and bruised Blade Runners contemplating origami unicorns in stairwells whilst Tyrell’s toys crawl through the rain. “I’m not the kind of sick that you can fix / Don’t you worry about me baby,” waves Wolfe like a fading, end-of-lifetime Nexus Six as it bubbles into arpeggio meltdown. Fiery the angels fell! “Kings”, meanwhile, hammers on the door like Clockwork Orange Droogs: “They crept into the severed heads of dreams.” The frantic Oompa-machina of punching percussion, barks and echoes, a spot of ultraviolence, opera for the unstable and Nurse, these meds are no longer working. Later, the waving white flags of “Ancestors, the Ancients” swing like a bad robot twin of the, er, Cocteau Twins. The rolling waves of its entrancing electronic wash, the “bring out your dead” barrel drums, and the rocks below whisper throw your skinny bones down.
Despite the fresh analogue ache, there’s still some of the rusty clatter of ye olden-day Howlin’ Wolfe. “We Hit A Wall” bounds with funereal march and ragged Neil Young-esque chiming guitar whilst forlorn strings flicker like fireflies. “How is this the world?” ponders the Chelsea girl. The anti-everything Dadaist despatch “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter” channels the grungy, go-go stagger n’ swagger of Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing”. Wolfe in torn threads and blitz’d mascara, sighing with all the fuzzy, narcotic drawl of an overnight lock-in at Twin Peaks’ One Eyed Jacks. Her bloodshot eyes rolling into her skull, “The face of the devil follows me!”
But it’s the second half of Pain that shelters the most beautiful. “Reins” is proper olde-worlde, “Escape from witch mountain” folksome. Born a soothing, lullaby waltz, it soon breaks like wild horses over the moors, Wolfe tripping out a thousand yard stare, conjuring a litany of spirits including, apparently, the equine eidolons of Black Jack, Black Beauty, and Red Rum: “These wires they pull me to you and nobody can stop me now.” It’s devilishly infectious. The windswept, death valley dustbowl of “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” is lump-in-throat tragic, as desperately despondent as the Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” or Nico’s “Roses in the Snow”. Wolfe’s vocals are creepily serene: “I can feel the walls closing in,” she sings. This marches us to the ceremonial, nine-minute “The Waves Have Come”, which starts with one piano at the top of a cliff and ends with one piano at the bottom of a cliff. In bits. As you may be. All that’s left is for the afterglow of “Lone” to pick up the pieces as the credits roll. Riderless horses canter slowly toward the horizon and it’s at this moment you’ll likely ask the person next to you, “What the fuck just happened?”
“This suffering brings me closer to you.” Pain Is Beauty is cold, hard, and will beat you up. But in a really loving, cruel-to-be-kind way. It’s also a beautiful, mesmerizing record that paints portraits of sadness both magical and tragic that ultimately prove cathartic and comforting. Sure its bloodline is spelt C-U-L-T and some may find its relentless slowness weary, but it’s hard not to be seductively submerged within its bloody conviction. Nature’s savage and love hurts. Like a trainwreck. Throw yourself willingly onto these tracks. Pain Is Beauty is ECT for the heart.