Music

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss

Although Abyss is most unnerving in its quieter moments, the album is Wolfe’s most well-paced and effective release to date.


Chelsea Wolfe

Abyss

Label: Sargent House
US Release Date: 2015-08-07
UK Release Date: 2015-08-07
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Chelsea Wolfe’s fifth full length, Abyss, is as fluid as it is murky, as graceful as it is punishing. Some songs extend the gothic grace of 2013’s excellent Pain Is Beauty, while others approach the listener with a heaviness akin to a demon sitting square on your chest as you sleep. Seeing as Abyss was inspired by Wolfe’s struggle with sleep paralysis, it is fitting that the album’s songs often unfold like a devious shadow stalking across a bedroom in the dead of night. Wolfe grapples with her sleep paralysis both through some of her doomiest compositions yet and some slow burners. Although Abyss is most unnerving in its quieter moments, the album is Wolfe’s most well-paced and effective release to date.

Much of Abyss’ bombast is up front, with opener “Carrion Flowers” immediately enfolding the listener in swathes of industrial sound. The heaviness which introduces “Iron Moon” subsides briefly for a hushed verse before rising again in a distorted chorus. The bombast, then quiet, quiet, then bombast formula becomes more measured as the album progresses. Ezra Buchla’s viola playing on “Grey Days” does this in a way that is both elegant and sets the stage for the song’s doom elements to really ratchet up the suspense. This loud/quiet/loud dynamic has been used so many times in rock music, but Wolfe’s songwriting, instrumentation, and vocals are compelling enough to keep the atmosphere from becoming stale.

That atmosphere solidifies itself in Abyss’ second half, its progression from “Crazy Love” to the closing title track a journey in and of itself. “Crazy Love” hearkens back to Wolfe’s more folk-centric songs, a side of the artist that had previously been on strong display in 2012’s Unknown Rooms. The gothy orchestration “Crazy Love” is given allows it to fit right in on Abyss. “Simple Death” is a sparse meditation that’s filled out by Wolfe’s sorrowful delivery. It is perhaps the Abyss track which feels most closely related to Pain Is Beauty.

Abyss’ best exercise in suspense-building is quite possibly “Survive”. What begins as a spooky folk offering in the same vein as “Simple Death” takes off a little after the three and a half minute mark, first with some ping-ponging drums, then with a full-blown, cymbal-crashing assault and almost unbearably intense sonic ghostliness. “Color of Blood” rides in on a wash of fuzz and raises the unease with another pulsating performance from drummer Dylan Fujioka. Closer “Abyss” does the most with the least, employing a spine-tingling piano line and Wolfe’s muted murmurings of “Watch your thoughts in the dark / they’ll drag you down to the deep blue sea” to unnerve the listener. The song changes direction with a fitful viola solo, the sleep paralysis breaking for a bout of restlessness.

Despite its sometimes oppressive nature, Abyss still showcases some of Wolfe’s brightest attributes, such as the quiet strength of her more acoustic numbers and her full-bodied vocals. The dark beauty Wolfe imbues even her harshest material with makes one wish she would have made an appearance with such guest vocalists as St. Vincent, Little Annie and Al Spx on Swans’ 2014 release, To Be Kind, an album which Abyss producer John Congleton also worked on. Abyss may not be a go-to for either late-night or summer listening, but it ably solidifies Wolfe’s presence as a devastatingly unique voice in our current musical climate.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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