It was inevitable that Chelsea Wolfe would come to this. Having released four albums of doom-laden folk and morbid esoterica that saw her flirt dangerously with everything from dropped tunings to lullaby fatalism, it should hardly come as a shock that the Californian’s fifth album, Abyss, has her plunging helplessly into the depths of sludge metal and industrial noise. Yet even if this descent was prophesied just beneath the seams of an Apokalypsis or a Pain Is Beauty, it’s still a revelation to hear the singer finally being crushed under the weight of her own pessimism and self-destructiveness.
Recorded in Dallas with Swans (To Be Kind) producer John Congleton, this weight dominates Abyss, even when it’s not manifested in overt heaviness or violence. The rumbling lurch of the bass that delivers “Carrion Flowers” to the senses, as well as the screaming, Blut-Aus-Nord wail of guitars that cut “Dragged Out” in half, are typical of a record as pulverizing as it is captivating. In “Dragged Out” Wolfe punctuates her band’s malevolent assaults with the telling line, “Won’t you take me down”, soon revealing that these onslaughts and their unstoppable heft aren’t just for show, but function as the perfect vehicle for a worldview of passivity and resignation, a worldview that casts Wolfe’s dire fate as both inevitable and irreversible.
It’s this unresisting relationship to misfortune and darkness that forms the central theme of Abyss, a theme arising in part from Wolfe’s childhood experiences of sleep paralysis. From “Carrion Flowers” to “Iron Moon” and from “Maw” to “After the Fall”, the album’s funereal songs and their forlorn titles connote the sense that Wolfe is fastened within a nonnegotiable limbo where she can be nothing but a passive victim. Within the mournfully surging “Grey Days” she laments, “How many years have I been sleeping / Nobody ever said I was alive”, while in the lumbering “Iron Moon” she confesses that she’s “swallowed the iron moon” that has reduced her heart to a “tomb”. In both cases she’s been torn from all resolve or intention to mitigate whatever nightmare she’s tumbled into, and it’s precisely the unwavering ferocity of her band’s layered attack that emphasizes the suspicion there’s nothing she can or will do to prevent herself from sinking further into misery.
What’s interesting about this defeatist and doomy turbulence is that it subtly invokes the myth of the Fall, the notion that humanity or at least Chelsea Wolfe alone has lost a former life of innocence and peace. During “Carrion Flowers” and its inexorable pounding she sings of “Love taken from you / A plague”, and in the purgatorial folk of “Crazy Love” she sighs about how “You let the Devil in”. Yet the significance of such desolate Lapsarian imagery is not that it simply denotes the suffering and loss now pervading Wolfe’s existence, but that it also expresses the inevitability and irrevocability of this suffering and loss, as well as its necessity for her acquisition of a particular identity and existence.
Accordingly, she and returning collaborators Ben Chisholm (bass, synths) and Dylan Fujioka (drums) perform the grave folk-metal of Abyss as if their plight had been ordained from the very beginning. Amidst the plinking catatonia of the title track she grieves, “We were born unto chaos”, adding to such previous lyrics as “When I move it pulls me closer” the impression that she had always been condemned to a career of despair and alienation. Moreover, because it had been pre-destined, tracks like the ghostly waltz of “Simple Death” and the creeping feedback of “Survive” testify to Wolfe’s belief that a struggle against her predicament would be futile. Throughout the LP and its fizzing gravity she frequently refers to being “in silence” and to “sleeping”, implying that she and her unnamed paramours have surrendered themselves to everything negative life has been throwing at them, rather than striving to expand on the positive.
However, as depressing as this might read on paper, Abyss has been constructed by Wolfe and co-writer Chisholm with meticulous care and awareness, making it not only her tightest LP to date but also much more enjoyable than its submissive melancholy has any right to be. Tracks like “Carrion Flowers” powerfully ramp up after uncanny lulls, towering crescendos are galvanized by preparatory atmospherics and strings, and Wolfe peaks her Sylphic vocals in tandem with Mike Sullivan’s (Russian Circles) landsliding guitar, creating a record that’s every bit as irresistible and pitiless as the fall from grace it represents.
Not only that, but Abyss manages to offer a redemptive glimmer of hope, in perhaps the unlikeliest of places. Instead of urging us to climb out of the void she’s falling into, to escape the dreams, delusions and destruction that threaten to confine her for an eternity, Wolfe counsels that we join her as she disappears even deeper into oblivion. In “After the Fall” she affirms that her lost love will find her “After the fall”, that is, after she retreats even further into herself and her own devastation. Similarly, with “The Abyss” and its wrought finale she declares, “When I dream it steals my wonder / Then sets me free from my slumber”, suggesting that in order to master reality she has to nosedive into fantasy. Of course, this might not be the most sensible nugget of advice anyone ever dispensed, but there can be little doubt that if we nosedive into the haunted maelstrom of Abyss, it’s not likely we’ll regret any inability to swim back up to the surface.