Abyss may seem dark and impenetrable at first glance, but Chelsea Wolfe's musical sensibilities and singing make it her most fulfilling and worthwhile album yet.
It is easy to see why many metal fans enjoy Chelsea Wolfe’s work. Even though she is a folk singer at heart, her work is slightly more akin to black metal acts like Burzum than it is to Joni Mitchell. She’s not the only one with the ability to blend traditional folk music with metal and electronic sensibilities (see Panopticon’s Roads to the North), but she is one of the only artists to keep her music mainly within the realm of folk, even if she incorporates other genres as well. Abyss, her latest album, continues this metal-folk fusion, improving upon her unique sound and style.
There’s no other way to say it: Abyss is dense. The opener, “Carrion Flower”, starts off the album with some static and muffled electric guitar riffs from Ben Chisholm while clanking, industrial sound effects fill out the empty background. Though Wolfe does switch up her song structure a bit throughout her latest project, these elements remain on almost all of the songs. “Grey Days”, for instance, adds on to the impenetrable wall of sound by layering some pulsating, robotic drum kicks atop the hefty electric guitar and delicate acoustic folk melody in the back, while “After the Fall” features a tremendous instrumental crescendo accompanied by a killer electronic breakdown towards the back end of the song. Wolfe’s methodical layering of sounds gives Abyss an almost shoegaze quality, albeit one much darker and terrifying than any My Bloody Valentine has done.
Even though Abyss is the perfect title to describe this album’s mood, Wolfe does offset some of the heavier songs with some lighter instrumentation. Besides folk fingerpicking on “Iron Moon” and “Survival”, “Grey Days” and “The Abyss” have some shrieking violin and strings, and “Crazy Love”, one of the more understated songs on the album, consists mainly of Wolfe’s vocals and some acoustic guitar strumming. However, Wolfe makes certain throughout Abyss that even these softer moments carry the same hollow, nihilistic aesthetic that the lyrics and heavier tracks established at the very beginning of the album.
Surprisingly, Wolfe’s voice rings loud and clear over such thick soundscapes. In fact, it’s the one thing that ties all of the various instrumentation and musical styles together into a tight, compact bundle. Her light, almost soprano-like vocals do not ride into the abyss of music, but instead shimmer and glide atop of it all as she sings about loneliness, death, and self-deprecating love. In an interview with The Work Magazine, Wolfe stated that she wished her voice were as gruff as that of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, but it’s actually the soft tonality of her voice that makes her such a unique artist. Not only does her singing contrast Chisholm's shredding guitar riffs, but the echoes and slight reverb that are added to her voice complement the mood of Chisholm’s playing while also giving the listener a moment or two of respite before the instrumentation comes pummeling down once more. Wolfe’s voice is the one constant element of melodic beauty, of light in a world of darkness, that makes Abyss as multi-faceted, dynamic, and enjoyable as it is.
In recent interviews, Chelsea Wolfe stated that she thought Abyss would mainly be an acoustic album, but I’m glad that she didn’t follow down that path. As with most of her previous work, Abyss is folk-inspired at its core, but it’s the visceral metal and eerie ambient electronic elements in her work that become the pièce de résistance of her music. There’s sheer beauty in Wolfe’s vocals and acoustic embellishments, but there’s also grit and filth in Ben Chisholm’s distorted riffs and horrific sound effects that creates a perfect blend of tones where both elevate, rather than overpower, one another. It’s precisely this duality that makes Abyss, as well as the rest of her music, as potent for metal heads as it is for folk fans; as a result, Wolfe's art fits into a musical category all its own.