So much of Chelsea Wolfe’s repertoire has been based on her voice filtered through layers of eerie distortion and swallowed in dense waves of instrumentation that the opening moments of Birth of Violence are almost startling. A brief smattering of atmospheric electronic wailing leads into her voice, stark and clear: “I took the mother road,” she sings, “down to goddess flesh.” As the song continues, cymbal fills and acoustic guitar lend minimalist accompaniment to her searing narrative of agony in love. “I do not have a child / But I’m old enough to know some pain / And I’m hell-bent on loving you / Women know what it’s like to endure.” Near the end of the song, the instrumental storm builds with percussion, violins, and a call to action Wolfe makes to herself: “Bloom and eclipse them / Wake up and transform,” she sings, over and over. A final iteration of the chorus – “Guess I needed something to break me” – leads into final vaporous string flourishes.
Such is the balance on Birth of Violence. Wolfe situates her voice at the forefront more often here than on most albums, and with less to hide it, never compromising the strength, she gleans from musical shadows. If Marissa Nadler’s work on Droneflower earlier this year was her step toward heavier rock, Birth of Violence is Chelsea Wolfe’s step toward an emphasis on acoustic sounds. The record’s strategic hints of Americana are conceivably both a political statement (“When you come last / In battles long past,” begins track “American Darkness”) and a successful creative experiment.
Gentler, but no less powerful, it’s a velvet glove on an iron fist. It’s fertile ground for Wolfe to rediscover, reminiscent of Ἀποκάλυψις, though more tempered and polished by time and experience, and she makes her way across it with an almost ferocious grace, a Gaia figure of gothic folk metal. She takes steps away from synthwave and doom, but only in the strictest sense. This is still music that takes up the space between dream and death, even in its most skeletal structural moments.
“Highway” is a perfect example. Wolfe’s voice, breathtaking at its highest register, opens the track almost alone, with simple background guitar chords backing her mournful reflections on stardom, movement, and exhaustion. Later on, her repetitions of the single word “highway” mimic train sounds. There is no question that this is a song for the all-too-open road through plains and mountains, ominous skies above. That’s especially so with the following track “The Storm” bringing the natural soundscape to bear in a perfect epilogue.
It isn’t that Wolfe has abandoned the synthetic electronics that have become a staple of her work over the years, either. Elemental “Erde” (“Woman is the origin,” Wolfe both sings and whispers with the fire of a creator) is a swirling storm of unnatural lightning. The album’s captivating title track opens with stuttering, processed percussion. The echoing ambience behind her voice and guitar aptly stand as signs of her ability to meld the modern and the seemingly primordial, both in lyric (“Birth of violence / Sister of the road”) and in sound.
There will be those who find Birth of Violence surprising for its tendency to smoke and smolder rather than to blaze. It builds on a foundation of solitude; we follow a lone Wolfe from mother road to highway with no distractions, and the journey is a rewarding one. Though it’s been years since Wolfe last delved this deeply into folk sounds, Birth of Violence moves unmistakably forward. “I cannot stop / I want to be all things,” croons Wolfe five tracks from the start, and why should she aim for anything less? Chelsea Wolfe’s creative versatility is on full and fearless display here once more, her music both invigorating and intoxicating on Birth of Violence.