I first encountered Chelsea Wolfe through 2011’s Apokalypsis. At the time, I was consumed by what I saw as something of a goth-pop renaissance in indie music, represented by the cloaked likes of TR/ST, Austra, Zola Jesus, and Cold Cave. Though Wolfe then operated more in the realm of doom-folk than the electropop acts at the forefront of this early 2010s trend, her music nonetheless suggested some tantalizing possibilities.
Still, while Apokalypsis offered plenty in the way of dark, densely atmospheric songs, it was hard to dismiss a nagging skepticism about the substance of the project. The album cover itself, depicting Wolfe in pupil-less rapture, neatly summed up a concern that perhaps her music was a little too forced, a little too willing to embrace cheesy occult darkness for its own sake, as though darkness were its very own genre. It was a solid listen, but it seemed hard to imagine Wolfe still making compelling music in, say, 2017.
Fast forward to the present, though, and it turns out Wolfe has only gotten better with time. 2013’s Pain Is Beauty, in particular, was a leap forward for her career, sacrificing nothing in imposing doom while sinking yet deeper into nuanced songcraft. Around this time, Wolfe’s music began getting a bit heavier — and it later grew heavier still with 2015’s Abyss — adding a few electronic accents and industrial beats that made the album as convincing as it was lofty and melodramatic.
Hiss Spun, Wolfe’s fifth studio album, continues to aggressively pursue metal and industrial music, and it makes for an enrapturing listen all the way through. “Spun” opens the set with big, lurching guitar, all blunt objects and dull pain filling the air with discordant noise. But it is only when Wolfe’s cooing, serpentine voice incants the titular word that everything really congeals. The track is the perfect way to introduce an album with such unseen, murky depths, wholly unnerving in their obscurity.
“16 Psyche” and “Vex” appropriately follow suit with their textbook metal riffs, howling choruses, and even a brief foray into all-out demonic vocals at the end of the latter cut. Yet Hiss Spun has more tricks up its sleeve than these first three (all great) tracks might suggest. “Particle Flux”, perhaps the album’s best song of all, pulls back the overt aggression in favor of a subtler dread and tension, fueled more by industrial noise than metal. The same applies to the mechanical backbone of “Offering”, which also features a surprisingly elegant chord progression faintly evoking Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” in a way that will grab you by the ankles and pull you right back into the warped world of Donnie Darko.
Indeed, Hiss Spun is packed with small surprises like these that grab you by the shoulders and reorient you, blindly, to consider its nightmare world from a different angle. The only moments where the album begins to drag are the two six-minute numbers: the quiet-loud patterns of “Twin Fawn” feel tired and unnecessary, and “The Culling” comes off as plodding compared to the more concentrated, potent material found elsewhere. Still, these moments are few, and their transgressions only minor.
Right before the misshapen, unearthly drone of “Scrape” sends us off for good, there is “Two Spirit”, the album’s penultimate track which recalls the somber folk of Apokalypsis and other earlier works like Unknown Rooms. Wolfe has grown tremendously over the intervening half-decade, and the juxtaposition is poignant. “Two Spirit” proves for good that Wolfe is capable of painting her emotional worlds with delicate brushwork as readily as with broad strokes. The shadows, as well as the sparse pinpricks of light that populate Hiss Spun suggest an uncanny landscape, one filled with strange nightmares regarding you from a distance. Which is to say the album has, incontrovertibly this time, real depth and mystery.