I take a liking to music with dark themes. Even if the genre isn’t something I typically listen to, I can usually appreciate and vibe with it. This open-mindedness helped me get into Chelsea Wolfe when she dropped her sophomore effort, Abyss. The singer-songwriter had a penchant for combining her hauntingly beautiful voice with gothic aesthetic and a slight doom metal and industrial sound, which captivated me. Needless to say, I was looking forward to Hiss Spun. After her ever-so-brief guest features on Mutoid Man‘s War Moans, I was curious if she would take a more metal approach to her music this time around. With Hiss Spun, I can confirm the presence of this more metal sound, forming her heaviest effort yet without sacrificing many other elements that make her music sound darkly stunning and unique.
“Spun”, the first track, belongs on a stoner doom album (really, most of this album does) and I love it for that. I can practically see drumsticks lurch from one skin to another, making fierce and calculated contact to produce a great rhythm section for Wolfe to croon and guitars to buzz over. “16 Psyche” has Wolfe taking on a vocal tone and inflection that reminds me a lot of Savages‘ Jehnny Beth (now that I mention it, so does the guitar tone) – The singing is passionate, almost anthemic, on the chorus. It’s no secret that Wolfe likes reverb, and it’s tracks like this where it pays off because it helps create a creepy, mysterious atmosphere as if she’s a siren singing to ships lost on a sea choked by fog.
“Vex” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. A noisy intro gives way to Wolfe’s breathy singing, adopting a catchy vocal melody. We get more speed from the drums, bass, and guitar here with the latter utilizing some classically black metal or post-rock-tinged riffing. This is also the only track with guttural vocals. Aaron Turner’s (Old Man Gloom, Isis) performance on “Vex” is the antithesis of Wolfe, edging the song even closer to a black metal feel. A short instrumental interlude track, “Strain”, has an uneasy industrial mood. Deep, echoing pulses and grinding sounds like an underwater prison of broken machinery. It’s claustrophobic and frightening in the best way.
“Twin Fawn” is another favorite of mine. It starts out very reserved, Wolfe’s singing barely audible as the drums tap away a quiet, light rhythm vaguely reminiscent of the scaled-back percussion in Black Sabbath‘s “Planet Caravan”. Then the track explodes into a grungy, larger-than-life production with heavy drum strikes and more heavily pronounced singing before the noise retreats back into its shell and returns to the understatedness from the beginning. This pattern continues for one more measure until the outro, which is an instrumental affair, forming a wall of noise rock drums and guitar. It’s definitely a ‘must-listen’. The drumming on “Scrape” sound straight off of a HEALTH album; melodic, relentless, and precise like war drums. Wolfe’s singing is almost anxious or panicked, her airy voice really reaching into higher registers to give an evocative performance to close out the album.
The sound of this album is undeniably layered and great. In totality, it has a bleak, constricting mood, but it’s also oddly and subtly liberating. This was no mistake as Wolfe intended for this to be ’emotional purge’ music. She explains, “I wanted to write some sort of escapist music; songs that were just about being in your body, and getting free… You’re just bombarded with constant bad news… and it seems like the world has been in tears for months, and then you remember it’s been fucked for a long time, it’s been fucked since the beginning. It’s overwhelming and I have to write about it.” The amalgamation of breaking away from emotional chains with the dark reality that places people in those chains to begin with is succinctly felt on this album.
There’s a lot going on here for as stripped back as it can be at times, and as such there’s a lot to like about it. It’s not overwhelming at any one point, but the totality of the full package might be a bit much for the uninitiated. Some artists adopt a dark aesthetic as a gimmick, forging counterfeits that have led to a brand of nihilism that comes off insincere and almost meme-like. Whether or not that’s your proverbial scene (more power to you, I ain’t judging!), music has undoubtedly had an influence on that. Look no further than the ‘sadboy’ aesthetic of the modern vaporwave revival. You can tell that Chelsea Wolfe, or at least Chelsea Wolfe: The Artist, is the real deal when it comes to this aesthetic. I don’t wish to gatekeep or argue authenticity as much as I want to get across to you, the reader, that Wolfe’s music seems to come from a place of sincerity. The emotion packed into this album is palpable and real; evocative with no filler.
This is a hard album to critique for me. It’s not perfect, but it’s still great. Well-produced with good writing, and great choices made by Wolfe and her engineers as far as utilizing guest musicians and how to mix the album. For me, it wasn’t a matter of this album hitting obstacles that impede the enjoyment of the music, it was a matter of how high could the album go before running out of steam. With that in mind, my only critique is that I could have used a little more. More industrial and electronic influence, more dissonance, more experimentation. More, more, more. Hiss Spun sates the hunger and scratches the itch, but I would not have turn down more. It’s a genre-straddling trip through a cold, unrelenting mist that has a lot of beauty and viscera to it. So wear your best all-black outfit and check out Hiss Spun. I highly recommend it.
Notable Tracks: “16 Psyche”, “Vex”, “Twin Fawn”
FFO: Isis, Emma Ruth Rundle, Garbage, a more metal Lana Del Rey
Hiss Spun comes out September 22, 2017 on Sargent House and is available for preorder physically through Hello Merch and digitally on Bandcamp. Follow Chelsea Wolfe into the fog on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Be sure to find her on tour in the US with Youth Code this fall!