Better Than… staring into the Nietzschean abyss.
Chelsea Wolfe embraces darkness, seems to live by it, even. “Dark” is the best way to describe last year’s Apokalypsis, an album that won accolades for melding black metal and American roots music, among other things.
In support of her recently released Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs, Wolfe played an acoustic set at the First Unitarian Church on Friday. Because of her influences (black metal is known for its aggressively anti-christian theology) and the less-than-pious image she has cultivated, there was perhaps some incongruity between the artist and the venue. Nonetheless, Wolfe demonstrated that her music is certainly not devoid of spirituality.
Bathed mostly in only the dimmest crimson stage light, Wolfe’s candlelight presence was appropriately gothic. After laying out the requisite cultish ephemera (animal bones, withered roses), she, her keyboardist and her violinist took to the stage wordlessly, diving into the waltzing “Appalachia.” Wolfe strummed as the violin swelled and receded, with “Appalachia” never quite offering up the resolution it hints at.
The set list, drawing mainly from Unknown Rooms, suggested Wolfe was eager to stretch her more folk-tinged songwriting, demonstrating that her sound and aesthetic owe as much to the barren guitar work of John Fahey as to say, Darkthrone.
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Between songs, she was reserved, shy even, speaking only to thank the audience and ask for dimmer lighting. Always dimmer. But while singing, she was another thing entirely: austere, wide-eyed and confident. “Boyfriend,” a song equally indicative of Wolfe’s new direction, bloomed when she stepped back from the mic to sing out, allowing her considerable voice to reverberate through the hall.
One of the performance’s more haunting moments found Wolfe alone at the church’s house piano, punching out “Sunstorm,” a disquieting and frenetic elegy to a deceased companion. “I had a strange dream. It was my birthday. I learned about it from my neighbor,” she sang, head low, her hair brushing the keys.
But if their audible in-take of breath was any indicator, many in the audience had been waiting to hear “Flatlands,” the critical favorite off of Unknown Rooms. Performing the love song/topographical riddle, Wolfe pleaded for simplicity and consistency in love and all things: “I want flatlands, I don’t want precious stones. I don’t care about anything you ever owned.” It’s a remarkable song, all the more so when taken into account the simplicity of its two-chord structure.
Select cuts from Apokalypsis got the acoustic treatment as well. “Tracks (Tall Bodies),” a signature Wolfe song, translated well with the keys assuming much of the rhythmic duty. The plodding (contextually a propos) “Moses” was, in terms of volume, equal to its album counterpart.
The crowd was vocal when Wolfe said goodnight. “Thank you so much for being here,” she said, returning alone to the stage for a single encore. “Can we please take down the lights?” And once again the church descended into a darkness that seemed, for Wolfe, a source of courage and inspiration. Nothing to be afraid of.