photo by Jason Speakman
words by J. Edward Keyes
The evolution of Chelsea Wolfe has been a marvel to behold. On her first two records, the genuinely terrifying The Grime and the Glow and Apokalypsis, she sang like someone trapped in a snowstorm, her panicked, desperate vocals rising up from a blinding cloud of hypnotic guitars and funereal percussion. To listen to them felt like eavesdropping on a bleak, late-night Ouija board session, strange messages from the beyond rattling through a foreboding haze of sound. Her shows at the time mirrored that distinctly occult mood — she took the stage adorned in snaking, high-priestess headdresses, and each performance felt like a ritual, secret and forbidding.
She’s gradually, purposefully refined her approach since then. On the recent Abyss, one of the year’s best rock records, her melodies have become more focused and deliberate; she’s traded the amorphous haze of guitars for the pummeling, deep-set howl of doom metal, the perfect contrast to her voice. The net effect is just as chilling as her early work, but feels more dire and more severe. If Wolfe used to feel like the conduit for sinister spirits, on Abyss she feels like the conjurer, no longer passively allowing evil to overtake her but, instead, willing it into effect.
All of that dark energy was on display over the course of her riveting performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on September 9, where Wolfe felt not so much like a singer but a medium, powerfully commanding the unreal into existence. Gorgeously grim opener “Carrion Flowers” descended like a dark cloud, bone-rattling guitars colliding over and over as Wolfe’s voice — high, gorgeous, and unholy — strode majestically between. “Dragged Out” was eerier still, protracted and lurching, great heaves of sound stopping suddenly for Wolfe to howl in the silence between them. And during the death-march dirge “We Hit a Wall,” Wolfe draped her voice like gauze over the spidery chords, making the song’s message of romantic desolation feel like an Old Testament curse.
photo by Jason Speakman
That transformation is one of Wolfe’s greatest gifts. Her songs deal primarily with heartbreak, desertion, and loneliness, but her agonized voice makes each sound less like an obstacle and more like a curse, impossible to avoid, paralyzing in its effect. By conflating the emotional with the supernatural, Wolfe manages to burrow down deep into the core of what makes longing and sadness so crippling. Registering them simply as feelings renders them simple and almost trite; by affording them a kind of spiritual power, Wolfe makes them feel both more devastating and more real. During “Maw” she wailed repeatedly, “Where are you? Where are you?” as suffocating guitars closed in around her, and the panic in her voice was unnerving. On “Mer,” the disconsolate opening track from Apokalypsis, sinewy fingers of guitar seemed to strangle Wolfe’s bereft voice. She sang its opening phrases — “Hollow courtship/Creeping, endless, timeless, wasted” — like she was delivering last rites, emotionless and resigned.
Fittingly, the show was short on formalities. Wolfe never addressed the crowd, save a few brief words of thanks, and there was no jocular banter between bandmates. Instead, they moved with solemnity from one song to the next, each seeming more brutal and cutting than the last. At the end of the night came “Pale on Pale,” a harrowing number about death in which Wolfe is at her most explicitly morbid. “When the light in your eyes goes out for the last time,” she sighed, “when your body is swollen with blood.” She never completed the thought. Instead, she stepped away from the microphone and clawed out a series of ominous, imposing chords. Gradually, the sound grew, the lights went down, and the stage filled with smoke, and Wolfe receded into the background, alone with her demons, embattled but frighteningly alive.