Chelsea Wolfe’s “Abyss” is an Ugly, Engrossing Ride Through the Mire

Ask me to point you towards an artist that could be described as oppressive, and I’d point you towards Chelsea Wolfe. That isn’t meant as an insult given her stylistic playbook. Since her debut The Grime and the Glow, Wolfe has been perfecting an ugly concoction of doom, dreary folk and mired electronics. It’s the type of combination that sounds gloriously miserable on paper and sounds even moreso when put to practice. Even so, the ride through Wolfe’s discography hasn’t been without its issues. Her last album, Pain is Beauty, suffered from an identity crisis. Approximately half the record played to throat-crushing atmospherics while the other worked in quirk-riddled, murky pop tunes, leaving some fans to wonder which side of Wolfe would appear on her follow up. Turns out it’s the former. With Abyss, Wolfe buries all traces of uncertainty behind the shed. It’s uncompromising, unrelenting and unsettling. To put it in other terms: it’s pure Chelsea Wolfe. Welcome to the mire.

Abyss immediately sets itself apart from its predecessor in numerous ways, none more obvious than the bold songwriting decisions littering the record. Though she has often opted for the slow-burner opener, “Carrion Flowers” marks a clear departure for Wolfe. Hideous waves of distortion wash over mechanical, militaristic drums as her ghostly vocals soar and crash against the cacophony. “Iron Moon” is an equally abrasive cut, hammering the audience before Wolfe’s chilling vocals play out over soft, acoustic strums. Stark contrasts like these are part and parcel on Abyss, and they work wonders. At this point in her run, Wolfe is a seasoned artist – seasoned enough to know the subtle difference in sustaining real power and creating monotony. “Maw,” oddly enough, may be the perfect example of Wolfe’s penchant for power, though not in the way you might expect. It’s a slow, surrealistic dirge of a song that as obfuscated as it is beautiful. Finding the right mix of ethereal synth and acoustic guitars, Wolfe draws the audience in like a whirlpool. Her music might tap into natural beauty from time to time, but don’t let it fool you; there’s a sick, emotional violence beneath that will swallow you if you let it.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a murky undertow without the proper production, and Wolfe delivers here as well. Tracks like Grey Days showcase this fidelity best. Running through obscured, muddied lows in equal proportion to crystal-clear highs, the track truly shines and earns it spot as one of the album’s best. Just when the song seems like it’s about to slip into an inescapable muck of solemn distortion and pounding rhythms, Wolfe’s vocals pierce the fog with a tremendous relief. Moments later, ethereal strings lift the veil. Here, songwriting and engineering work in tandem to create something special. Sure, Wolfe’s been playing with this song-meets-sound approach for years, but it’s never resounded quite like this. Wolfe’s fourth album feels like a mission statement in many ways: tightened songwriting, consistent aesthetics and keen talent in the sound room all come together in spectacular ways on Abyss. If 2011’s Apokalypsis showcased an artist coming into her own, Abyss is that artist pushing past the pack.

9/10

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