I’ve spoken before about the similarities between certain styles of metal and folk music, but few artists emphasise the intrinsic links between these two genres like American singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. Despite having been writing indie folk of an expressly lo-fi and low-key nature for much of her career, it was always clear that Wolfe held a deeply-rooted reverence for metal music, with her gothic aesthetic seemingly striking a balance between the primitivism and menace of doom metal and the sin and darkness of black metal. The songstress’ sophomore record from 2011, Ἀποκάλυψις (or Apokalypsis in English), for instance, evoked metallic sensibilities not solely in its foreboding title, but also in Wolfe’s capacity to relay the dark extremities of doom metal in the album’s chasmic recording quality, whilst nevertheless reaching some almost hauntingly beautiful heights in her eerie, winding vocals and the record’s bedrock of open, dynamic instrumentation, leading to labels like “doom-folk” and “drone-folk” being promptly plastered onto the album by critics. This cavernous dichotomy displayed between the fragile grace of folk music and the nightmarish evil of doom metal seemed to perhaps be directly referenced in the name of the artist’s third record from 2013, Pain Is Beauty, whilst the project’s fuller timbre pulled Wolfe’s music more in the direction of rock and metal, even if her airy vocal melodies and the album’s chamber instrumentation nevertheless brought out the folk side of the singer-songwriter’s stylings. It was on Wolfe’s previous full-length studio outing, 2015’s Abyss, however, wherein the musician finally seemed to have completely and cohesively strung together the through-lines of her folk and metal underpinnings, whilst the outside cues taken from genres such as industrial, noise, dark ambient and dark wave encompassed the overall aesthetic of Wolfe’s artistry up until that point in all of its iron-willed, primal urgency. Unequivocally, in both its sonic and lyrical foundation, Abyss acted as the most comprehensive and imposing depiction of the broader themes of Wolfe’s stylings to date at the time of its release, which naturally led to questions regarding in which direction the musician would take her sound across future endeavours. Given the trajectory of her discography thus far, it was most definitely to be expected that Wolfe would delve deeper down the doom metal rabbit hole on future material — which was confirmed to be the case as singles started dropping in promotion of her latest album, Hiss Spun — but one thing that was not so clear was how expansive this sound would be, or if it would begin to slowly but surely push Wolfe’s folk fundamentals out of the spotlight. Given that the production is handled by Kurt Ballou, the guitarist of genre-defining metalcore outfit Converge, whilst the tracklisting boasts contributions from Queens of the Stone Age‘s Troy Van Leeuwen and Isis’ Aaron Turner, it would be easy to view Hiss Spun as a fully-fledged foray into the world of metal music and, indeed, Wolfe does undoubtedly double-down on her doom metal tendencies across the record. However, it’s the subtleties in the songwriting and the fractured, rough-hewn tone of the album that ground Hiss Spun in the lo-fi folk stylings of Wolfe’s early output and, in turn, lead to the album being such a successful release. Although heavily focussed on the forcefulness and expansiveness of doom metal in its trudging tempos and mammoth melodies, Hiss Spun still stands strong in terms of the refinement and nuance that has continuously defined Wolfe’s devilish folk sound, reinforcing her position as the princess of doom metal or, alternatively, the witch of indie folk.
Although Chelsea Wolfe’s goth queen image has contributed a great deal of force to the tremors that the artist has been making in both the folk and metal worlds, it’s the substance that she provides beneath her aesthetic that has given her such great staying power up until this point, and will likely continue to do so into the future. Indeed, every record from Wolfe has retained a distinct air to it that makes each release of hers very easy to become invested in, whilst her alluring performances and intoxicating songwriting have, time and again, proven effective in never letting go of the listener once they have descended into the abyss that is her twisted and depraved folk sound. The case is no different in principle on Hiss Spun, although the general ambiance of this album arises largely from its ability to so consistently straddle the line between abrasiveness and delicacy, in a way that is almost sinister much of the time, as if Wolfe’s silky, elegant singing is that of a siren, beckoning the listener into the dingiest depths of the doom metal depravity brandished across the record, only for them to drown in the waves of thick, thunderous distortion that encompass much of the tracklisting. As such, Wolfe seems to be unleashing more of her original, primitive side on Hiss Spun. Whereas Pain Is Beauty had an arsenal of strings and woodwinds to cushion its fuller sound, whilst Abyss would invoke Medieval menace in its use of clanging bells, creaking pianos and other gothic instrumentation, the peril of Hiss Spun stems entirely from its reliance on a traditional metal set-up, with the reverberating convulsions of gritty guitar tones and the hammering drums that bash out these hulking rhythms being entirely responsible for this feeling of barbarism. The sound of this release is no less deep or dense as a result, however, rather the roaring guitars, resounding bass and pummelling percussion play against Wolfe’s wispy, wavering vocals as to extend across an impressive dynamic range, which, again, circles back to the album’s ability to ceaselessly teeter between the harsh instrumental undercurrent and the ethereal atmosphere that delicately rises above it all. The most extreme example of this would likely be the penultimate track, Two Spirit, wherein swells of ghostly ambience loom underneath the frail acoustic guitar playing and Wolfe’s equally feeble whimpers, before the backend of the cut sees the singer’s sorrowful howls soar above the searing drones of brittle guitar distortion. Most songs from Hiss Spun, however, are deficient in the delicate acoustic guitars of the musician’s past output, with the tonal polarity of a track such as the album’s lead single, 16 Psyche, emanating from the way in which Wolfe’s wailing vocal melodies wallow in the sludgy riffs and towering blares of guitar and bass. What’s more impressive, however, is the fact that these two aspects of the sound of Hiss Spun seldom seem to be in competition with one another, rather there exists an arresting degree of interaction between each element. The rises and falls in Wolfe’s singing across 16 Psyche are reinforced by striking accents in the instrumentation, whilst the singer’s soaring, infectious vocal melodies across the chorus, despite being backed by one of the loudest walls of guitar noise across the entire record, are framed very effectively by the guitars’ simple, strummed pattern and similarly sticky chord progression. Likewise, Wolfe’s dreamy singing across The Culling could have been worked seamlessly into a cloudy indie pop tune, but is still powerfully bolstered by the ominous, descending guitar riff, the hums of bass and subtle surges of metallic ambience during its introductory passage, before a brief interlude of sizzling distortion, alarming wails and white noise give way to the eruption of sheer doom metal muscle in the song’s second half. Static Hum is similarly striking, with the sparser instrumentation during the verse sections crumbling under the chorus’ upsurge of blasting guitar chords and pounding drums that routinely descend into a mechanical hammering on just the crashes and the kick. Indeed, Wolfe’s capacity to offset the nervous beauty of her fragile singing and folk stylings with abrasive doom, noise and industrial overtones across Hiss Spun is unquestionably dramatic and captivating on the surface, but the singer-songwriter provides more than enough potency in the way in which these two antagonistic components come together to tide the listener over with a degree of dynamism and diversity that extends beyond just the superficial appeal of the album.
Wolfe’s songwriting across Hiss Spun is similarly substantial and varied, with the musician making use of diverse and creative song structures that, once again, prove her artistry to not be entirely hinged on her alluring goth aesthetic. For every track such as 16 Psyche and Static Hum that adhere to the relatively tried-and-tested doom metal dynamic of interchanging more subdued and foreboding verse sections for tumultuous, ear-splitting choruses, there are even more that flaunt a more inventive compositional framework that toys with tension and release in interesting ways. This is most obviously the case on cuts like the aforementioned The Culling and Two Spirit, which employ the relatively derivative doom metal blueprint of continuously building a song up until its climax at the end of the track, but there are far more nuanced and colourful uses of texture than just this. Vex, for example, despite gliding along smoothly from the very beginning with a tense, skittish drum pattern, is interjected with passages of just a heavily overdriven guitar and funereal organ melodies, whilst the faster, more dramatic rhythm during its main body emphasises the crushing force of the very end of the song, as Wolfe’s quivering howls are gradually gobbled up by the beastly growls of Aaron Turner, which also appropriately underlines the destructive climax in the song’s lyrics. Twin Fawn, on the other hand, despite playing with the same juxtaposition of unsettling quiet and earth-shaking noise evident on The Culling, takes this dichotomy to its very extreme. The clicky guitar chords, pattering percussion and Wolfe’s wavering whispers lull the listener into a false sense of security, with the song’s placement in the middle of the tracklisting giving off the impression that it may provide some respite from the crashing sea of turbulent distortion that surrounds it, only for them to be blown away by the abrupt storm of thumping, industrial drumming and crushing guitar riffs that are interposed with deafening squeals of feedback. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the lumbering thrum of the opening song, Spun, whose oppressive slog remains at a relatively consistent volume throughout its duration, but is made so compelling in its unnerving messiness. Sinews of slithering guitar noodling, which are played through so much distortion that the intermittent squeaks and screeches of feedback give off the impression that they are constantly on the brink of overheating, intertwine with Wolfe’s usual keening in such a way as to weave through harmonies of both a graceful and grotesque nature, whilst the fact that the drums occasionally break down into cacophonous crashing and smashing adds to the anxiousness of the track, whilst maintaining a firm grasp on the listener’s attention. Undoubtedly, although Wolfe’s fully developed venture into the depths of doom metal sees the singer stay true to many of the genre’s usual conventions, even down to the way in which she structures certain songs, the presence of her foundational folk sensibilities and her previously proven compositional chops harbour a selection of imaginative song structures that enhance the overall diversity and vibrancy of Hiss Spun, making for a well-balanced and generally engaging listening experience.
It would seem that, with the growth of Chelsea Wolfe’s sound has come her growth as a composer and as an artist. The bigger and fuller sound of Hiss Spun is not simply all for show, with the musician coming through with some of her most striking songwriting and compelling performances to date, to the point that her entire discography up until this point seems to flow logically and smoothly. Just as Wolfe’s gothic folk stylings have gradually become more overt in their metal leanings, the timbre of her music has expanded and so has her capacity as a writer, with Hiss Spun being the captivating culmination of her maturity as a musician up until this point. This being said, her humble beginnings in the realm of lo-fi indie folk are far from out of sight, with the atmospheric tinge to the doom metal sound of Wolfe’s newest record being an obvious and well-worked homage to her early material, whilst her vocal melodies are still often rooted in the folk traditions that underpinned her songwriting across her first two albums. As such, Hiss Spun can even be appreciated in the broader context of Wolfe’s back-catalogue as a seamless and natural addition to her progression as an artist, and her continued ability to lay bare the through-lines that string together folk and metal music.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10