Review: Chelsea Wolfe

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Review: Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun, released September 22, 2017

Rating: 4/5

Listen here. If you dig it, please buy it.

Written by Alex Jensen

On her fifth and most recent studio album Hiss Spun, the American singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe fully descends into the unsettling abyss of doom/sludge metal – a musical style that had up to this point been merely one among many influences in the eclectic musician’s sonic arsenal. The result is the heaviest, most abrasive Chelsea Wolfe record to date, a description that no longer applies to her last album, the appropriately titled Abyss, released in 2015.  

There’s no doubt that Wolfe’s music has become heavier and more metallic over the last several years – and Hiss Spun is the first record in her discography which can unreservedly be called ‘metal’. That said, Hiss Spun is more than your typical doom metal album. Seamlessly interspersed among the glacial, fuzzy guitar riffs we still have the ethereal, dreamy soprano vocals that have defined Wolfe’s music throughout her career. And though the contrast between Wolfe’s weightless vocals and the sheer gravity of the underlying instrumentation is stark, neither ever feels out of place. On the contrary, the fuzzy, distorted wall-of-sound erected by her bandmates only seems to elevate Wolfe’s vocals, allowing her melodic voice to really soar. Furthermore, though Hiss Spun has a narrower stylistic palette than its predecessors – seldom straying too far from its sludgy foundation – there are still eclectic glimmers of the gothic, folk, drone, and industrial influences that have each formed the bedrock of previous Chelsea Wolfe records. So while Hiss Spun is certainly a metal album, it is still more than anything else a Chelsea Wolfe album.

The first track “Spun” sets the stylistic tone for the album, but it doesn’t really do justice as an opener for the rest of the record. With its boringly repetitive rhythm and a frankly obnoxious guitar line, it’s the weakest song on the album by far. Fortunately, it picks up from there. The second track “16 Psyche” is a kind of homage to 90s alternative, with a heavy doom metal twist. Though there’s nothing really that innovative about the riffs or dynamics here, it’s still a damn good tune and certainly the catchiest, most accessible track on the album. I can see why it was the first single released in promotion of album. It would’ve made a nice opener.

But it’s the next track where the album really gets going: “Vex” opens with a fuzzy, uncomfortably sinister chord progression – like something out of Burzum’s Filosofem but with better recording equipment – only to transition into a mesmerizing industrial pulse over which Wolfe’s ghostly, reverberated vocals take center stage. From here, the tension builds with a swell of droning guitars, culminating in the distinctively unsettling growls of Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom). The one qualm I have with this track is that it seems to end rather suddenly. The asymmetry between the relatively gradual buildup to the wall-of-guitar-drones-and-Turner-growls and the song’s abruptly fizzling out makes the whole thing feel a bit lacking in closure. That said, it’s a wonderful track – probably my favorite on the album.  

A close second for that title would have to be “Twin Fawn”, which opens with a restrained drumbeat and hushed strumming overlaid with a delicate vocal melody. This initial light refrain alternates several times with one of the heaviest passages on the entire album with a truly crushing guitar riff, not to mention a stellar vocal performance by Wolfe.

Though there are a few tracks on Hiss Spun that showcase Wolfe’s non-metal influences, I found them to be for the most part rather lackluster. “Particle Flux” and “Offering” both exhibit electronic and industrial influences, but compared to the sludge/doom tracks on the record they seem to function almost as filler. The penultimate track “Two Spirit” is a good acoustic folk tune, reminiscent of many tracks off Wolfe’s 2012 compilation album Unknown Rooms, but this is really the only place on the album where we hear Wolfe’s folk influence.

Overall, I would have liked to see more stylistic diversity on this album. One of my favorite things about Wolfe as an artist is her masterful ability to meld as disparate of subgenres as folk, metal, industrial, and goth. Few other artists are capable of such feats of eclecticism without lapsing into pretense, gimmick, or dilettantism. Unfortunately, on Hiss Spun we are granted only fleeting glimpses of such eclecticism. That said, if you’re looking for a solid, engaging doom/sludge record with a gloomy atmosphere and haunting, unparalleled vocal performances, you can’t do much better than Chelsea Wolfe’s Hiss Spun.