Chelsea Wolfe – The Abyss

3 out of 5

Label: Sargent House

Produced by: John Congleton

The pulsing, dirty, distorted bassline that opens Chelsea Wolfe’s The Abyss throws down a gauntlet in terms of mood, and heavy, heavy sound; a thundering drum comes in to smash that gauntlet in half, followed closely by Wolfe’s haunting vocals, perhaps soothing over the damage… until about a minute and a half in, when we fade out, and come back with a vengeance, Wolfe’s vocals layered and even more haunting than before, the beat doubling up and deadly as ever.

It’s quite an impression, absolutely helped along by / informed by producer John Congleton, dialing up the low-end without overwhelming melody, something he specialized in with his own The Paper Chase, and molded into singer-songwriter territory with his constant partnerships with St. Vincent.

Wolfe is a different artist than Annie Clark, though, her somewhat open-ended lyrics crafting more mood than direct narratives, using repeated phrasings and particular terms to conjure a feeling; The Abyss revels in a few of those: darkness; being trapped; loss. Hope occasionally tipples in – past the opening half of the album, which is rife with the heft of opener Carrion Flowers’ sound – but it’s still a rather distant hope, always past one’s grasp. And, unfortunately, I’m not sure that this thematic focus, and Wolfe’s penchant for a consistently slow, thoughtful pace, lend themselves perfectly to Congleton’s approach; the sound feels somewhat “obligated” to maintain that opening pummeling, when the music might be better suited to Chelsea’s prior folky leanings. Not that harshness wasn’t a component of that work as well, but this is a very processed, electronic sound, stripping out an organic component that, I feel, made some earlier albums particularly affecting.

This also affects how her lyrics come across – the whole album has a distancing effect; this weirdness where the beats and melodies (and the way Chelsea’s voice sifts through them) can be really attention grabbing, but they’re somehow not memorable – the emotional impact doesn’t last.

Toward album’s end, when Congleton / Wolfe have allowed the opening bravado to fade, we see how this partnership can work to best effect: Simple Death feels like an “older” style Wolfe track, the electronic edge of John’s work elevating its ghostly affects; Color of Blood balances both the old and new vibes to devastating effect, with some pummeling drumming in its latter half.

The Abyss is an interesting experiment for Wolfe. It allowed her to indulge in the more “metal” parts of her sound, which seemed to open the door to partnering with Kurt Ballou and Converge and followup albums. Congleton may not have helped her craft the best album of her catalogue, but it’s a worthwhile pivoting point in her career to explore.