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Album Review: Chelsea Wolfe - 'Birth Of Violence'

30 September 2019 | 2:06 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

The birth of a new era for Wolfe.

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Chelsae Wolfe is the definition of a genre-chameleon. The 35-year-old American goth-folk singer-songwriter has over time shifted musical locations; from the droning indie-folk of her 2010 debut 'The Grime and the Glow'; the weird, de-tuned, witchy folk-rock on 2011's 'Apokalypsis' (Ἀποκάλυψις); the more gothic, post-punk electro sounds of 2013's 'Pain Is Beauty'; the noisier, harsher darkwave era that was 2015's 'Abyss'; before eventually reaching sludgier, doomier, industrial rock via 2017's 'Hiss Spun.' Yet all of that changes once again with the earthy, somewhat-experimental and dark-Americana acoustic folk heard on 'Birth Of Violence.'

'Birth Of Violence' is a re-birth towards her older, folkier roots (like 2012's 'Unknown Rooms' compilation), but seen through the lens of everything she's learned and experienced since those times. With minimal use of percussion and liberal usage of keys and strings, a far heavier focus on spindling folky acoustic guitars, and even some stranger film-scoring ideas in the writing and odd sounds you'll hear, this is a different kind of "violence" than what'd you expect from her past records. It's perspective; there is such class in the songwriting, and that's come from her tenure as an ever-developing artist in her time. Her sixth album is like the skeletal structure of where she was once was all those years ago, but now it's been weathered then refined, and with so much more to share too. It's easily her most minimalist, arresting, and holistic LP, but also her most grounded. So much so that you can feel the cold dirt sift beneath your feet when you walk through the shaded woods that make up 'Birth Of Violence.'

This is clearly a deeply personal record for Chelsea, seeing a talented and dynamic artist taking on this maternal role over the art and music that she's nurtured and shared with the world. Written and brought to rich life at her home in Northern California after many years of full-on touring, this might just be Chelsea's most honest release yet, and that's saying something. There is very real isolation, exhaustion and depression combated here across its run-time, as well as worry and woe for the world at large today politically, but in a cathartic, re-stabilizing way in order to get by rather than pure ennui and wallowing in dread. The poetically simple and sometimes mysterious lyricism is as gripping as any other record of hers, all left wide-open for interpretation as her gothic undertones persevere just as hard as they ever did on 'Abyss' or 'Pain Is Beauty.'

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The title of the dulcet 'When Anger Turns To Honey' best summarises the feel and direction of the album: rage dissipating into love and intimacy, which acts as both a personal and worldly commentary here. Perhaps hence the shift from the brooding, heavy-rock approach of 'Hiss Spun' to the softer, quieter acoustic landscapes here with 'Birth Of Violence.' A change in the music to match the changes in her own life maybe? Speculation aside, I don't mind what those catalysts for change were as 1) that's not my business, and 2) 'Birth Of Violence' is a beautiful, tender and confident piece regardless. It's like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one, and Chelsea pulls you right in to explore its furthermost depths, taking from it whatever you may personally want or need.

What's so great about Chelsea's music is that even though her style shifts genre drastically with each new LP, she's still able to retain the same level of engrossing atmosphere and darkened moods. I honestly can't think of another artist that can achieve that right now, or at least, as good as she and producer/instrumentalist Ben Chisholm do. It's seen in the rolling percussion that moves like distant thunder underneath the acoustic guitar motifs, cymbal crashes and foreboding violins of 'The Mother Road.' It's the floating, abstract qualities of 'Be All Things' or the human touches and unedited squeaking of the picked-guitar on the title song. And it's heard in the subtle, swirling instrumentation and creepy little tones that sit behind her vocals on the expertly grim ballad 'American Darkness.' Even when bathed in daylight, there's such an interesting, cool shadow cast by her writing and her voice. Hell, it's heard in the LP's general eeriness and soundscape vision, and how these sounds are slowly drawn-out, like on the unnerving 'Preface To A Dream Play.' (Or that ASMR version of 'Be All Things'; listen at your own risk.)

We all know that Chelsea Wolfe is a great fucking singer, but due to the de-cluttered and open nature of this record - taking away the electronics and the thick distortion - it shows her at her vocal best; weaving notes around these wailing, ghoulish goth-folk arrangements. But due to said arrangements, she can't hide, but nor does it sound like she wants to. It's those ghostly, spine-chilling soprano vocals that fly near the end of the title track or on 'Highway', at the start of 'When Anger Turns To Honey,' in her lullaby-like crooning during the intro of 'Preface To A Dream Play,' or in the refrains of 'Be All Things' that see her shine as a profound singer. Her soothing vocal drawl and diverse range are full of invitation and warning, and I find it damn near impossible to tear that palpable effect of her voice and songwriting from my mind after traveling through one of her records, this one included.

I think that most people would agree that Side-A of 'Birth of Violence' is definitely the strongest of the two sides. The ritualistic overture of 'The Mother Road' leading right through to 'Erde' makes for some of Chelsea's finest work yet. Look at it this way: there's a good reason all of the pre-release singles for the record come from this first half. However, Side-B is also by no means a forgettable or underwhelming push-over (bar one song.) The skin-crawling vibes, lowly synths, and brushed drum work of 'Dirt Universe' sound like a lonely, intoxicating funeral procession, and the subtly harsher electronic under-tow that pans over 'Little Grave' with a noise/post-punk attitude, combined with Chelsea's acrobatic falsetto vocals, stalks its prey like a wolf. There's also a full-circle journey undertaken in the record starting with 'The Mother Road' and then more or less being completed by 'Highway'; a song which sounds and feels like one's tired homecoming after a lengthy drive or a long trip away from your humble abode.

Now, if there's just one issue to mention with this record, it's how it ends. 'The Storm' is a closing 68-second field-recording piece that only features a rumbling storm heard over-head as it moves away. It's too short, has nothing to it, and feels awfully anti-climactic. Whilst penultimate cut, 'Highway,' wouldn't be the best closer, it'd at least be better than 'The Storm' as the album's proper send-off. Maybe this choice is to herald the coming of whatever her next record will be; a metaphor that there's a new storm brewing on the horizon with her next creation. Or maybe it's meant to imply that all of the emotions and experiences she's shared in the record you've just sat through are the figurative storm, and now it's all passing as things grow calm and peaceful. Whatever the intention, it doesn't place a solid full-stop on the album and it leaves you hanging on for more but not in a good way.

'Birth Of Violence' is a mesmerizing, bewitching gothic-folk record; one that I'm infatuated with. It's proof that Chelsea Wolfe's dexterity as an artist doesn't just lean towards heavier rock styles or electronic-darkwave; that when she strips back the instrumentation and busts out the acoustic guitar, her albums are still just as dark and as compelling as ever. Calling this my personal favourite Chelsea Wolfe record doesn't necessarily mean that it's better than 'Hiss Spun' or 'Apokalypsis' (her most important record due to what it did for her career), as they're all such different entities musically. It's not even like an apples or oranges matter, as it's more like comparing apples with medium-rare steak: the only similarity is that their edible. Yet that's the best part: 'Birth Of Violence' really is its own thing. Some may be a little annoyed that it lacks the heaviness and "fullness" of her last two records, but I relish in an artist so boldly stepping into a different realm and doing it so expertly too. Chelsea Wolfe is the queen of modern folk and goth, and with her latest work, she just merged the pair into another beautiful, doomy, sublime whole.

  1. The Mother Road
  2. American Darkness
  3. Birth Of Violence
  4. Deranged For Rock & Roll
  5. Be All Things
  6. Erde
  7. When Anger Turns To Honey
  8. Dirt Universe
  9. Little Grave
  10. Preface To A Dream Play
  11. Highway
  12. The Storm

'Birth Of Violence' is out now: