Chelsea Wolfe lays off the intensity but still crafts an unsettling soundscape
Chelsea Wolfe has an ear for the upsetting. Her 2017 record, Hiss Spun not only featured one of the most unforgettable album covers of that year but added to that with an unyielding array of guitars and drone that drowned out any sense of hope. Where that record cranked up the intensity Birth of Violence lowers it to a whisper, but its lingering, constant, out of sight presence makes the record all the more unsettling.
The paring down of the sonic viciousness works for Wolfe, who displays her voice as a versatile weapon capable of effective operation whether belting or cooing. That same paring down takes Wolfe’s music from the universal to the personal. Each track is more intimate and more inviting, which makes it all the more painful and cutting when they take a turn for the violent or upsetting.
Birth of Violence kicks off with not a bang, but a hum of strings and resonant crooning. Much like the imagery that the song’s title conjures up “Mother Road” is a world-weary track. The sort of song that might play during the end of an episode of True Detective. Its thumping drums and slightly off-kilter strings are close to creating a music video, but something sinister slithering beneath the surface removes any relaxation. Much of the early album follows this pattern, heavily influenced by Americana and softly strummed guitars “American Darkness,” “Birth of Violence” and “Deranged for Rock & Roll” all subvert the bright everyman nature of Americana with the sinister undertones that the country itself represents as of late.
The center of the album lulls a little bit. While its drop in intensity does make the album a special listen, it occasionally lends to slower moments. “Dirt Universe” is not a particularly memorable track outside of the moments leading into the chorus. And “Be All Things” and “Erde” follow the same structure, building in the back 40% of the track to create a more cacophonous exit for each track. While there isn’t anything wrong with that particular trick, doing it back to back exposes it a bit, leaving those tracks feeling a bit naked, despite their increased volume and urgency.
Those who have decided to spin this record for the intensity of the music will be let down somewhat. As mentioned previously, a majority of the intensity comes from expectations and the subversion of them rather than the mass of amplifiers that powered some of her previous work. There are a few moments where the cacophony threatens to spill out from the cup, like the ending of “Preface to a Dream Play.” The track that follows it, “Highway” also sounds like it may have spent some time watching the film Annihilation prior to stepping in the booth. The surreal sweeping synths are as unnerving and unnatural as they were in that film, making for a captivating, though perhaps not very “metal” experience.
In the press release for Birth of Violence Wolfe mentions that the album came as a result of her wanting to take some time away from the road and the motion. Given the result, this seems to have been an effective use of her energies. While her previous entries were big statements propped up by even bigger moments, Birth of Violence is a spectacular example of how an artist can go bigger by going smaller. The personal touch applied to each track is enrapturing and represents what could be a major shift for Wolfe as an artist.