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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Chelsea Wolfe: Pain Is Beauty


1) Feral Love; 2) We Hit A Wall; 3) House Of Metal; 4) The Warden; 5) Destruction Makes The World Burn Brighter; 6) Sick; 7) Kings; 8) Reins; 9) Ancestors, The Ancients; 10) They'll Clap When You're Gone; 11) The Waves Have Come; 12) Lone.

General verdict: Diet depression for those (fortunately) unfamiliar with the real thing.

I assume that by saying "pain is beauty", the artist is not intending to state that all pain is beauty, unless she's been on a serious BDSM roll lately. The problem is that even if we agree with her artistically hyperbolic statement, Pain Is Beauty is a record that suffers from a significant lack of both «pain» and «beauty» — something that I might not have noticed all that acutely, were it not for the brash album title reminding me of these notions, and how they are supposed to have some­thing to do with the music we hear.

As usual, I cannot help but judge... not judge, but actually feel this music in the overall context of all the endless hours of gloomy, depressed, end-of-the-world confessions and introspections recorded in the past half-century, from Sinatra to Siouxsie, from Jim Morrison to Beth Gibbons, from Robert Smith to Brendan Perry. And the consequences are unhealthy. At least on her first two albums, Chelsea was still lazily hunting for bits of melodic freshness, rarely, but steadily falling upon haunting chord sequences and vocal moves that could be pushed all the way to the front and hint at a burgeoning songwriting talent. On Pain Is Beauty, the day's motto is: «I have perfected my Awesome Atmosphere, and you are going to get it — and nothing else — on every single one of these tracks».

It's an okay atmosphere, by the way — not awesome per se, but nice, even more reminiscent of the morbid variety of the Eighties' sound, now that she has thoroughly surrouned herself with synthesizers, programmed percussion, and multi-tracked echoes that extract the singer from her own body and place the spirit in the middle of dark magical forests and at the bottom of deep mystical lakes. Given the technical advantages of the 2010s over the Eighties, the results actually sound a little more «organic», and there is a chance that even half a century from now, they might seem less thoroughly «dated» than anything from 1985. Unfortunately, this is where the good news end and the no news begin.

The very first track, ʽFeral Loveʼ, is a very typical example of everything you are going to en­counter on this record — and its first five seconds are a very typical example of everything you are going to encounter on this song: an echo-laden, two-chord electronic pulse whose tone is slightly reminiscent of a Jew's harp or a didgeridoo («feral» = «tribal» = «wild, creepy, dangerous, arousing, exciting», etc.). The first lyrics: "Run from the light / Your eyes black like an animal / Deep in the water" — check ʽrun from the lightʼ, check ʽblack eyesʼ, check ʽdeep waterʼ, every­thing in its right place. The voice — slow, tired, ominous, sexy, suggestive of mysteries to be explored and hidden danger to be experienced. The musical development — add thin, but solid veils of heavenly synth textures, ghostly falsetto background vocals, maniacally loud percussion. The coda — back to the opening electronic pulse bringing life full circle.

All the elements have been properly located and utilized, for sure; the only problem is that the core of the song — that rising-falling electronic pulse — is simplistic and stupid. It relies on minimalism without understanding that it is actually much harder to come up with a great mini­malist pattern than with a good complex one, what with all the limitations you place on yourself and what with the long story of minimalism that has made it so damn harder to come up with cool new minimalist melodies with each passing year. Nor is that selected boink-boinky tone parti­cularly haunting or creepy in and out of itself — more symbolic than gut-wrenching (she might have done better with a grand piano, but not necessarily). And when that simple, not particularly interesting core is embellished with well-worn arrangement and production tricks from the Mor­bid Stockhouse, it sure as hell does not save the situation.

Fast forward to the second track, ʽWe Hit A Wallʼ, and we face very similar things: this time, it is a two-note guitar riff, and the development plan differs in formal technical details, but the overall impact is precisely the same, right down to the climactic sequence of the song consisting of the same mantraic chorus ("how is it the world, how is it the one" in this case instead of "we press for the water", but who really cares?). Fast forward to almost any of the other tracks, and if you find even one melody here that sinks right to the bottom of your heart and does not let go... well, I might understand you if you are 16 to 18 years old and your girlfriend / boyfriend has broken your heart and you don't have a vinyl player to listen to your parents' stocks of Cure records and you also happen to think that listening to anything recorded before 2010 makes as much sense as reading The Epic of Gilgamesh. But if even one of these conditions is not met, well...

Just a couple more observations. One: ʽThe Waves Have Comeʼ goes on for eight and a half minutes — eight and a half minutes of simple, repetitive piano chords; simple, repetitive wave of chamber orchestration; simple, repetitive lyrical vocalize. The arrangement might be a little reminiscent of the Arcade Fire type of sound — big, sprawling sonic panorama with loud per­cussion, screechy strings and bombastic keyboards — but the performance is nowhere near the level of energy typical of Arcade Fire, and the core melody is nowhere near the hooking level of Arcade Fire at their best. And while the song calls out for you to accept its depth, tragedy, pain, beauty, whatever, it's all utterly derivative, and it feels insincere.

Two: ʽDestruction Makes The World Burn Brighterʼ is ripped straight off Nirvana's ʽDrain Youʼ, which would be okay if the melody were given a different and acceptable «edge», but, like almost everything else here, it all sounds as if the protagonist were sleepwalking. Granted, the most predictable cop-out would be to state that the sleepwalking effect is intentional, and that the entire record, with its dreamy haze, is supposed to be indicative of a dazed and confused and emotionally numbified state of mind. But at this point, I am all but ready to state that 99% of the «dazed and confused and emotionally numb» artistic statements made today merely hide a creative and emotional poverty — the artist simply has nothing (or, at best, very little) to say, so, to compensate, s/he plays the «less is more» game by taking the Less and draping it in the over­garments of More. Bottomline: this is a very, very dull record.


  1. This line... "But at this point, I am all but ready to state that 99% of the «dazed and confused and emotionally numb» artistic statements made today merely hide a creative and emotional poverty — the artist simply has nothing (or, at best, very little) to say, so, to compensate, s/he plays the «less is more» game by taking the Less and draping it in the over­garments of More."

    So true....

  2. If pain is beauty, waiting for the next update is sublime.

    Not that I mean to rush you or anything. Take care, and thanks for all the excellent writing so far.

  3. Thank you. Updates will resume next week; I am travelling and finding it less and less possible to keep up an active schedule while being physically unable to listen to stuff.

  4. Your blog motivates me to re-expericence the pop/rock back catalog. Keep up the good work, and don't let yourself get exhausted. I find it a very good idea that you work across selected artist's entire body of work rather than cherry-picking highlights, like so much others do. Also like your treatment of spin-offs (Pink Floyd -> David Gilmour etc.) very much.

  5. Георгий, добрый день.

    Нет ли у Вас в планах вернуться к каталогу Pirtishead?

    И, быть может, более подробно отрецензировать Dummy.

    Да и Ваше мнение о второй пластинке очень хотелось бы узнать.

    All mine не отпускает меня уже второй месяц, интересно прочесть мнение человека с хорошим вкусом.

    Спасибо за Ваш блог, читаю его еще с 2009 года, а сейчас подумалось - отчего бы не оставить комментарий.

    Еще раз спасибо за, быть может, лучший сайт музыкальных рецензий в интернете.