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Sunday, May 6, 2018

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss


1) Carrion Flowers; 2) Iron Moon; 3) Dragged Out; 4) Maw; 5) Grey Days; 6) After The Fall; 7) Crazy Love; 8) Simple Death; 9) Survive; 10) Color Of Blood; 11) The Abyss.

General verdict: If you add heaviness to boring dark folk, it simply becomes boring heavy dark folk.

Apokalypsis may have put Chelsea Wolfe on the map, but it was Abyss that made the map point glow — with numerous rave reviews and the first glimpses of chart success, I suppose this album was, for many, the first acquaintance with the artist (it still remains the most highly rated and widely discussed one on the RYM website, for instance). Unquestionably, the reason for this was the heavy sound — incorporation of gnashing industrial electronics and sludgy metal riffage made all those who never properly paid attention to all the acoustic dark folk broodings finally sit up and take notice. And take notice they did! "When a sound this thunderous, guttural, and physical shakes you, it challenges the senses beyond hearing", writes one professional reviewer, and others follow. Read a whole bunch of this stuff, and you will find yourself ready to believe that with Abyss, Chelsea has pretty much revitalized and reintellectualized the old Goth genre, making it fresh and relevant for 21st century listeners.

But as far as I am concerned, not much has changed, really. Sure, on the surface this album is now darker and heavier and sludgier and more bombastic and brutal than anything she ever did before — due to some very simple and easily decodable tricks, all of which have certainly been invented and put to good use much earlier than 2015. But in essence, all of the songs follow the same drone-based tactic that she'd been sticking to: pick one minimal melody, throw on a bunch of atmospheric overdubs, and sing in between the sheets of sound with your ghostly voice. The result is a «dungeon» type of sound, perfectly agreeing with the concept of the abyss into which the artist is metaphorically plunged. The problem is that each of the eleven tracks, once again, makes exactly the same point in almost exactly the same way.

I have a hard time trying to understand why this album, apparently honestly loved by many, does absolutely nothing for me. My current hypothesis is that, first and foremost, the music — the actual sequences of notes chosen for the acoustic instruments and electronic devices — the music largely sucks. If you have never ever listened to industrial music or to heavy metal, perhaps the opening sonic earthquakes of ʽCarrion Flowersʼ could shock and perturb you; my own experience defines them as boring, derivative, and amateurish — from Black Sabbath to Nine Inch Nails, this style has been explored to death, and the melodies are too simplistic in execution and too generic in tone to take me by the slightest of surprises. And her backing band might be a bunch of the nicest guys in the world for all I know, but it does not change the fact that the guitars on, say, ʽIron Moonʼ, sound like they could have been played by a seven-year old who'd previously spent only a couple months trying to nail a few Sabbath riffs.

Naturally, it is not simplicity per se that bugs me — Sabbath themselves had shown, time and time again, how simple could be super-efficient — but the irritating feeling that there is no search here, no attempt to find a truly fresh way to be simple, and definitely no intuitive genius that can strike «simplistic gold» without even trying. And why should there be a search, if the point of the album is to merely use these melodic babies as a backdrop to Chelsea's Freudian arias about the horrors that one's own conscience may inflict on you? Abyss does not even begin to work until Chelsea opens her mouth, or, more accurately, fixes her mouth in a permanently half-open state with all her articulatory organs assuming unorthodox positions, so that she be intermittently able to sound like a patient of the aphasia ward, of the cerebral stroke ward, or of the post-traumatic syndrome ward. Which is, you know, again, tolerable per se if you do it convincingly. But I remain thoroughly unconvinced.

As the crunchy chords of ʽAfter The Fallʼ blast from my speakers and the never-ending-night­mare stoned wailing of "I can't wake up... scream and run... don't let them win!" bobs up and down upon them, I just keep saying no: this is the sound of somebody who likes dark, depressing music, but is pathologically unable to make dark, depressing music — clearly, the sound of a perfectly normal, sane, well-balanced person whose artistry and theatricality have not reached that magical level where the line between act and reality becomes blurred and intangible. This becomes even more pianful if you watch the accompanying ultra-cheesy video, a mish-mash of populist mystical clichés from some amateur director who's been watching way too many Guillermo Del Toro movies for the past decade.

I think the album could have been a little better if the very few of those tracks that have hook potential were to discard the mystical overdubs and just concentrate on the hooks in question: ʽSurviveʼ, for instance, could have been an impressive dark folk ballad if you removed all the layers of echo and put the vocals more upfront. This, by the way, is why I continue to think that Chelsea Wolfe's live shows still work better than her studio albums — by necessity, they remove a big chunk of the «sonic makeup» piled up in the studio and tip the balance a tiny bit towards musical substance instead of the production fog. But apparently, many listeners like her precisely for the production fog, even if I find most of it bewilderingly cheap. Figures.

The best I can say is — it still sounds better than Lana Del Rey, because at the very least she takes her vibes far enough so as not to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Whatever Abyss is, it will still be off-putting to the average Joe because of all the disturbing lyrical, sonic, and visual (if you count the videos) imagery. So even if this is an artistic failure, it at least seems to be driven by an honest desire to tap further into the world of the unknown rather than by trivial self-promotion. Which does not, however, mean that for my own share of musical nightmares taken from a femme-fatale perspective I might ever switch to this derivative substitute from Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins, and Dead Can Dance.

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