Heaviness has always been a crucial element of Chelsea Wolfe‘s sound, though not in any obvious or literal way. Her earliest records, such as The Grime and the Glow and Unknown Rooms, weren’t even loud, though they carried the weight of an overbearing gloom. Even when strumming an acoustic guitar or getting lost in effects-laden electronics, Wolfe’s music evoked an intense emotional power. Not to mention the fact that her association with a sort of second coming of goth, which merely added to her music’s dark presence. Yet over time, she’s adopted a more direct, musically heavy approach, as displayed on 2015’s Abyss, her John Congleton-produced career high, which saw the Los Angeles darkwave queen embracing industrial, doom metal and all things massive and crushing.
Wolfe’s fifth album, Hiss Spun, doesn’t just continue the maximalist sound of its predecessor, it finds Wolfe delivering a first: It’s a full-blown rock album. Produced by Converge’s Kurt Ballou, Hiss Spun is a celebration of stoner-rock fuzz, crunchy guitar riffs and muscular sludge pop, aided by the presence of some heavy music vets such as Queens of the Stone Age’s Troy Van Leeuwen and Isis/Sumac’s Aaron Turner. This is by far the loudest and most immediate of any Chelsea Wolfe album, which might end up being a stumbling block for listeners who favored her more esoteric ethereal-wave moments. No doubt, this is an album of transition and escape, but it’s one that leads to an impressive new frontier for Wolfe. She may not have started out playing heavy rock music, but she’s taken to it naturally, offering up a batch of songs both powerful and accessible.
The cast of collaborators shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign that Wolfe has abandoned her own unique aesthetic on Hiss Spun. Leadoff track “Spun” feels very much of a piece with songs from Abyss or Pain is Beauty, and though it’s bathed in a heavier coat of fuzz, it bears the hallmark slow-motion brood of past songs. Yet there’s a groove to it—an undercurrent of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism—that’s unmistakable. No doubt the presence of Van Leeuwen’s guitars will draw an immediate parallel to Queens of the Stone Age, but it’s more apt here than anywhere else on the album. The swagger suits Wolfe well, who sounds like she’s having more fun than ever even while carrying the shadow of malaise that’s always followed her. On the badass rocker “16 Psyche,” she self-medicates with sex (“Let me wrap you up in these thighs/It gets me out of my head again“), and Aaron Turner provides his own ferocious bellow in the catchy goth-rock standout “Vex,” echoing Wolfe’s own vocals with some merciless screams: “Then come the destroyer! We’ll fight with claws and teeth!”
While Hiss Spun opens with a bang, it’s as eclectic and well-constructed as any of Wolfe’s albums, juxtaposing her most incendiary moments with her most brooding. Toward the end of the album, “Two Spirit” finds her retreating to the realm of acoustic-driven darkwave, offering brief reprieve from the deep plunge into her murkiest waters, while the closing track “Scrape” dives right back into those brackish depths, her expressive vocals bathed in a blanket of menacing distortion. And “The Culling” features a gradual build over six minutes from some of the starkest moments on the album into some of the most heroic. It’s essentially a monster ballad, but it’s a pretty fucking awesome one. Yet one of the best moments on the album is one that features neither whisper-quiet subtleties nor unapologetic rock bluster. “Offering” is three minutes of electronic pulse, industrial menace and dark visions: “A thousand lives lived in circles, a planet burning at the seams/Skeletal sand as a lesson, that became an offering.” It’s breathtaking.
To leave the narrative of Hiss Spun at “Chelsea Wolfe’s rock album” might be an oversimplification on the whole, it does find her embracing the art of the riff in a more explicit way. For those who’ve been charting her career since at least 2011’s Apokalypsis, it shouldn’t be entirely unexpected, and yet the immediacy of it still feels like a suckerpunch in the best way. As an artist who has always taken influence from metal and traced its jagged edges, it somehow ends up being all the more surprising and satisfying of a move for her to embrace it with open arms.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.