Sunny climates sometimes breed darker forms of art. One might view it as a rebellion against an upbeat and artificially optimistic facade, or in more scientific terms, a proof-of-concept of Newton’s law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For every squeaky-clean pop icon there must be a tormented, subterranean visionary, and few cities embody this as explicitly as Los Angeles. Perennially warm and often viewed through a glittery, plastic lens, it’s dark side has long been alive through its music scene, from punk to death rock, black metal enigmas such as Xasthur, and a recent wave of goth-tinged post-punk acts like Zola Jesus and Warpaint. Further seeking to counteract the sunny artifice of the City of Angels is Chelsea Wolfe, a singer/songwriter whose work is at once highly alluring and uneasy, embodying the kind of sinister and seedy side that ends up airbrushed out of postcards in Hollywood souvenir shops.
As a vocalist, Wolfe ranges from ethereally detached to fiercely intense, though her delivery is invariably beautiful and gripping. Yet the Southland performer has juxtaposed this eerie siren song with an identity that seeks to embrace that which is most unsettling or horrific. The cover of Wolfe’s new album Apokalypsis depicts her without pupils, depicting her as seemingly supernatural or undead, or perhaps a goth-pop cousin to fellow Los Angelenos Odd Future. She recently covered a song by metal’s most fucked-up anti-hero Burzum, and the 30-second introduction to Apokalypsis, “Primal/Carnal,” is a jarring, guttural growl that doubles as black metal croak and monstrous snarl. It serves as a warning to listeners that those averse to an intense experience are best advised not to enter through its gates.
Indeed, Apokalypsis is an intense experience, but it’s also a quite breathtaking one. Dark and harrowing as Wolfe’s compositions may often be, they’re also beautifully written dirges that enchant as they entrance. The album’s first proper song, “Mer,” is a perfectly constructed beginning to the strange and otherworldly journey on which Wolfe takes her listeners. Its minor key arpeggios and brushed drums create a gentle juxtaposition against the song’s subtly terrifying ambient sounds and Wolfe’s effects laden vocals. Yet “Tracks (Tall Bodies)” temporarily puts those ghouls to rest for a slower, more spacious ballad that retains Wolfe’s darkened ambience but focuses more intently on the sheer, simple beauty of its simple melody.
Several moments of more distorted, abrasive post-punk arise on Apokalypsis, though these louder tracks are sprinkled sparsely throughout the album, their impact ultimately being much heavier when arriving between more hushed songs. “Demons” is one such churner, recalling Sister-era Sonic Youth with its furious, crashing rush of razor guitars and Wolfe’s ascendant howl. “Friedrichshain” isn’t quite as explosive, but carries a hard-edged swagger all the same, most prominently displayed in Wolfe’s fiery vocals and the song’s throbbing rhythm. And seven-minute doom dirge “Pale on Pale” rides a groove so dirty and harrowing it can give any funereal metal band a run for its money, in its most evil moments recalling the epic bookends of Black Sabbath’s first album.
Possessing both a gift for strangely beautiful songwriting and the ability to conjure up an overwhelming darkness within that beauty, Chelsea Wolfe belongs to a unique class of performers for whom ethereal terror is a valuable gift. While a good number of like-minded musicians have emerged of late, many of them from Los Angeles, Wolfe is the only one to follow these melodic demons to such a satisfyingly disturbing extreme.
Stream: Chelsea Wolfe – “Mer”
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.