The slightest decision can haunt an artist. This much is true of Chelsea Wolfe, an L.A. singer-songwriter whose records have synthesized doom folk, wasteland noise, and noirish experimentation. Wolfe’s 2010 cover of “Black Spell of Destruction” by black metal outfit Burzum may follow her forever. Her own music, though difficult to categorize, shares something essential with that genre. It’s austere and atmospheric, expressed with the reverb through which Wolfe often pushes her voice; she’s opened for extreme bands like Sunn O))), Boris, and Swans and has cited Gorgoroth’s “Of Ice and Movement” as a treasured song. Shortly after the Burzum cover came another one that’s gained less traction on the web: a surreal, pitch-shifted take on the 1997 Notorious B.I.G. classic “Hypnotize”, found on a collection of rap covers from Ben Chisholm’s ghostly White Horse project. Chisholm also happens to be Wolfe’s bassist and co-producer on Pain Is Beauty, her best and most emotionally direct work yet.
There are no nods to hip-hop on Pain, but their exercise in booming, electronic, populist territory is telling. While 2011’s Apokalypsis and 2012’s stark Unknown Rooms inched Wolfe closer to her melodic potential, they could only suggest the towering quality of this superseding new LP. At times Apokalypsis felt disguised in a permanent Halloween costume, a gothic nature fashioned so carefully as to induce skepticism. Her material had strong, original moments, but its overly witchy aura could distract; the veiled, candelabra-lit “Mer” video, though beautiful, edged toward self-parody. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Wolfe kept bats for pets or grew up with a cemetery in her backyard (the latter is actually true). Now, on Pain Is Beauty, we get a better sense of her talent and spirit.
Wolfe’s songs of Pain emphasize massive builds with engulfing power in the vein of Swans. It’s emotionally exhausting in equally mad and enjoyable ways, lasting nearly an hour across 12 twilight tracks of aggressive crescendos, poised reprieves, and suspended drama. The slower her metamorphosis, the heavier and more cavernous. As the record approaches its midway point, the ominous drones opening “Sick” signal the beginning of a wicked, cinematic patch. Wolfe has expressed interest in film soundtracks, and these songs, including “Kings” and “Rein”, realize that ambition, building and swarming, creaking and pounding. They arrive at grim, seasick neo-folk balladry on “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone”, which features some of Wolfe’s most trudging and startling lyricism: “Someone opened me up while I was sleeping/ Filled my body right up with sand,” she sings. “I carry a heaviness like a mountain.” The clarity of her songs can be terrifying.
These songs require more patience than Pain's preceding, hook-driven opening, but the flood-tide dynamics remain— the poppier songs are bleakly romantic, cheerlessly danceable, and equally all-consuming. The elegiac “We Hit a Wall” moves with a fierce march both funereal and inviting. The slyly anthemic “House of Metal” conjures the cool, emotional slink of dark Tri-Angle Records-style R&B, while “The Warden” has a metallic, soft-sung coldwave feel that could appear on a Wierd Records compilation. “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter” has a warped, ominous 60s girl group sound— upbeat Spector pop paired with thoroughly deranged lyrics, a could-be Blue Velvet soundtrack extra.
Wolfe’s indecipherable vocals tend to forego a lyrical message for the sake of mood, but the sublimely intoxicating strength of her melodies carries weight. At times her voice recalls Marissa Nadler, a kindred spirit who similarly has connections to both folk and metal along with a shared pop touchstone in Joni Mitchell. Wolfe sings with conviction, grounded in themes of nature, ancestry, and tormented love. “The Waves Have Come”, an epic, skin-crawling, eight-minute ballad with pierced high strings, is a journey of terror and sorrow and the record’s most intense moment— sung from the lovelorn perspective of a natural disaster survivor, inspired by the hugely fatal Japanese earthquake and tsunami two years ago.
A peculiar thing about Chelsea Wolfe and her cultural presence is how her cultish following is so disjointed— she’s popular among fans of extreme music, but also the fashion and art worlds, having repped designers like Alexander McQueen and Iris van Herpen, and soundtracked New York painter Richard Phillips’ 2011 art film with Sasha Grey. And while there’s something fascinating in how Wolfe attracts these crowds, she seems to exist alone in her own world on Pain Is Beauty, crystallizing and strengthening her musical language without compromising her original, principled vision. There’s a propulsive quality to much of the beat-oriented Pain, but there remains a relative sense of privacy. It’s hard to imagine Wolfe dancing to Pain Is Beauty, save for inside her own head.