For years, it has been clear that Chelsea Wolfe is a mega-talent with major musical ambitions. You can hear it in the progression of her full-length albums. On 2010’s The Grime and the Glow, she created a particularly dark strain of folk music in glorious lo-fi. The next year, she upped both the drama and the production value on Apokalypsis. And then, for 2013’s Pain is Beauty and 2015’s Abyss, she began introducing more electronic and noise elements, adding a sort of unnatural eeriness to songs that were already plenty eerie on their own.
With each release, Wolfe moved forward and built higher, climbing toward something deeper, darker and clearer than she’d done before. Only time will tell where her new album Hiss Spun fits in, but it’s not hard to hear it as the culmination of her efforts over the past seven years.
It starts with the songs, of course, and Wolfe’s are as heavy and melodic and weird and magical as ever. But in bringing them to life, it’s important to credit two collaborators: Wolfe’s longtime multi-instrumentalist Ben Chisholm, and producer Kurt Ballou, for whom Hiss Spun is his first Wolfe project.
Chisholm is indispensable as always, blanketing the album’s tracks with a suffocating combo of fuzzed-out bass and sound manipulation — turning found sounds like construction noise and a coyote’s howl into vital components. If Hiss Spun is a beautiful buzzsaw, Chisholm is its teeth.
An equal factor in the album’s sonic success is Ballou, the producer all the metal bands go to when they want to sound crushingly heavy but also catchy. He has made bands like Isis, Torche, Kvelertak and Russian Circles sound incredible, and he does the same for Wolfe on Hiss Spun.
The album is heavy in many different ways. Opening track “Spun” is built atop an earth-moving riff and a drumbeat that evokes a giant lumbering through the forest. “Vex” has a faster pulse, plus the harrowing growls of Aaron Turner (Isis/Old Man Gloom/Sumac) and an ominous wall of guitar distortion. The chorus of “Static Hum” comes with Hiss Spun’s scariest roar. And “Offering” pairs spooky elegance with a skittering machine-made rhythm; the result is something like baroque digi-doom. In all of these songs, it’s Wolfe’s voice – versatile, textured, tender, emotionally rich – that both complements and counterbalances the darkness and sets Hiss Spun apart from its contemporaries, most smeared with monotonous glowering (usually by men).
Hiss Spun’s highest highs are a couple of songs where it all comes together seamlessly: Chisholm’s noisemaking, Ballou’s golden touch, Wolfe’s pitch-black vision and unrelenting heaviness. One is called “16 Psyche,” and it features Wolfe’s best vocal performance set against guitars so sharp and harsh, they sound like they could bore a hole under a highway. And “The Culling” is the song that proves Wolfe’s future path is entirely up to her. It follows her aesthetic and fits snugly into Hiss Spun, but you don’t have to squint hard to hear a widely appealing pop ballad wrapped in echo and gauze. Until halfway through, that is, when the song transforms into a slow-rolling alien death march … with a melody.
That’s the thing about Hiss Spun: It’s the sound of Wolfe perfecting her formula. She spent years working on it – adding, subtracting, blending, improving – and now she’s nailed it. Somehow, she makes gothic folk, gloomy doom and grim noise feel above ground. The odds of these kinds of sounds bubbling up into the mainstream are slim, to be sure. But on Hiss Spun, Chelsea Wolfe makes it imaginable.