Folk glazed with metal

The first time I chanced upon Chelsea Wolfe, it was via a version of her song, Flatlands, by grunge rock icon Mark Lanegan, on his Imitations album (2013).

"I want flatlands/I never cared about money and all its friends," goes a quizzical line, the acoustic guitar tuned slightly off.

Who could convert Lanegan, the grizzled werewolf of rock, into a fan, I remembered asking. I YouTubed her and was transfixed. Who is this goth priestess who looks like a Sicilian Marilyn Manson in perpetual mourning, yet purrs like PJ Harvey's Appalachian cousin?

Wolfe, as it turns out, was originally from Sacramento, California, is based in Los Angeles and has earned a reputation for specialising in eerie folk glazed with liquid metal. It's folk draped with a Mafioso widow's veil, with a Harley-Davidson glint.

Who else could draw followers as contrarian as metalheads and folkies?



    Chelsea Wolfe

    Sargent House

    4 stars

That said, Wolfe's fifth album, Abyss, feels like a different beast. It's hungrier, slinkier and more out- there than her previous works. Whereas previously she flirted with drone and metal, this time round, she skids close to it. Into this purgatory she welcomes you and suddenly, your eyes start seeing things anew.

If it has a contemporary, it would be Fever Ray, the dark electro project of Swedish singer Karin Dreijer Andersson from The Knife, which revels in the penumbra too.

Abyss, named after a chapter in psychologist Carl Jung's memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963), feels similarly inspired.

Produced by John Congleton, who has helmed albums by St. Vincent, Swans and Angel Olsen, this is her inner sanctum amplified. It grapples with her lifelong struggle with sleep paralysis, a condition between sleep and wakefulness.

Ably supported by a cast comprising Russian Circles axe-man Mike Sullivan, drummer Dylan Fujioka, viola player Ezra Buchla and multi- instrumentalist Ben Chisholm, Abyss is an unremitting long day's journey into night.

Thankfully, it feels cathartic too. The opening track Carrion Flowers is impressive enough, with quicksilver guitar riffs negotiating industrial bass and banging drums as Wolfe intones, a siren of songs.

She alludes to her sleep condition in After The Fall, confessing: "Chasing the sun/I can't wake up/Scream and run/Don't let them win."

Amid the doom and gloom, she lights a candle for the recently deceased. Written in the wake of actor Robin Williams' suicide, Maw is an elegy lit with febrile guitars and slithery synths - as if the netherworld is already around us. Her agile purr bends, caresses and wraps around such flammable licks, asking, "Where are you?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2015, with the headline 'Folk glazed with metal'. Print Edition | Subscribe