Chelsea Wolfe’s ‘Hiss Spun’ features some brilliant ideas, but too few
The way I hear Chelsea Wolfe’s sound most frequently explained to people is that her music is what would happen if Lana Del Rey had decided to be a metal musician instead of a pop one.
And while I think this description is overly simple and a bit reductive, I couldn’t help but say, “Well, you know, she’s a bit like Lana Del Rey backed by a doom metal band” when I told some friends I’d be reviewing “Hiss Spun,” the songstress’ latest record.
There’s definitely some truth to this description. Both Wolfe and Del Rey employ a sleepy, sultry and almost lazy style of singing.
But in many ways, that’s where the similarities end. While Del Rey’s voice embodies an almost Siren-like sexuality, Wolfe’s voice feels more wracked with anxiety. Wolfe is unafraid to explore the edges of her range, sometimes employing a little girl whisper before flitting into a falsetto howl.
And this has been true across Wolfe’s career; darkness has always been front and center, whether we mean vocally, instrumentally or lyrically. But what really separates “Hiss Spun” from her previous work is the way she deftly works in sounds from across the metal world.
While chiefly rooted in the sludgy, plodding darkness of doom metal, “Hiss Spun” also works in the hazy darkness of ambient black metal and black gaze and even some of the growly aggression of death metal.
That aggression is most present on “Vex,” an early album cut that serves as an interesting reversal of metal archetypes.
While it’s not uncommon for a black or death metal track to feature choral background vocals underneath the either screeched or growled vocals, “Vex” does the exact opposite. Wolfe takes the forefront, while the death growl of vocalist Aaron Turner takes a backseat in the final third of the track.
For longtime listeners of metal, the effect might be a bit shocking: it’s the exact opposite of the way we’ve come to expect a metal track to work. And longtime fans of Wolfe may also be a bit shocked, as it’s her furthest exploration into the more extreme sounds of metal.
Shocking or not, it results in a fantastic song. Wolfe’s voice is somehow both shrinking and powerful, seeming to embody the thought process of a woman trying to battle some sort of inner demon and being unsure if she can. Turner, meanwhile, makes the perfect demon. “Vex” is undoubtedly one of my favorite metal tracks of the year.
Wolfe also throws some post-punk into the doom metal mix, especially on tracks like “Static Hum.” On the verses of this late album beauty, Wolfe’s serene vocals begin to sound strained and uneasy, while they’re punctuated by a repetitive guitar parts and a near-constant drone, before both Wolfe and her bland explode into a fever pitch on the chorus. The song then segues into “Welt,” a track strongly influenced by harsh noise.
The problem with “Hiss Spun” is that, while Chelsea Wolfe is doing things that are new for metal, she has a tendency to keep repeating ideas. Several songs use remarkably similar song structures: quiet verse, explosive chorus, repeat.
The repetition of basic song structures on “Hiss Spun” makes it less rewarding with repeat listen. While Wolfe’s idea are mind-blowing when you first encounter them, with each subsequent listen, you realize that she only has a handful of them.
“Hiss Spun” is home to some of the most exciting metal tracks of the year. But as an album, it begins to fall apart under its own weight.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Album: ‘Hiss Spun’
Artist: Chelsea Wolfe
Studio: GodCity Studio
Best Track: ‘Vex’