Chelsea Wolfe’s fifth album is a distinct step away from her previous work, and sees her move into darker and more terrifying territory. Abyss draws on her experience of sleep paralysis, which presented itself in the form of hallucinations (seeing a figure in the room with her) and a feeling of pressure on the chest. However, Wolfe ordinarily stays away from purely autobiographical work and as a result, Abyss is more about channelling a feeling and exploring the idea of the subconscious than offering a personal insight. So whilst the album has its roots in the corridors of Wolfe’s own psyche, she also draws on the insights of Carl Jung and the poetry of Xu Lizhi.
Wolfe’s previous albums have at times been hazy, barely conscious affairs, Abyss is perhaps the first that really seeks to plunge into the depths and explore the darker edges of the subconscious. The result is an album that moves into more into more abrasive territory than previous works. At times, particularly during the opening few songs, the album is infused with doom and distortion. Whilst there’s no full blooded commitment to metal, there are hints contained within the guitar that bleed through.
Opening with Carrion Flowers, Abyss instantly sets the tone and it is dark. It rumbles ominously into life, with basic sledgehammer drums designed to pulverise, terrifying bass rumbles and percussion that sounds like knives being sharpened. There’s a gothic pop slant at work here, and Wolfe’s propensity for a tune can’t be swamped by any amount of seething and violent instrumentation. As an opening statement, it leaves no doubt that this is going to be an intense experience.
Iron Moon does let up a little as it alternates between delicate, haunted passages, and serrated explorations of noise, the guitars sounding like sheet metal under duress. The song itself is based on the events surrounding Xu Lizhi, a Chinese poet who worked in a factory and eventually committed suicide, and the extremes of serenity (Wolfe’s vocal is particularly delicate and beautiful ) and violence evident reflect the aspects of Lizhi’s story but do so with respect. The oppressive opening to the album is completed with Dragged out, which about as close as Abyss gets to a full on dirge. It veers close to doom metal but it’s really a low slung blues, sounding not unlike latter-day Earth with PJ Harvey on vocals.
Having passed through a quite harrowing introduction, the album then changes mood entirely, as if passing into a different realm of the subconscious. Whilst there is still an ominous sense of foreboding that looms over the songs, they’re no longer designed to pummel. The lilting vocals and violins of Grey Days for example are almost restful, and although an urgency develops thanks to the introduction of clanging guitar lines, any sense of immediate danger is far less tangible. After The Fall’s seething synths, swirling vocal samples and simplistic pulsing rhythm find Wolfe in almost reflective mood, but just as things are feeling almost settled, a bombastic riff kicks in and the tension rises. Along with the contemplative, stripped back Maw, After The Fall is the most effective song here. It utilises the shadows, silence and eventually an all-out attack to articulate the nature of sleep paralysis and the horrors that can lurk between states of consciousness.
Perhaps the most distressing moment is found on the most disarmingly gentle song on the album. Simple Death is the most basic song here, with its barely there percussion and synths and Wolfe crooning elegantly. It’s almost possible to miss what she’s singing. “I’m screaming but I can’t wake up” slips by almost unnoticed, “let me sleep, I’m so scared” nearly does the same, mainly due to Wolfe’s resigned and dreamy delivery. There might be a lot of bombast on show elsewhere on the album, but it’s here that things become truly unsettling although the weird tinkling piano of The Abyss, which closes the album, is also the stuff of nightmares. Yet, despite the unsettling nature of Abyss as a whole, it’s a work that is strangely comforting once its charms are fully submitted to.