Never one to stand still, Hiss Spun finds Chelsea Wolfe continuing where her much loved Abyss left off; embracing the metal tones that were starting to stake a claim on her sound, and moving further away from her folk roots. Just looking down the list of names joining her gives a hint of the kind of feel Wolfe was after when she started piecing together Hiss Spun: Converge’s Kurt Ballou takes on production duties, Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Troy van Leeuwen provides the heavy slabs of guitar noise (and these are slabs, no meandering desert rock here), while Aaron Turner (Sumac/Isis) lends his vocal roar on Vex. While clever application of samples, field recordings and electronic fuzz are still very much a part of Hiss Spun’s sonic palette, they’re no longer front and centre.
Opening track Spun makes it perfectly clear just where Chelsea Wolfe is heading. With relentless riffing and oppressive fuzz layered over cavernous, ominous drums, Wolfe is clearly negotiating a different kind of abyss this time; one inhabited by colossal doom and sludge riffs. Even when cooing gently, her vocals hold their own in the face of an oppressive onslaught, rising to the top of the thrum surrounding her.
It’s Wolfe’s vocal ability that occasionally pushes these songs into peculiar pop territory. 16 Psyche chugs away menacingly, underpinned with a bass line that threatens to absorb any light from the song, and yet, come the chorus, the line “I’d save you, but I can’t” is delivered with such deftness that it becomes almost hummable. No matter how much sludge you pour on, a fine tune will always make itself known.
Vex perhaps best explains Wolfe’s presence on the album. Initially surrounded by thunderous drums, serrated guitars and crushing tones, the song suddenly ups the ante by introducing Turner’s roaring vocals. But in the face of all of this brutality, Wolfe has the vocal elegance and dexterity to rise above and move within the structure of the song like a sprite. (Remember that scene at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark when the spirits emerge, twisting gracefully through the rows of Nazis? And remember how they suddenly reveal themselves to be harbingers of death? There’s a sense that at any moment, those wonderful cooed vocals might turn nasty and start to melt faces.)
This is exactly what happens on Twin Fawn, a song that begins in stripped back, almost folk-like form before exploding into life, jaws dropping to the floor; it’s that good. It’s also not entirely surprising to find that there’s a song entitled Two-Spirit – with its acoustic guitars and haunted vocals it’s the closest the album gets to a folk song. So it’s not all metal thunder and turmoil, there are glimpses of light amongst the gloom. With hints of folk thrown into the mix, it’s good to find Offering harking back to Wolfe’s more electronic influences. Here, the guitars are more delicate and dreamlike, twisting around and complimenting Wolfe’s hushed tones.
While Wolfe’s incredible vocals are the main draw, her long term collaborator Ben Chisholm deserves significant recognition too. Not only does his fuzzed-to-fuck bass make these songs feel genuinely threatening, his manipulation of sound and creation of washes and collages provides unsettling backgrounds for Wolfe to weave her magic over. Without him, the oppressive atmospherics of the album wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
Closing the album is the genuinely disturbing Scrape, a song that talks of defiled nymphs, rats scratching in walls, and Wolfe’s body fighting itself inside. It’s a cacophony of sound and bleak imagery, and about as intense as the album gets. It also pulls the most extreme performance from Wolfe as she faces the music head on, rather than entwine herself around it. It’s a stunning conclusion, and if it points the way forward for Chelsea Wolfe, then the future is bright, but also unremittingly bleak. Just as she would want it.