‘disorienting dispatches from a dark dream world‘ – Hugh McCabe on Chelsea Wolfe‘s 5th LP Abyss
Ever had a feeling of being awake and asleep at the same time? Lying in bed, physically unable to move, yet simultaneously lucid and conscious? Sleep paralysis is a condition where the sufferer’s body remains stubbornly asleep (and immobilised) while the mind is awake. Episodes can last from minutes to hours. They can be one-off events or can recur throughout life. Sufferers report mounting feelings of panic and terror, and to make things even more fun, there are sometimes accompanying visual or auditory hallucinations. These often take the form of intruders in the room, with the victim unable to escape or call for help. Many accounts also include the feeling of an intolerable weight pressing down on the chest area. The legend of the incubus, the insatiable demon who has its way with sleeping women, has its roots in this phenomenon.
Chelsea Wolfe’s fifth album, Abyss, is largely inspired by her experiences of sleep paralysis and consequently situates itself, both sonically and thematically, in that liminal state between conscious and unconscious experience. Wolfe has developed a pretty singular voice over her last few records – a dark doom-laden experimental folk that embraces elements of goth, metal and electronica – but it’s constantly in danger of descending into self-parody. What can at some times seem like a thoughtful exploration of the darker aspects of the human condition, can at other times come dangerously close to teenage Twilight-style gothic romanticism. However, the sleep paralysis theme anchors Abyss in something concrete (if also nebulous at the same time). The result of this is that the buried voices, screeching violas and anguished sound effects that permeate many of the tracks come across as genuine attempts to articulate the terrors of the waking unconscious, and not as mere melodramatic indulgences.
Abyss also represents a major step forward into a much richer and fuller sound. While not quite the all-out metal set that some predicted, it’s certainly Chelsea Wolfe’s heaviest record to date, particularly during its first half. Opening track Carrion Flowers is a violent off-kilter industrial stomper and it’s followed by Iron Man, which is introduced by a monstrous MBV-style atonal guitar figure but then alternates between gently crooned lyrics with minimalist backing for verses and full-on sludge metal riffage for the choruses. Wolfe has always expressed an affinity with the more outré fringes of the metal scene (she once covered a Burzum track) and a lot of Abyss shares something of the bleak excess of black metal. Dragged Out is driven by one of those huge slow Sabbath-style guitar riffs that Sleep pushed to their logical conclusion on their classic Jerusalem album. What’s most compelling here though is the wealth of detail below the surface. Like on many of the tracks here, producer John Congleton opens up space for a densely textured sonic underworld, one that mirrors the unconscious itself, and that goes a long way towards establishing the vague atmosphere of dread that infects the whole album. The sludging pace of Dragged Out, and indeed most other tracks on Abyss, also serves to echo the paralysis of the waking/sleeping nightmare: we’d like to move faster, in fact we’d like to just move, but somehow something is preventing us from doing so.
After the epic centerpiece of After The Fall (complete with slightly barmy electro breakdown in the middle) Abyss changes tack somewhat and it’s second half adopts a more measured tone. Simple Death is simply beautiful. Over a drum machine beat, an electronic bass and some drones, she most directly addresses the central theme of the record – “Lost and alone in confusion/I’m screaming/But I can’t wake up”. There’s a rare shift to a major chord for the chorus, as Wolfe sings “Sometimes I don’t know if I’ll find the answer/or if I’ve ever asked the question”. It sounds vulnerable and raw and is all the better for this sparse simplicity. There is an obvious parallel here with atmospheric and ethereal 1980s types such as This Mortal Coil and The Cocteau Twins, who have all tread similar enough territory in the past, but at these moments Chelsea Wolfe conjures the spirit of doomed 1960s Californian songstress Judee Sill. Sill was a damaged soul whose brief life of hard drugs and hard times caused her more than her fair share of darkness. Her means of escape was through a deeply idiosyncratic brand of catholic mysticism and her songs, like Chelsea Wolfe’s, tend to evoke ineffable states beyond earthly experience. Like Judee Sill’s work, Abyss is also replete with biblical imagery of rapture and redemption. For example in Survive, another sparse piece seemingly set in an end-of-days scenario she sings: “All the sinners and the saints/Move in the same direction/They walk in place/Until the end”. The song then explodes into the sort of pounding cacophony that characterised the first half of the album, suggesting that there may be little hope of survival and redemption after this particular fall.
Everywhere on Abyss the heavily processed, multi-tracked and reverbed vocals make it sound like Wolfe is singing to us from somewhere else, another dimension or another world, and nowhere more so than on the closing title track. Over a discordant toy piano she warns us to watch our thoughts in the dark as they will “drag you down to the deep blue sea”. She suggests that we must both stare down and run away from the abyss and says that while it drags her under, it eventually also “sets me free from my slumber”. We could be listening to music underwater here, and the deep shimmering tones evoke wrecked ships and doomed divers. These are disorienting dispatches from a dark dream world, but it seems like there might be chinks of light if we know where to look for them.
Chelsea Wolfe has mentioned Carl Jung in interviews in relation to the writing of Abyss but perhaps a more pertinent psycho-analytic reference point would be Freud’s 1919 essay The Uncanny. In it Freud delves into this concept of the uncanny, which is characterised by things to which we are simultaneously attracted and repelled, and which “arouses dread and creeping horror”. Freud bemoans the lack of attention paid to this within aesthetics, which is more commonly the province of all that is beautiful and sublime, and suggests that there is much to learn about the human condition by facing things we are repulsed by, including the sorts of nightmarish dream-states that Wolfe deals in. How much you appreciate Abyss might well depend on to what extent you buy into this, and to what extent you are willing to temporarily suspend a certain amount of disbelief. However, if you are willing to take the plunge, there is a lot to be gained by submerging yourself in its murky depths.
Chelsea Wolfe plays The Button Factory on November 25th