If you’ll allow us to begin on something of a tangent (there is a payoff, we promise), one of the most striking pieces of cinema in the last decade is unarguably Jonathan Glazer’s ponderous sci-fi thriller Under The Skin. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as a possibly (probably) alien being, stalking the barren streets of Scotland, preying on a series of unsuspecting men whose understandable lust towards the beguiling creature finds them condemned to a slow, gruesome death after being coaxed into a strange, black abyss. Cloaked in murky cinematography, it’s a brilliantly unnerving work of art that doubles as both one of the most seductive pieces of film in recent years, a well as one of the most frightening.
So, what’s the point we’re getting at here? If the oppressive, otherworldly yet sensuous atmosphere of Under The Skin could be distilled into pure sound, the result would probably very closely resemble ‘Hiss Spun’, the new full-length album by gothic folk priestess Chelsea Wolfe. Equal parts beautiful and harrowing, Wolfe’s latest work is perhaps her most complete and comprehensive yet, drifting one moment from brittle and broken balladry to monolithic doom the next, all whilst retaining the same sinister and foreboding atmosphere. This can be attributed in no small degree to the stellar production work of Kurt Ballou, legendary engineer and iconic guitar player of Converge. Though more well known for manning the boards of countless hardcore and metal records, Ballou has quietly amassed a body of more experimental work, and following Ms Wolfe’s involvement in Converge’s monumental ‘Blood Moon’ tour last year, it seemed only natural that the pair would work together again. The results of the partnership are scintillating, Ballou bringing out a heavy ambience in Wolfe’s sound that, while not necessarily a new string on her bow, is certainly at its most pronounced here.
Opening with the pseudo title-track ‘Spun’, the album begins with a slow and menacing buzz of bass and a whining drone of guitar, elevated skyward shortly thereafter as Wolfe’s ethereal and haunting voice drifts into focus. Her’s is one of the most singular and unique voices in heavy music today, and of course it’s the star of the show throughout ‘Hiss Spun’. Even when the music itself is more commanding, like on the dark and shoegazey ’16 Psyche’, or the slithering ‘Vex’ (which also features the thunderous roar of Sumac’s Aaron Turner as a guest), her voice still rings out as the focus, a hypnotic siren call unlike any other.
Wolfe has spoken about the album’s lyrical themes revolving around something of an emotional purge, and that sentiment drips from every gasp that leaves her lips, be it on the sultry lurch of ‘The Culling’, the ominous Nine Inch Nails-esque ‘Particle Flux’, or the delicate blackened balladry of ‘Twin Fawn’, a track that creeps and crawls up your spine before exploding into a wall of devastating riffs (provided in part by recurring album guest Troy Van Leeuwen, known best for his work in Queens Of The Stone Age, A Perfect Circle and Failure), that force the hairs on your arms and neck to stand up straight. Following immediately is ‘Offering’, another brooding fever dream powered by the pulsing electronics of long-time collaborator (and fellow ‘Blood Moon’ participant) Ben Chisolm, whose aching synths mesh with the twinkling guitars to again create a mist of sound that is as dread-inducing as it is gorgeous.
‘Hiss Spun’ is, much like a significant portion of Chelsea Wolfe’s oeuvre, an album defined by musical polarity and emotional devastation. That the woman is capable of being akin to a dark shadow of Feist and an architect of soul-shattering doom all in the confines of the same record (sometimes even the same song), is testament to her singular musical voice. There’s nobody else on the planet quite like her, and as long as she keeps putting out records with this much depth and resonance, there doesn’t need to be.