Chelsea Wolfe Soundtracks Our Apocalypse On “Hiss Spun”

If the world really is ending, Chelsea Wolfe’s new album, Hiss Spun, is a fitting soundtrack. Wolfe’s music is not particularly political, instead focusing inward on the darkest parts of ourselves, yet this album feels weirdly timely. As massive hurricanes crash the coasts and we reach the precipice of nuclear war because two idiot leaders can’t stop trash-talking each other like grade-schoolers, the turbulence and doom in Wolfe’s music reflects a dark world that is on the verge of complete chaos.

That sense of foreboding pervades every second of Hiss Spun, which impressively manages to be even darker than her previous effort, Abyss, which felt like a concept album about being stuck in a pit and not seeing the sun for 20 years. This is a massive, beautiful monster of an album — the kind that makes other rock albums feel ineffectual and tame by comparison. It pummels the listener with loud guitars and crashing drums while Wolfe’s powerful voice and her poetic, gothic lyrics sometimes struggle to be heard over the din.

What I love about Wolfe’s music lately is how unrestrained and feral it is. She seems to put every bit of herself into every song and note, and it makes these relentless journeys into the void cathartic and meaningful rather than sounding like empty noise. She also has no qualms about embracing drama and theatricality, which stands out in an era where a lot of music is self-consciously “chill” and relaxing. Every song feels like it has life-or-death stakes as Wolfe struggles to prevent her soul from sliding into complete darkness.

Like Abyss, this album uses dynamics heavily, and it’s easy to get lost in its thunderous loud parts or the bewitching folk-inspired sections. But beneath all of that, Wolfe shows an underrated ability as a relatively traditional songwriter who writes real hooks. “16 Psyche,” “Vex” and “Static Hum” are all not so far away from sounding like 90s radio hits, but Wolfe adds enough weirdness and personal touch (plus some growling vocals from Aaron Turner on “Vex”) to make them stand out from other alternative rock imitators. The album’s last track, “Scrape,” is rawer and even more intense than the rest of the album, as Wolfe describes a destructive relationship in blistering detail with less production and noise to hide her pain.

While Hiss Spun is bleak, there is always an inspiring quality for me when an artist really seems to throw all of themselves into the music they’re working on. Wolfe is among the best at that, and her charisma and songwriting ability make her one of the most captivating artists out there. So much music is content to sit in the background; Hiss Spun grabs the listener and doesn’t let go.

Spotify Playlist: “Loomers”

In a post last year, I mentioned how My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” sounds exactly the way I want all music to sound due to its contrast of heavy guitars and light, feminine vocals. This playlist is a collection of songs that feel similarly to me and are the basis of my theory that “Loomer” spawned its own micro-genre of music that falls somewhere between shoegaze and metal. The songs range from artists that are doing essentially My Bloody Valentine tributes (Fleeting Joys) to bands who push the principles in “Loomer” as far as possible to explore more adventurous musical ground (metal groups like SubRosa and True Widow).

For most of music’s history, loud guitar noise has been strongly associated with machismo and was considered ugly or abrasive. I love this style of music because it twists those preconceptions with the vocals, resulting in songs that have fascinating dualities: they are ugly and beautiful, strong and fragile, masculine and feminine. These themes all get blended together in the music and start to blur these arbitrary gender lines. (I just read The Left Hand of Darkness if you can’t tell.)

On a less academic level, listening to these songs always makes me think of the apocalypse. The image the sound creates in my head is of a lone voice singing while the world crumbles around them.  

SubRosa: The Metal Band of My Dreams

I’m sure it’s fairly evident by now that I’m not a metalhead. Most metal I’ve heard doesn’t do much for me, but it’s for different reasons then usual: For me, it’s never been about the noise and abrasiveness, it’s been about how all metal, while advertised as being this rebellious genre, seems very formulaic. It always has the loud, precise guitars, the lyrics about blood and killing and other “shocking” topics, and of course it always has to have the awful grunting male vocals that drive me up the wall.

Basically, metal is very masculine and always has been. The music is pretty much a dick-waving contest to see who can outshock others and the entire genre seems to live in some prehistoric world where women are completely unseen and unheard, unless they’re approximating the aforementioned male vocal style of grunting incomprehensibly instead of actually, you know, singing. I love loud and abrasive music, but it has to have a purpose to really be effective. Metal is too often loud just for the sake of it.

These are just my opinions of the genre as an outsider, since I obviously have no concept of just how many different kinds of metal there are (according to Wikipedia, about 4.5 billion). Part of why I’m repulsed a bit by the genre is that it comes so close to being something I could really embrace, but bands keep indulging in the same clichés all the time. There seems to be very little growth in metal compared to other genres, as most bands are going by the same formula that it’s always had. It’s hard to blame them: Metal has a rabid fan base that will support you if you give them what they want, and what they want is the loud, fast-paced guitars, bro-tastic vocals, and songs about skinning cats for the devil.

I mention all of this because, as I’m sure most readers know by now, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with how soft and non-threatening most indie music is today. And eventually that feeling has led to me dipping my toes into the metal pool, albeit in a very cautious way with a look of disgust on my face.

Of course, the problem now was I had to find metal bands I actually liked, which avoided all of the issues I raised with the genre earlier. I’ve become a pretty big fan of the Japanese band Boris, who play loud, crushing rock music but also relentlessly experiment in other genres and resist falling into the staid clichés that I’ve come to associate with metal. Then, after some more searching, I was finally able to find my perfect metal band: SubRosa.

SubRosa are a band based in Salt Lake City, of all places, and they play the slower-paced, doom-laden metal that I’ve found myself gravitating to more than the hyper-aggressive thrash stuff. But what really makes the band unique, and what drew them to my attention, is that it’s a female-fronted group, with three different women that provide vocals. Even better, they actually sing instead of buying into this idea that all metal needs to have the same vocal style.

Two of the women also play violin, which adds an otherworldly element to the band’s sound, which is characterized by loud, sludgy riffs and slow tempos. There is a small amount of the growling vocals (usually relegated to the background), but for the most part the women sing in normal voices. The lyrics are focused on medieval, fantasy themes that remind me of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, but the basic themes can be applied more universally. Overall, I find the band oddly reminiscent of the Breeders or the Raincoats, if one of those bands had randomly done a bunch of drugs, gotten obsessed with fantasy, and decided to record a metal album.

SubRosa is a textbook example of how women can really bring an effortlessly unique sound and perspective to a genre that sorely needs it. In the world of metal, just the fact that it’s women singing instead of a face-painted dude makes the band already sound completely different from their peers. Along with the violins, that turned their album No Help for the Mighty Ones into my go-to “heavy” album of 2011. It’s all the skull-crushing rock awesomeness that metal has always potentially provided, but without any of the annoying elements.

It also has a surprising amount of versatility. At times I find myself getting lost a bit in all the noise, almost like I do when listening to shoegaze. There’s even a medieval folky number, “House Carpenter,” at the end of the album, which is the kind of song that I doubt very many other metal bands could pull off.

I don’t know much about how SubRosa is received in the metal world, but they seem to be gaining popularity there, which is refreshing to see. As evidenced by a lame indie dork like me enjoying them, the band also has obvious crossover potential to indie listeners who are frustrated with the current state of music or just want to hear something different. I’m pretty sure no other band on earth sounds like SubRosa right now.