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.

2013 Favorites: Throwing Muses – “Purgatory/Paradise”

I think everyone interested in music should watch this portion of an interview with Kristin Hersh, which explains some of her thoughts on the music industry and Purgatory/Paradise, the first new Throwing Muses album in ten years. Among my favorite quotes: “Now Throwing Muses is in the studio again, making, I swear, the best record of our career because there’s nobody telling us that we’re supposed to suck” and “I don’t want to expand my audience; I want to refine it.” Purgatory/Paradise is definitely created with the latter idea in mind: the album also comes with a 64-page book that includes track-by-track commentary from Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo along with photos of the band, making it literally seem like a gift to the band’s longtime listeners (who helped fund the project using Hersh’s CASH Music organization).

Like many bands before them, Throwing Muses have released what you could call a comeback album, with all the fears and reservations that term entails. But in an age full of half-assed reunions and nostalgia-based cash-ins, what makes Purgatory/Paradise so great is that it always looks forward — with nobody telling them they’re supposed to suck, the band is free to make some of the most original and exciting music of their careers. There are echos of their previous work throughout (along with Hersh’s music as a solo artist), but a lot of it is entirely new territory.

Purgatory/Paradise is immediately distinctive from other Throwing Muses albums (and other albums in general) because of its structure. Its 67-minute run time is sprawled over 32 tracks, many of which are under two minutes long, including several that resemble individual songs or ideas split into two parts, which Hersh likened to someone hammering the record with a mallet. Melodies quickly come and go, then suddenly return later in the album like a ghost that is haunting you. In some cases, like “Sleepwalking 1” and “Sleepwalking 2,” the second part appears before the first part. Connections between these two-parters vary: some feel like extensions of the first song, while others feel like re-imaginings that are thematically linked. This really excited the music nerd in me, who likes stuff like album sequencing and construction — playing this album on shuffle doesn’t really work, because the pieces are meant to come and go at such specific times. It also made Purgatory/Paradise one of the albums I got lost in most this year, as I attempted to piece together its fractured puzzle with each listen.

My favorite two-parter is probably “Morning Birds,” which comes roaring out of the gate in the first part with classic early-90s Throwing Muses guitar pop before shifting into an atmospheric acoustic coda that is one of the album’s most beautiful moments. A few tracks later, the acoustic part picks up again in “Morning Birds 2.” Purgatory/Paradise really feels like a career-spanning effort by the band, and these songs show the full range of styles and emotions they’ve picked up over the years.

Amid all the shattered fragments, Purgatory/Paradise does make room for traditional pop songs. “Sunray Venus” shows a rougher side of the band with an intense vocal by Hersch, while “Opiates” displays their more subdued side. “Slippershell” is the band at their most dynamic, with quiet verses exploding into a noisy chorus. Hersch’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever, which makes it hard to try to pin any specific interpretation on these songs — sometimes I like music that does that instead of trying to hit you over the head with a specific meaning.

I’ve always considered Throwing Muses to be one of the very few bands that is truly original, in part because Hersh’s voice (her literal singing voice and authorial voice) is so different from what I typically hear in music. So it’s not too surprising that Purgatory/Paradise is an album that looked and sounded like nothing else in 2013. The surprising part, for me anyway, was just how good it was — it has instantly become my favorite release by the band since 1991’s The Real Ramona, and it’s one of the few albums this year I felt really passionate about. I find it really inspirational when a band in Throwing Muses’ position chooses to continue pushing the boundaries of their art when they could easily feel content with what they’ve done in the past. While it is really geared towards people who already like the band, I hope people who haven’t heard them still give Purgatory/Paradise a shot — this is an album that deserves to be heard.

Savages – “Silence Yourself”

Savages

The world used to be silent. Now it has too many voices, and the noise is a constant distraction. They multiply, intensify; they will divert your attention to what’s convenient and forget to tell you about yourself. We live in an age of many stimulations. If you are focused, you are harder to reach.  If you are distracted, you are available. You are distracted; you are available. You want flattery. Always looking to where it’s at, you want to take part in everything and everything to be a part of you. Your head is spinning fast at the end of your spine until you have no face at all. And yet, if the world would shut up, even for awhile, perhaps we would start hearing the distant rhythm of an angry young tune, and recompose ourselves. Perhaps, having deconstructed everything, we should be thinking about putting everything back together. Silence yourself.

So goes the manifesto of Savages, a foursome of singer Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan, and drummer Fay Milton that wants to return the world to a simpler time. Everything the band does zeroes in on this back-to-basics, somewhat Luddite aesthetic: the album’s cover is a simple, black-and-white photo of the group and their songs are stark, noisy and rhythmic in a way that recalls many early post-punk bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, or a less funky Bush Tetras. At shows, they urge audiences to turn off their cell phones and cameras so they can FEEL THE MUSIC.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Savages are a band that take themselves very seriously, and everything they do is calculated to provoke a response. They have positioned themselves as the elixir for all of rock music’s problems, the band that will restore music to its former glory before Twitter and Facebook and blogs like this one ruined it forever. Silence Yourself is the sound of a band that is very eager — one could say desperate — to “matter,” and it demands your attention.

A lot of this reads like criticism, and in some ways it is. Their style catches the eye and created a lot of hype, which obviously led to a backlash that isn’t entirely undeserved — it’s not difficult to picture people being annoyed by Savages and the persona they’ve built in the media for the last year. But I don’t necessarily have a problem with a band taking music seriously, and think there’s even something admirable about a group that seeks to drive a message into the brains of their listeners. It’s part of why I like Riot Grrrl and a lot of other punk music, and it’s part of why I largely enjoy Silence Yourself despite some of its flaws and the way it sometimes begs cynical guys like me to mock it.

Ranty manifestos aside, Silence Yourself is impressive because of how fully realized it is as a debut album. Whether you agree with what Savages have to say about the world or not, they’re a band that has a clear point-of-view, which they communicate effectively through music that is muscular and confident. The songs also have an urgency that is largely missing from rock music today: “Husbands,” which was released as a single last year and appears in a slightly revised form on the album, reaches the album’s highest intensity levels with its rolling bass and Beth’s increasingly frantic vocal. “She Will” begins with an immediate guitar riff, then explodes into a dissonant, primal chorus, with Beth repeatedly shrieking the title.

The band’s sound is deeply indebted to the 80s, but their lyrics about current hot topics like women’s issues and modern technology help make them more than just a backwards-looking nostalgia act. Silence Yourself does have a couple of lulls, notably when the band inevitably attempts slower “mood” pieces like “Marshal Dear” and the instrumental “Dead Nature” that I think get away from their strengths, which are being loud and strident. Fortunately, there’s enough of those moments to make Silence Yourself one of the stronger releases of the year, and one that is worth listening to for people that are a bit bored by rock’s status quo. You can buy it from their website, http://savagesband.com.