It’s strange to think of Chelsea Wolfe as the leader of a particular scene, but the number of subsequent artists rising through a similar brand of doom-metal tempered with gothic-rock and folk paints an image of a stark new subset making serious waves within metal. And, as de facto as it might be, it’s Wolfe whose become the face of such a movement, with albums like Abyss and Hiss Spun garnering unceasing praise for just how heady and heavy the atmosphere they cultivate can be. But for as regularly excellent as her output has been, there’s a limit to how much that can work, and that seems to have been acknowledged on Birth Of Violence. Where her previous two albums were the result of severe stress and burnout off the back of touring, the aim on Birth Of Violence is for something with much more distance, recorded in seclusion in Wolfe’s Californian home as an effort to once again channel a darker, folk-inspired sound akin to her earlier work.
That can be an incredibly rewarding angle to take as well, especially given the meticulousness and immense craftsmanship of Wolfe’s recent work, and how vast the potential can be when melding it with a more lush, open-ended canvas. And there’s no doubt that Birth Of Violence is lush and open-ended, though it can be difficult to say whether that’s to its benefit or not. It feels as though it’s toying with the same implacability that Wolfe has become known for, but shrunken down to a far more intimate scale that isn’t quite as gripping on the whole. It’s far from bad and highlights a creativity that shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s also not the most fruitful endeavour Wolfe has ever embarked on and that can be disheartening.
That being said, when taken as an almost purely atmospheric experience and embracing the loneliness and isolation in which it was recorded, Birth Of Violence carries some phenomenal weight and portentous size. Wolfe herself is the key centerpiece here, with a gorgeous clarity in her vocals as she moves between lighter, more vulnerable coos and a deeper, ominous roar encapsulated on a track like Deranged For Rock & Roll. As far as creating that atmosphere goes, a lot of the heavy lifting is done there, which partly feels like the reason for keeping everything else so stripped back and based around a wider mood. There’s a spiritual, almost paganistic quality to this album, as the writing remains oblique yet minimalist, and constructs its frame around imagery of ghosts on American Darkness and an elemental sense of destruction on Erde. Among all of this, there’s the setting of the cavernous mix that has Wolfe’s vocals and spare acoustic guitars echo and reverberate to feel even more isolated, occasionally filling itself with heavier, more distorted builds on The Mother Road or a hypnotic, oscillating synth line on Highway. It can be rather imposing, in all honesty, yet Wolfe’s presence as a human core amid the crushing omnipresent darkness and loneliness is a powerful image that’s a key driving force across this album.
And yet, it almost feels like that isn’t enough. There’s definitely power to be felt in all of that, but it’s latent or never feels quite as immediate as it could. That’s not to say that the tempos need to come up or anything, because that just feels frankly ridiculous in the context of an album like this, but where Wolfe’s material has excelled in the past is through how crushing and blackened it could feel, and inserted into an album like this founded around the concept of isolation and being exposed to the elemental forces, that could work phenomenally well. There are moments that touch upon it, but the same effect isn’t really achieved through solemn acoustic guitars that certainly carry melancholy well, but not necessarily the dread that could make this so much more compelling. It’s an album that simmers and flows really well, but the sense of dynamism compared to past releases has diminished greatly, as well as the presence that’s not all the enthralling beyond how widescreen everything is. And while that might be the point to some extent, there are better ways to achieve that beyond making an album that’s as minimalist as this, and Wolfe is more than capable of hitting that bar.
At the end of the day though, it’s hard to say that an album like Birth Of Violence doesn’t achieve what it wants; this does feel like the sombre, understated body of work that one would expect from these sorts of isolated recording sessions. And on those merits, this is definitely worth a look if only to see a side of Wolfe that’s not necessarily her best, but one that’s grown to become more competent with the benefit of time. That’s not necessarily a synonym for better though, as Birth Of Violence is overall a less engaging, less enjoyable album that its predecessors. It’s still solid, especially for what it wants to be, but it also shows how much the primal darkness that’s become so synonymous with Wolfe is missed, and that’s a shame overall. There’s enough atmosphere to sink into here, but not a great deal else that Wolfe hasn’t done better and in more interesting ways.
For fans of: A.A.Williams, Emma Ruth Rundle, Anna von Hausswolff
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Birth Of Violence’ by Chelsea Wolfe is out now on Sargent House.