I’ll just start by saying I am a total fanboy for Chelsea Wolfe, so you should take everything I say here with a grain of salt. I don’t often go so solidly off the deep end for a musician — the last one was Summoning, and Chelsea, if you ever read this, PLEASE contribute vocals to a Summoning track the way you did for Russian Circles:
But, seriously, I’m totally obsessed with Wolfe. I originally discovered her because I heard through the grapevine about a folk singer who had covered a Burzum track:
And sure enough, it’s not just some weird anomaly. She’s clearly a metal fan: she describes her music as “art folk drone metal” and here’s a just phenomenal live-ish video of her pounding an electric guitar while wearing a cvlt-as-fvck spiked gauntlet:
But Wolfe’s music can’t be pigeon-holed very easily. It’s obviously not metal — at least as the genre is usually imagined. But if one were to distill down the elements that make “people like me” love metal, one would find many of the remaining elements strongly represented in Wolfe’s songs. The best black metal vocals sound like dissonant howls barely penetrating from Dantean Bolgias, and Wolfe has that in spades: weird, sometimes dissonant layered vocals swallowed in deep reverb. The music itself often is a hypnotic drone, beating away at a simple chord progression over and over as various barely-heard harmonies drift in and out (are they even there?) producing a spectral ambience that perfectly accentuates Wolfe’s weird vocal style. Everything lofts up into epic heights: tempo changes, jangling key shifts, and goose-bump rending crescendos. I’d say you should imagine Filosofem era Burzum unplugged, with Siouxsie Sioux on vocals — but that’s selling Wolfe short. Frankly, I’ve never heard anything that sounds like — or makes me feel like — what she does.
2013’s Pain is Beauty was a great album. But Wolfe doubled down with a collaboration with filmmaker Mark Pellington, and released the mid-length film Lone in April 2014. Pellington has a decent pedigree: videos for U2 and Alice in Chains, an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets (maybe the best cop drama of the pre-cable era), and a few films including the creepy “true story” The Mothman Prophecies. Lone isn’t just a long-form music video: though it features five tracks off Pain is Beauty (“Feral Love”, “House of Metal”, “The Waves Have Come”, “Sick”, and unsurprisingly, “Lone”), there’s plenty more, and it’s not just four stitched-together videos. The whole thing hangs together as a solid film that would be worth watching even if you weren’t hopelessly in awe of Chelsea Wolfe.
Before I say anything about the film itself, I want to talk about the packaging of this release. Lone was shipped as a ~ 2.5 GB file on a cool wood-grained flash drive that was etched with Wolfe’s “Queen of Swords” symbol (see photo above). I love this! It’s unique, it’s pretty, it’s something I can hold on to, show my friends, etc. Two reasons it doesn’t get a “10” for packaging, though. First, the flash drive is really small, and I’m not sure where I’m going to put it for long-term storage. Second, there’s extra space on the drive, and it would have been really swell to put some extra files on — lyrics, for instance, or production notes, voice-overs, etc. Flash-drive marketing has been picking up steam over the past decade or so — a friend of mine went to a Pixies gig and actually bought a flash-drive recording of that night’s show at the merch table — and I hope it continues to improve and gain traction in the indie music world (including underground metal).
Musically, Lone is five songs separated by instrumental montages. The instrumental bits take two forms. The first, which covers the first few minutes of the film and eventually melds into vocal music with track 4 (“Sick”), is made of relentless electronic arpeggios reminiscent of Philip Glass. The second, which doesn’t show up until about halfway into the film, is a much more organic sequence of violins/strings. This juxtaposition of synthetic and natural is recapitulated in the film’s imagery, in particular how Wolfe herself is portrayed. When we first see her, Chelsea is a black-eyed mask (see the chorus of “Feral Love”, the first track in the film, “your eyes are black like an animal”), covered in pale pancake makeup — the “black Chelsea”:
Later we see her illuminated with sunlight and back-lit with white fog, in a silver dress, her stunning blue eyes obviously the director’s focal point — the “white Chelsea”. And in between these ideals, we see a “real Chelsea” — little if any makeup, tattoos, freckles — confronting death, both of others and her own. Throughout the film we see these tropes beaten against each other, the ominous black figure leading the dead off into the desert, the innocent white figure staring with imploring beauty into the camera. But perhaps most importantly, the “real” woman faces fear and death and wonder, embodying both the white and black ideals in a single living entity.
Wolfe is engaging in mythmaking with this work. We see gods: a rabbit-headed creature with no hands; twin girls, one dead, one alive; a wolf(e?) headed boy; a young girl with a grown woman mask; a dead woman on a slab; an old man with blood on his hands; lustful women orally pleasuring an inverted cross; an executioner, hard and gristled, wielding a ramshead club above a sacrificial virgin in white. And we have the intuition that all these entities are the same — all outgrowths of the thing that made Wolfe’s music.
Maybe the image that sticks with me the most, though, is that of a horse — a statue, frozen in mid-gallop, sitting alone on the beach. I think a lot of people my age remember the Black Stallion, where a horse running wild in the ocean foam was a powerful portrayal of freedom. So a frozen horse on the beach? It hurts, man, it hurts. And flip it around with an image of a corpse laying on a slab? Potent stuff.
Obviously, I could go on and on about the symbolism and what not. But you should just buy a copy and see for yourself! The take-home message from this blog should be this: Chelsea Wolfe is a serious fucking artist. Her music is capable of inducing the same sorts of overboard emotions as the best metal, but fusing it with compatible weird film and without the hassle of miking a double-bass drum kit… it’s almost unfair.
The third track in Lone, “The Waves Have Come”, closes with a sing-along extravaganza (complete with atom bomb images) with some great lyrics I’d like to share here at the end. For those of us who embrace both science and wonder, and suspect that Christianity kills both:
Creation was the only word
that made you feel you never were
an endless hope is all it was
and holding sacred all were
and don’t forsake the way we were
and don’t tell me you never would
and we don’t need physical things
to make us feel and make us dream
And for us bloody-minded Heathens who proudly embrace the end of the world and the absurdity of free will:
When earth cracks open and swallows then
we’ll never be tired again
and we’ll be given everything
the moment we realize we’re not in control
and all you know gets older when
the sun goes down and everything
begins to fade away the waves
have come and taken you to sea
End of blog: if you’re a metal fan and you’re not listening to Chelsea Wolfe, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.