By Liam Toner (@tonerliam)
Hiss Spun is Chelsea Wolfe’s 5th album and her darkest and heaviest one yet. The Californian singer-songwriter’s music has always been hard to define: while a lot of reviewers might give her the tag of doomfolk, she’s experimented thoroughly with sounds ranging from electronic music, goth, dark folk, industrial. On this new album, however, rock and metal shine through as the biggest influences on its sound. A lot of the tracks on Hiss Spun were never intended for release under the Chelsea Wolfe name as they were originally a side project of hers with drummer Jess Gowrie and Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen. However, they decided to take the songs and use them on the next Chelsea Wolfe release with the intention of touring these new songs.
Another reason for this particular album being one of Chelsea’s heaviest yet is due in no small part to Kurt Ballou’s producing. The Converge guitarist’s production back catalogue is rife with extreme and heavy bands from grindcore bands such as Full of Hell, Nails and Magrudergrind to other heavy bands more recently such as The Dillinger Escape Plan and Code Orange to name just a few. Understandably, choosing Ballou for this project makes it easy to see why this album sounds so colossal at times.
Spun starts the album and opens with wailing guitar feedback into a thick sludgy riff which is then joined by Chelsea’s haunting vocals. The song grooves along from here and creates quite an ominous, foreboding atmosphere. Twice in the song the momentum of the groove breaks and the instruments fall in to a brief frenzy complete with a blast beat from drummer Jess to then snap right back into the ominous groove. Chelsea’s vocals in the choruses almost mimic the feebacking guitar as she sings “spun”, blending in perfectly with the dark noisey backing of the band.
16 Psyche continues the album in much the same way with an almost bluesy riff playing in the verses and building up to the gargantuan power chord section of the choruses. Again it’s Chelsea’s vocals that really bring the sound together with her high reverb-drenched voice on this track, adding a layer of emotionality unachievable with just instruments.
Vex stands out as probably the strongest and most musically diverse track on the album. A driving, lively yet dark bassline carries the song’s momentum while Chelsea’s vocals add an ethereal melody on top. Vex also stands out as one of the most metal influenced songs on the album. During the verses a distorted electric guitar plays a hypnotic tremolo riff which would fit in easily on a black metal recor. The track also features guest vocalist Aaron Turner (of metal band Isis) adding death metal style growls to build up another layer of brutality on an already brooding and heavy song.
The album continues on in much the same fashion, which proves to become a little formulaic. This is probably in part to the songs being written as full band with the intention of being rock songs. On Chelsea’s previous releases she tends to do all the writing herself then takes it to the band, allowing for a wide variety of styles and song structures to come out as she doesn’t have to think about the chemistry and dynamic that comes with playing with a full band.
Until the penultimate track, the doomfolk label usually associated with Chelsea’s music seemed completely void as Two Spirit showcases the only track featuring acoustic guitars. Running into Two Spirit is the interlude style track Welt which begins with a minute of industrial noise leading into a soft piano section that winds down the album perfectly for the upcoming acoustic track. Despite the lack of distorted heavy guitars on this track it still ends up being incredibly dark and sinister, but also one of the more beautiful ones as well thanks to Chelsea’s dreamy atmospheric vocal work.
A last criticism is that the album is too long at 48 minutes. If a couple of the weaker tracks were taken off then the album could come across less repetitive and would make for a better listen all round without sacrificing what makes the rest of the album so good.
While Hiss Spun might not be one of Chelsea Wolfe’s strongest or most unique albums it still proves to be a very captivating listen, featuring some tracks that really stand out artistically as something they should be proud of creating.