Album Review: CHELSEA WOLFE Hiss Spun
Even though I’m no longer a metal purist, I still have a weird habit of classifying everything in my iTunes library (I know and I’m not sorry) as “Metal,” regardless of its actual genre of origin. Meat Puppets? Metal. Wovenhand? Metal as heck. Mazzy Star? You better believe that’s metal. Some of these might be debatable but the point is that I’ll classify something however I want if that helps me fit it into my comfort zone. I suspect a lot of outwardly orthodox metal heads do the same.
At any rate, people have certainly done this with folk/rock/experimental artist Chelsea Wolfe who, for the last 7 years or so, has occupied a murky space within the heavy music scene. Dark enough – both in voice and overall aesthetic – to be noticed by extreme music fans but not heavy enough to be openly embraced. Wolfe took a step toward the dark side with 2015’s Abyss, prompting many critics and listeners to declare that she’d taken the plunge into the metal realm. This was, in retrospect, a little silly. Outside of the knuckle-dragging riffs of the single “Iron Moon” and the industrial hell of “Carrion Flowers,” there wasn’t a whole lot of heaviness to be found, at least not of the metallic variety.
Of course, people are already pushing the same narrative around her new Kurt Ballou-produced album, Hiss Spun, which I’ve seen called everything from gothic metal to funeral doom. “It’s her heaviest effort yet!” they say. And yes, it is pretty dang heavy and distorted at times, but calling Hiss Spun a metal album is grossly inaccurate and really undersells what’s on tap here.
Opener “Spun” kicks off the proceedings with a dirty, stomping sludge riff that’s easily one of the heaviest things Wolfe has ever put to tape. But before long Wolfe arrives with her signature ghostly voice and some drunken, moaning guitar leads to drag the song off into dreamier realms. "Twin Fawn" and “16 Psyche” follows suit with their own snaking riffs and big choruses that hint at the album’s strong alt-rock undercurrent.
The first real curve ball is “Vex” which introduces some brutal death vocals alongside Wolfe’s during the song’s climactic third act. It brought back momentary flashes of every cringe-inducing, beauty-and-the-beast-fronted gothic metal band of the millennium, but Wolfe’s eerie fun house crooning makes it much more unsettling than anything Draconian could have dreamed up.
Elsewhere on Hiss Spun, Wolfe reverts to the softer, electronic-driven material that peppered her early work. “Two Spirit” and “Offering” would’ve fit perfectly on The Grim and the Glow and Pain Is Beauty, respectively, the former’s tear-inducing acoustics making for a real album highlight. Finally, Closer “Scrape” does an excellent job of fusing all of Wolfe’s phases together, with its increasingly frantic verses rising to a pitch over distorted, churning electronics.
By the album’s end, Chelsea Wolfe has done an excellent job moving into heavier realms while holding on to her unique voice. Pure metal fans may not enjoy Hiss Spun’s icy cocktail of deeply distorted alternative rock, folk, and electronics, but anyone willing to step just a few inches outside their comfort zone will find a whole new creepy world to explore.