Chelsea Wolfe has made an album the unites all her previous work, and then turns the dial up as far as it will go. Abyss, the new record from California’s foremost purveyor of goth/doom/folk/ambient/(insert multifarious modifiers here), sounds like a combination of the many different muses Wolfe has turned to throughout her past records, a means of figuring out how to join together those disparate stylings. The answer, it turns out, is simple: Loudly.
“Carrion Flowers,” the album opener, is a good indicator of the more metal direction this record takes. From its initial throbbing and overdriven bass, to the pounding drums and ambient wall of sound, it’s one of the heaviest things Wolfe has done. What makes it of a piece with her earlier work is the tone—haunting, elegiac, and drenched in gloom—and her ethereal-but-raw voice. She’s gone down this path before, notably on Apokalypsis, but Abyss is a darker and more expansive record. The heavy, doom-infused rock of tracks like “Iron Moon” and “Dragged Out,” with their fiery distortions and lurching drums, are thick with menace.
Even the electronic-hewing songs, like “Grey Days,” which features a dry, twitchy drum sample, blossom into studio-enhanced output more grandiose than similar work from 2013’s Pain Is Beauty. The violin, moaning under Wolfe’s pained emoting, makes it feel almost operatic, even as it pulses with a goth-rock heartbeat. Similarly, “After The Fall,” which sounds like a deconstructed John Carpenter synth score, offers up wounded vocals that launch into roaring refrains. There are tracks on Abyss that approach The Pixies or Nirvana in their loud-quiet-loud song structure alternations, even if her Bjork-meets-Tori Amos voice ensures a very different vibe to the proceedings.
This isn’t to say the whole album is one massively fuzzed-out ordeal. “Crazy Love” feels like the continuation of her previous acoustic work, repetitive and sweetly sad, like hippies coming down off a bad trip. But spacey sounds still echo in the Mazzy Star-esque tune, filling it up with aural largesse and maintaining a “more-is-more” consistency with the rest of the album. Even “Simple Death,” with its slowly swinging 3/4 beat and sultry organ, turns into a lament, with vocals that sound like someone describing depression. Leave it to Chelsea Wolfe to make her album’s torch song sound like a positive endorsement of suicide. (She’s gone on record as saying the album is an effort to confront her struggles with sleep paralysis, a condition anyone who’s seen The Nightmare can tell you is a pretty horrifying ordeal.)
The downside of all this bombast is that the album, taken as a whole, can feel ponderous. Most songs stretch past the five-minute mark. That’s not a net minus per se, but it leaves the impression that, by making everything so produced and outsized, some judicious editing was prevented. The record churns like a more straightforward Diamanda Galas offering, a fusion of operatic and gothic noise, but harnessed to an accessible and inviting artist. It contains dualities—elegiac and sweaty, pounding and ethereal, intimate and speaker-shattering—but toward the end some numbness sets in. This Abyss is deep, but it is long.
And yet, hearing Wolfe as she envelops her many stylistic tricks into one all-consuming package is worth the exhaustion of the total experience. “Did we travel all this way just to survive?” she asks on “Survive,” in a rare moment of near-quiet, and when the drums start pounding away once more, the music has answered the question for her.